The Rice Owls held their official media day Saturday afternoon following their first scrimmage of the summer. Complete with full pads, officiating, and a sense that the regular season is around the corner, the Owls prepare for the second season under head coach Mike Bloomgren.
Bloomgren and a handful of players were present to preview Rice’s 2019 campaign, which kicks off Friday, August 30, at Army.
Rice has yet to settle on a starting quarterback in its pro-style offense and the team presents several viable candidates for the position. A season ago, four different Owl quarterbacks threw at least 20 passes. Wiley Green and Evan Marshman, who both enter the new year with starting experience, are the two returning members from Rice’s quarterback carousel in 2018.
“Those guys have gotten the bulk of the reps, along with (grad transfer) Tom Stewart,” Bloomgren said. “I couldn’t even tell you who’s ahead right now without watching the film. It’s close. I am longing for the day when somebody will snatch that job from the throat and never let go.”
Green played four games and completed 45-of-88 passes last season, throwing for three touchdowns and four interceptions. Due to NCAA’s updated redshirt rule, Green officially redshirted last year and retains freshman status heading into 2019. He started the final game of the season in a win over Old Dominion, rushing for 33 yards and a touchdown in the finale. Through eight days of summer practice, Green has taken the majority of first team reps.
Marshman saw action in two games last October prior to Green’s collegiate debut, completing 17-of-31 passes for 164 yards and an interception. This season will mark his redshirt sophomore season with the program, as he was a member of the roster during the final season of the David Bailiff era.
A graduate transfer quarterback has entered the mix as well. Tom Stewart was an All-Ivy League Honorable Mention quarterback at Harvard last season after passing for 1,614 yards and 14 touchdowns. Stewart, a Dallas native and MBA student, is back in his home state for his final year of college football and his first year of FBS action as a potential starter for the team.
“Camp is generally just a grind and you have to continually find ways to get better,” Stewart said on the QB battle. “Having a room full of guys has made that process a lot easier. We push each other every day, the floor continues continues to rise, and the standard of play is getting better, which is a good thing.”
Sophomore Parker Towns (1-of-4, 10 yards in 2018) and true freshman JoVoni Johnson have also received reps at the position in practice. If Bloomgren doesn’t see a definite starter by Week 1, he is open to utilizing multiple quarterbacks based on their varying skill sets to best exploit the opponent.
“We always talk about matchups on offense, so if this person is the best one for this role, we’ll throw them in there,” Bloomgren said. “I think the easy one to look at is to see what an incredible athlete JoVoni is and just say, ‘We’re gonna throw him in there to run the ball...’ but he’s got a howitzer for an arm.”
But regardless of matchups, Bloomgren feels comfortable with the many cards he holds in his deck.
“We’ll be able to pretty much do the whole offense whoever’s in there.”
Gaining experience through time and transfers
Rice’s 2018 team struggled mightily due to a lack of experience. The team posted a 2-11 record and played 21 true freshmen throughout those 13 games. But with loads of returning personnel on the field and on the sidelines — 9 of 10 assistant coaches are back — experience and continuity could play into the Owls’ favor this season.
“The sky’s the limit just because having that experience helps so much because of last year. Playing 21 true freshmen is hard, it’s unheard of,” wide receiver Austin Trammell said. “Having more depth and more experience with all the transfers brings leadership, it brings guys who know how to win, and that’s gonna help us so much.”
On top of returning veterans, Rice received quite a haul in the transfer market this offseason. The Owls brought in 40 new players, including seven graduate transfers and three JUCO transfers who have a combined 202 games of collegiate experience under their belt. From Stewart to former Harvard running back Charlie Booker to former Stanford center Brian Chaffin, Rice will operate with players who bring their expertise and knowledge from other programs across the country.
“Part of the reason why I wanted to come here so badly is because I believe in this culture and I think that’s kind of shined through,” Stewart said on the factors which led to his transfer. “Coach Bloom has been awesome ever since I stepped on campus in June and that has kind of trickled down to the other coaches.”
Having stability in the coaching staff is one of Rice’s major advantages heading into 2019. The returning coaching staff has been heralded for their efforts in uniting a team that is composed of a mix of returning veterans and 40 newcomers.
“Those guys added tremendous value,” Bloomgren said on the program’s grad and JUCO transfers. “The fact that I was so worried about how they would integrate with our team and it’s seamless is just a testament to our players, our culture, and our conditioning staff.”
Preparing to open against the triple option
Rice’s first opponent presents a difficult challenge that separates itself from about 125 FBS programs.
Army runs a unique brand of offense as one of few FBS programs to run a triple option based offense. Jeff Monken’s Black Knights run it to near perfection, ranking in the top two in rushing yards per game and top three in rushing touchdowns for consecutive seasons. Over the span of those years, Army has compiled a 21-5 record with its only 2018 losses occurring Week 1 to Duke and in late September to Oklahoma in overtime.
Preparation for Army will take more work than pregame planning for most FBS offenses, and Rice has been strategizing for its first opponent for quite some time.
“We had a chance to meet with some awesome staffs and talk a lot of defensive concepts,” Bloomgren said. “We started planning (for Army’s triple option) February, maybe March, and then got a chance to work it in spring ball, got to talk it, and then really got to install and talk about the base ways of playing it. This fall, we’re gonna transition a whole week ahead of probably when you normally would.”
While the coaching staff is planning for the unique offensive scheme, the players are excited to implement new looks defensively. However, Rice’s defense will remain fixated on stopping Rice’s pro-style offense in the upcoming week of practice before shifting to the Week 1 opponent.
“Right now, we’re just trying to iron out the defense. We’re still setting in stone our identity, finding ourselves and our defense,” defensive tackle Myles Adams said. “Once we get to Army, it’ll be really cool to see what our scheme is gonna be to stop the triple option. We touched it a couple times on a scout level during the spring. I was out for the spring, so I got to see it conceptually. But I’m actually excited to see what we’re gonna do when we defend it... but we’ll get to Army when we get to Army.”