Under the Friday night lights in Houston, TX, the Rice Owls previewed a glimpse of what we can expect to see in 2021. Eager to get back on the field after a shortened 5-game fall season, Rice held its annual spring game at its home base in Houston under the direction of head coach Mike Bloomgren, who aims to lead the Owls to their first bowl appearance in seven years.
It may be 154 days until Rice kicks off in Fayetteville against its former Southwest Conference rival in Arkansas, but here are five takeaways and observations from the Blue-Gray scrimmage on Friday night.
It’s a crowded quarterback battle
When Rice took the field Friday night, the first signal caller that ran onto the field was a familiar face. Quarterback Wiley Green started his first game for the Owls in October 2018 and made his most recent start in October 2019. After sitting third on the depth chart behind Mike Collins and JoVoni Johnson in 2020, Green returned to his former role and handled first-team quarterback reps in the spring game.
“Wiley is such a vet,” Bloomgren said. “He gets in there and nothing is gonna be a big deal from breaking the huddle and calling the play right to getting to the line of scrimmage and getting us to the right play, and today, he performed very well physically.”
It’s been years since Green has seen on-field action for a prolonged period of time, but he looks vastly improved from his 2019 self. The well-seasoned quarterback completed 8/9 attempts for 91 yards in the spring game, acting as the model of efficiency.
“The biggest thing with Wiley is the sense of maturity he’s gotten,” wide receiver Brad Rozner said. “It’s tough going half a season and then not going and then having Mike (Collins) come in. I feel like Wiley has something to prove, and he’s taken that to heart.”
The three other quarterbacks on the roster each received substantial playing time in the spring game. JoVoni Johnson, the architect behind Rice’s upset of Marshall last December, is also a viable contender for the starting position after completing 73% of his passes for 225 yards and a touchdown in 2020.
FCS transfer Jake Constantine (the second quarterback to take the field in the scrimmage) and JUCO transfer T.J. McMahon (8/13, 200 yards, 2 touchdowns) additionally led impressive scoring drives out of the quarterback position Friday night. No quarterback has officially won the starting job yet, but it will be an intriguing competition that likely lasts through the end of August.
Griffin ready for sophomore surge
Bloomgren has raved about running back Khalan Griffin since the second he stepped on campus. Griffin’s freshman campaign transpired under unusual circumstances, but the young back stood his ground with 249 rushing yards on 72 carries last fall. With unwavering confidence and a year of experience under his belt, Griffin now looks ready to take over the offense.
“He’s really worked his butt off to take the next steps. There’s no way he would have been capable of carrying the ball 17 times in the number of consecutive drives last year like he did today,” Bloomgren said. “He’s trying to get into better shape, he’s in a better mental place, and he’s finishing every run. He’s feeding people his pads, he’s getting the most out of runs. I think we’re just scratching the surface of what KG can be.”
Griffin launched the scoring effort for the night, dodging tacklers for a 20-yard touchdown run on the scrimmage’s opening possession. He later dusted the defense on a scoring run out of the wildcat formation. In total, the soon-to-be sophomore amassed 125 rushing yards on 17 carries, operating as the first-team running back. Griffin credits his surging success to the offensive line and the other running backs wearing blue and gray.
“I give a big shoutout to the running back room and my running back coach because they brought me in with open arms and really helped me get a grasp of the offense,” Griffin said. “They made me more comfortable with the plays. Everybody in the running back room has been really good leaders for me and I just appreciate what they’re doing.”
Tuiasosopo transforms aerial attack
After Rice’s former offensive coordinator Jerry Mack departed campus to join Josh Heupel’s staff in Tennessee, Bloomgren hired former NFL quarterback and longtime Pac-12 assistant Marques Tuiasosopo to be the new offensive coordinator. While Rice still maintains its pro-style foundation, Tuiasosopo is reshaping a passing game which ranked 81st in yards per game in 2020.
“With Coach Tui coming in and putting in new concepts, everything was kind of shaky at first,” Rozner said. “But as we saw the spring go on and everybody getting more adjusted and comfortable with the system, you saw all the quarterbacks start to understand what was going on, what routes were gonna be open, and where to put the ball. Now everybody’s doing a nice job of coming together and playing with energy and feeding off each other.”
Compared to its offense from prior years, Rice took a large amount of deep shots in the scrimmage and opened up the field. Adding more verticality to the routes isn’t just a spring game experiment, but rather, an aspect of the game Tuiasosopo and the Owls plan to implement into the offense come September.
“Tui’s doing an unbelievable job,” Bloomgren said. “The concepts are more down the field and we’re seeing more empty with just the quarterback back there in five receiver sets or four receivers and a back. That’s Tui’s NFL influence. He’s doing a great job coaching the quarterbacks from the ground up and getting them to understand what they have when they are in empty — getting pre-snap reads and getting the ball out in time — and it’s working out really well.”
Filling the gap on defense
Rice’s defense has been one of the premier units in the C-USA the past two seasons. The Owls ranked 12th in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing a hair under 19 points per game. They notably shut out an undefeated Marshall squad last December by recording five interceptions and limiting the Thundering Herd to under 3.9 yards per play. Virtually the entire defense returns, including the star linebacker duo of Antonio Montero and Treshawn Chamberlain.
However, a noticeable void emerged at the WILL linebacker position following Blaze Alldredge’s transfer to Missouri. During the spring game, Myron Morrison and Desmyn Baker served as the primary candidates vying to fulfill the role held by a former All-C-USA standout.
“Those two have had a really good spring,” Montero said. “Desmyn hasn’t been here very long but he’s picking up the playbook well and Myron’s filling in as a veteran now. I think he’s really starting to put the pieces together. I have a lot of optimism for him and Desmyn as well. I think the linebacker group has come along really well.”
Rice’s defense completely held the offense out of the end zone in the prior scrimmage. Such was not the case at the spring game, as the defense allowed a quick scoring drive right out of the gate. The offense had the upper hand for the first half of the scrimmage, but the defense finally generated some plays in the second half such as a 79-yard scoop-and-score by cornerback Miles McCord.
“I’m freaking thrilled with how we moved the ball against what I think is the best defense in the conference,” Bloomgren said. “There’s also the reality that it’s a spring game and a spring game format, and as a result of that, we handcuffed our defense. We are trained to have a lot of movement that causes havoc and let our linebackers go and make plays and have our safeties make plays off of them. So, I’m pleased with what the offense did but I’m going to take it with a grain of salt.”
Rozner returns to lead receiving group
Two weeks before Rice kicked off its delayed 2020 season, it was announced the Owls would be without one of their key offensive contributors. Wide receiver Brad Rozner opted out of the season while dealing with a surgery. He led the program with 770 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2019. Now that his usual partner-in-crime Austin Trammell graduated from the university, Rozner returns from his absence as the leader of a rather inexperienced group.
“I was very excited for today and this whole spring. I couldn’t wait any longer. It was just a great feeling being back out there and in that game environment,” Rozner said. “It was tough sitting at home watching the games, but it fired me up seeing them on the field. Still, sitting at home and watching those games, it was exciting and fun to watch.”
Rozner shined with five receptions, 72 yards, and a fourth quarter touchdown in the spring game. The established wideout with line up alongside Jake Bailey, the only other receiver on the roster with 20 collegiate receptions.
“Seeing his athleticism on the field and what he can do and how shifty he is in the slot, it’s really fun to watch,” Rozner said of Bailey. “Hopefully going into the summer he can get even better than he is, because he can make freaking plays.”
For a breakout prospect in the receiving group, Cedric Patterson III has all the makings of a viable deep threat in Tuiasosopo’s offense. Patterson transferred from New Mexico, where he caught 16 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the past two seasons. The former track star displayed his lightning speed against the Rice secondary, collecting 88 yards on three receptions in the scrimmage.