Rice’s defense has been one of the more potent units in the C-USA over the past two seasons. But a lack of offensive output has been a recurring issue that’s plagued Rice for about half of a decade. The Owls haven’t finished better than 100th in scoring offense since 2016, and they haven’t ranked in the upper half of the FBS since 2013.
There is plenty of reason for excitement surrounding the unit’s potential this season. Rice hired Marques Tuiasosopo as the new offensive coordinator in February, lured in a coveted transfer quarterback in Luke McCaffrey, and retained 10 starters from the prior year. The offensive production will certainly be the x-factor in determining if Rice snaps its 6-year skid without a bowl appearance. Functioning in a different climate from the 2020 season hampered by COVID cancelations, Rice hopes all pieces are in place for an offensive awakening after a productive offseason.
“Our football team is in such a different place than it’s ever been in any camp,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I like the progress we’re making offensively and when we’re a full unit at full strength, we’ve proven we can do some things.”
Bloomgren replaced former offensive coordinator Jerry Mack, who departed to Tennessee, with a familiar colleague in Marques Tuiasosopo. The ties between the two date back to 2007 when Bloomgren served a quality control coach and Tuiasosopo was the backup quarterback for the New York Jets. Before arriving in Rice this offseason, the former Washington Huskie standout spent the past 12 seasons working as an offensive assistant for a myriad of Pac-12 programs.
“He’s bringing the unit closer together and I think they’re having more fun playing football because of him,” Bloomgren said of Tuiasosopo. “His energy’s so contagious and he just loves this game so much and it permeates out of his skin and into theirs. Xs and Os wise, there’s some things he reads different. There’s some things he’s taught these quarterbacks in a different way than I’ve ever seen done and I love it.”
Expanding the impact of the aerial attack will be a primary focus for Tuiasosopo. Rice hasn’t finished better than 80th in passing yards per game since 2015. However, the Owls don’t attack opposing secondaries quite often and ranked 105th in average passing attempts last season. Tuiasosopo will serve as the facilitator of new offensive sets in order to expand the verticality of the offense and improve its red zone efficiency.
“Coach Tui has a great plan when it comes to the red zone,” quarterback Wiley Green said. “He’s implemented a lot of things that we really like. Those empty packages have been very big for us in being able to get the ball out in time. You really see that when we install those red zone plays.”
Green, McCaffrey headline QB battle
When fall camp arrives at Rice University, that usually signifies the presence of an ongoing quarterback battle. This program is no stranger to QB battles as six different players have started the opener in the past six seasons. That streak could end this season as 2019 Week 1 starter Wiley Green returns to the mix. Green started seven games that year but spent the entirety of 2020 operating behind Mike Collins and JoVoni Johnson. With an increased knowledge of the system, Green is ready to compete for QB No. 1 again.
“I learned a lot in those two years,” Green said. “One of the big things is confidence. I was really confident in my ability to execute the system but sometimes you have to be really confident in playing football. Getting to see it from Mike Collins, obviously he’s a guy that’s able to sling it all over the field and be confident in doing so. I learned a lot from him, I learned a lot being in the system and just playing football again and making it fun.”
Green’s competition for the starting position is Luke McCaffrey, a massive haul from the transfer portal who started two games at Nebraska last fall. McCaffrey is known for his dual threat tendencies and managed 122 rushing yards in a single game last November. The Colorado native arrived in Houston in June and is quickly getting a grasp of the system.
“Being able to run it is one thing, but understanding it so much that it’s able to happen at the snap of a finger is something else,” McCaffrey said. “Over the summer, Coach Tui, all the quarterbacks, (wide receiver) Jake Bailey, and some other guys got with me to help me understand the whiteboard version of the offense. Now the process is on the field and transitioning that to actual gameplay.”
After a brief stop at Louisville this offseason, McCaffrey settled on Rice primarily due to Bloomgren’s presence. The former Cornhusker has known Bloomgren since age 9 — as Bloomgren served as an offensive coordinator at Stanford for Luke’s brother Christian McCaffrey. The newest quarterback addition looks forward to utilizing his dual threat talents in the pro style offense.
“He’s a big influence and a big reason of why I decided to come here,” McCaffrey said of Bloomgren. “He has the capability to help me learn the things that you need in order to be a quarterback moving forward. That was the biggest pull for me, just to have the ability and resources to help grow with the people around me at Rice.”
The roster also features JoVoni Johnson, who has registered three starts as an Owl and pioneered the upset over No. 15 Marshall last December. However, the QB competition appears to be down to Green and McCaffrey, but with fall camp ongoing, Bloomgren remains patient in his selection of a Week 1 starter.
“I think Wiley’s incredibly comfortable in this system — looks comfortable from the time he’s calling a play in the huddle until he breaks it and gets the ball out. And there’s things Luke does really natural and really good,” Bloomgren said. “This is a little different too because we’ve got a guy who’s coming in to camp, wasn’t here in spring ball, didn’t even start the summer with the rest of the guys and we want to give him an adequate opportunity to compete for this job. The thing is, we have great trust in Wiley. I don’t feel the need to call a winner any time soon.”
Rozner returns to receiving group
Days before Rice launched its 2020 season in October, the Owls announced Brad Rozner was out for the season due to a surgical procedure. Rozner was a spectacular addition from the junior college ranks in 2019, leading the team with 770 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Adding a receiver of his stature back to the offense should ease the jobs of the starting quarterback and for the new offensive coordinator.
“When you see Roz, you can see what he can do for an offense. He’s very long, he’s strong, and he’s got a wide throwing radius,” Tuiasosopo said. “Being a former quarterback, I understand the value of a receiver that has a big radius to catch the football.”
While Trammell’s departure reduces experience in the receiver room, the Owls reloaded with transfer Cedric Patterson III. Patterson operated as a viable deep threat for New Mexico, hauling in 16 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns in his last 11 outings as a Lobo. His breakaway speed was evident during the spring game, providing Rice with a solid second option to Rozner.
“I love ‘CP3’, that’s my guy,” Rozner said. “He’s definitely a vertical threat and he can stop on a dime. He’s a really good player and I’m excited to play with him.”
The only other wide receivers on the roster who caught a pass last season are Jake Bailey (23 receptions), Andrew Mason (6 receptions), and August Pitre (1 reception).
“Speaking for the receiver position group, we can stretch the ball horizontally, vertically, diagonally,” Rozner said. “We can go anywhere with the guys that we have. We can be really explosive and make plays all over the field. We can not only do that with the receivers, but with the tight ends and with the running back group.”
Pound the rock, control the clock
While the newly hired Tuiasosopo aims to bolster the effectiveness of the passing front, Rice’s identity remains unchanged. As the only C-USA program to run a pro style offense with heavy utilization of fullbacks and frequent 2-tight end sets, the Owls prefer to win games in the trenches.
“You really have to know the game of football to truly embrace this offense,” halfback/tight end Jordan Myers said. “Whenever you have Mike Bloomgren as the head coach, he does emphasize that ‘Intellectual Brutality.’ You have to come in every day and be prepared to put your body on the line for your brothers.”
Bloomgren frequently utters the phrase “pound the rock, control the clock” to label his preferred offensive gameplan, a strategy which allowed Rice to finish second in the FBS in time of possession in 2020. The Owls held onto the ball for an average of 36 minutes per game, trailing only Wisconsin by roughly 20 seconds in the category.
To pound the rock, Khalan Griffin will work as the lead halfback after a productive true freshman campaign in 2020. He’ll have the luxury of working behind a veteran offensive line returning all starters from 2020.
Surrounding Griffin is a slew of returning talent including Ari Broussard and Juma Otoviano. Broussard first got his green light last December, effectively moving the sticks in a 19-carry, 62-yard performance against Marshall. Otoviano has been a constant piece of the running back rotation for four years and registered as many as 224 yards in a single game during the 2018 season finale.
“There’s not a person I could name in the running back room right now that couldn’t put a lot of pressure on defenses,” Myers said. “And having that experienced, big o-line that we have right now — shoutout to those guys.”
Another face in the backfield that may be difficult to label is Jordan Myers. A member of the program since 2016, Myers is the ultimate plug-and-play for this offense. He lines up primarily as a tight end but plays considerable time at halfback and fullback. Myers returns to Rice after logging a career-best nine catches in the Senior Day loss to UAB last December with unfinished business.
Myers is one of five “super seniors” — all of which are pegged to be in the starting lineup — returning to Rice. The Swiss Army knife is taking advantage of the NCAA extending eligibility to all seniors from the 2020 season. With that level of leadership returning, Rice is ready to take the leap to bowl contenders in 2021.
“The standard is always be 1-0 at the end of every week,” Myers said. “We want to prepare like we’re going for championships. We want to prepare like we’re going to win bowl games. That’s the thing we always talk about in our building and that’s never changed.”