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True freshman QB AJ Padgett rose to unlikely stardom on Rice’s biggest stage in years

Rice lost the LendingTree Bowl to Southern Miss, but the Owls didn’t go down without a fight thanks to heroics from their fourth-string quarterback.

LendingTree Bowl - Rice v Southern Miss Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Saturday evening in Mobile, AL presented an opportunity an entire Rice roster and coaching regime envisioned for years. The bowl-starved Owls hadn’t participated in a postseason game since 2014, but that all changed over the weekend when Rice battled former C-USA rival Southern Miss in the 2022 LendingTree Bowl.

It was the first bowl game for head coach Mike Bloomgren, who wrapped up his fifth year directing the Owls. It was also the first bowl game for players like running back Cameron Montgomery, whose time at Rice extends back to 2017, and for players like guard Shea Baker, who started his 54th consecutive game for the program in Mobile.

An entire roster laden with veteran players finally experienced the euphoria of participating in bowl season while donning a Rice Owls uniform. But Saturday marked more than just a notable event for the most seasoned members on the roster. It previewed the rise of one of the youngest members on the team: a true freshman quarterback.

Frisco, TX native AJ Padgett was buried within a crowded quarterback depth chart to launch the 2022 season — sitting at fourth string behind Wiley Green, TJ McMahon, and Shawqi Itraish. As McMahon posted a single-season passing output that hadn’t been accomplished on campus since 2015, it seemed unlikely Padgett would ever take the field. But in the final quarter of the season, Rice’s quarterback room unfortunately watched injury after injury unfold, rapidly depleting the number of signal callers available.

McMahon exited the WKU game on Nov. 12 with an injury that held him out for the remainder of the season. One week later, Green sustained an injury that forced Rice to dig deeper into its QB room. In the second half of a 41-7 blowout loss at the hands of UTSA on Nov. 19, Padgett officially made his collegiate debut — after a week of preparing as the scout team quarterback. Showing signs of promise in his first action to date, the true freshman earned the starting nod for the season finale at North Texas, where he showed marked improvement in a 21-17 defeat.

“I started out as the fourth-string quarterback this year,” Padgett said. “I certainly didn’t come in here with the mindset thinking that I wasn’t gonna play this year, that I could lay off and just take it easy. This opportunity presented itself, along with North Texas last week, and I feel like I just grabbed it by the horns and really tried to give it my best.

The 2022 LendingTree Bowl signified Rice’s first bowl game in eight years and its first appearance on ESPN since 2017. But the brightest stage the program had witnessed in years didn’t faze Padgett in his second collegiate start. Despite an unfavorable 38-24 result on the scoreboard, the quarterback diced the Southern Miss defense to the tune of 295 passing yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

LendingTree Bowl - Rice v Southern Miss
Rice QB AJ Padgett delivered three touchdown passes to guide Rice on a 21-0 third quarter run in the LendingTree Bowl.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Rice entered halftime trailing the Golden Eagles 17-3, but Padgett’s third quarter heroics altered the complexion of the game for the Owls. Coming out of the break, there was a 10-minute sequence in that frame where the quarterback simply dominated.

He drove Rice 80 yards down the field to open the second half, delivering a 26-yard dime to Isaiah Esdale for a touchdown. Rice’s defense snatched the ball back two plays later, and Padgett hadn’t cooled down from the previous series. He connected with Esdale again on a 32-yard pass to tie the game at 17 apiece. Then, his foot remained on the gas pedal on the ensuing possession to put the finishing touches on a 21-0 run.

Padgett handed Rice its first lead of the night on the best throw of his career — a 26-yard back-shoulder throw in the end zone to Brad Rozner. After connecting with Rozner to rewrite the score to 24-17, the true freshman gunslinger brought out the Superman celebration popularized by Cam Newton, and his energy visibly radiated onto his teammates. All three of his touchdown strikes transpired before the 5-minute mark of the third quarter.

“That first half, I felt like I was all over the place. I wasn’t getting through my checks like I was supposed to,” Padgett said. “It really just took me sitting down and telling myself, ‘Lock in, man. You’ve got to do it for these guys. These are your boys. You’ve got to play your best. You’ve got to put the ball in the box.’ That’s the mindset that I had when I hit the field. I wasn’t thinking about anything else other than just scoring. That really changed the tempo for us, gave us some momentum.”

Even though Padgett is a true freshman who recently fulfilled the critical position of quarterback, the team quickly rallied around the youngster. The quarterback was well-received by both a veteran roster and his coaching staff during two productive weeks of bowl preparation. That preparation was evident by the poise Padgett exhibited on Saturday night.

“This week has been awesome being with the guys and seeing guys who have been here five, six, maybe even seven years that have never done this before,” Padgett said. “They were just lit up and giddy and like we’re best friends. I could have a conversation with anyone on this team. I could talk to (fifth-year defensive end) Ikenna (Enechukwu) for 30 minutes about pretty much nothing. It’s been great getting the camaraderie with all these guys and all the coaches and trainers and everyone on the staff.”

The fourth-string quarterback’s rise to the occasion during Rice’s biggest game in years even left the coaching staff impressed. All three of his touchdown passes had substantial air underneath them, demonstrating Padgett’s impressive downfield arm talent in only his second start. While the Owls missed out on their primary goal of taking home a bowl trophy, the team watched plenty of positives unfold at the LendingTree Bowl — most noticeably, the potential of their true freshman quarterback.

“The way he came out at halftime was remarkable,” Bloomgren said. “He came out with confidence and swagger and did some of those things from a perimeter tag standpoint, to making a few plays with his arm. You can see how special he is. You can see how talented his arm is. When he’s comfortable and we do give him time, I think he can light up a defense, and I think his future is incredibly bright.”