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Luke McCaffrey Thriving in Transition From Quarterback to Wide Receiver

Months after converting from his lifelong QB status, McCaffrey already demonstrates star potential in Rice’s receiver room.

Rice v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Luke McCaffrey is a lifelong quarterback.

Ever since the day he first threw on the pads and buckled the chinstrap, he’s lived a quarterback lifestyle. At Valor Christian High School in Colorado, he won a state championship and attained status as the No. 1 recruit in the state and a top-5 dual-threat QB in the 2019 recruiting class. McCaffrey continued this journey at the collegiate level and started games that every aspiring quarterback dreams of, testing his mettle against the likes of Penn State, Texas, and Houston.

But this offseason at Rice University, McCaffrey decided it was time to shelve the position he's been intertwined with his entire football upbringing. After further reflection, he envisioned his football future belonged at wide receiver. Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren and offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo presented this opportunity to McCaffrey prior to spring practices, and the group ultimately agreed to convert the 21-year old quarterback.

“One thing that I’m super thankful for about Coach Bloom and Coach Tui is they really left the decision to me,” McCaffrey said. “They never pressured me into switching positions. I just felt like where I was at in my career and what I wanted, it was the best decision for me to switch. To make that transition, it’s been an awesome decision and the way it was done through Coach Bloom and Coach Tui is something I’m so thankful for.”

McCaffrey played snaps at wide receiver very sparingly in high school when his older brother Dylan operated as the starting quarterback, but his time spent at the position was nothing extensive. Still, McCaffrey believed he possessed a favorable skillset to excel as a wide receiver, and he prepared for the unconventional role change in every manner possible. He even switched jersey numbers from No. 12 to No. 10, citing 10 felt like more of a natural wide receiver number than his previous 12.

Fast forward to August — less than a month before McCaffrey’s first collegiate game as a wide receiver — and the progress has been substantial.

“He looks as if his dad played wide receiver in the NFL for 10 years,” Bloomgren said.

As Bloomgren acknowledged, McCaffrey hails from a family of football royalty. His father Ed spent 13 seasons in the NFL, amassing over 7,400 yards and starting at wide receiver for the Denver Broncos during their Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII victories. His eldest brother Max leveraged his success as a wide receiver at Duke into four seasons on NFL rosters. And his older brother Christian — renowned as one of the premier receiving threats from the running back position — earned First Team All-Pro status for the Carolina Panthers after becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist at Stanford.

“To have all of that experience is something I’m blessed with,” McCaffrey said. “I’m not shy to the fact that they helped me out a ton in just getting any piece of knowledge I can from people who’ve been there. To combine that knowledge with what (wide receivers coach Mike) Kershaw is teaching, what (offensively quality control coach Samie) Parker is teaching, what Coach Tui and Coach Bloom have in our scheme and how it can relate — being able to mold it all together is a lot of fun.”

When first arranging his transition to receiver, Luke spent plenty of time studying wide receiver film and emulating what he observed in the tapes. For some moves he added to his arsenal, he didn’t have to look further than his own lineage, adding intricacies to his game exhibited by the McCaffrey receivers that came before him — Ed, Max, and Christian.

Luke McCaffrey started three games at quarterback for Rice last season, including one at Texas in Week 3.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“You’re constantly building your bag of tricks,” McCaffrey said. “There’s a bag of releases, a bag of tricks throughout your route, a bag of tricks for catching the ball. I’m always trying to expand on that whether it’s watching (Ed, Max, and Christian) or watching guys in the NFL I look up to. So hopefully I continue growing that. It’s been a couple months, so hopefully a year from now, it’s doubled and a year from then, it’s even bigger.”

McCaffrey’s study tactics rapidly translated to on-field success. By Rice’s spring game in April, he already established himself as one of the stars of the receiver room. He registered team-highs of seven receptions and 98 yards in the spring game, complete with a touchdown snag. In the Owls’ first training camp scrimmage, he continued his emergence by generating 76 yards as the team leader in catches.

“The transition has been seamless, and you knew it would be from a knowledge standpoint because anybody who could play the quarterback position could master all things of this offense,” Bloomgren said. “He’s gonna know where to be and what time he’s supposed to be there... Everybody has that trust of Luke to be in the right place, but when something breaks down, he’s just so savvy — he goes and finds a zone, catches the ball, moves the sticks.”

When McCaffrey played quarterback, athleticism and mobility always stood out as integral components of his game. Prior to transferring to Rice, he started two games as Nebraska’s chief signal caller, compiling 189 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 39 attempts. Merging his athletic ability in the open field with years of pent-up football IQ from his quarterback days makes for a lethal combo as a wide receiver.

“He’s so smooth and you know it’s gonna be that way from a mental standpoint,” Bloomgren said. “A quarterback better understand what everybody’s doing and what that’s gonna look like. He also has ability to do the subtle things like understanding what you can do with your head in the route to get a DB leaning, and then cross his space. And the ability to complete plays, to finish plays in the end zone, and to catch balls that are very difficult to catch.”

Entering this offseason, McCaffrey already possessed several receiver attributes from his days as a rushing-oriented quarterback. Adding the concepts of route running and catching were among major points of emphasis this offseason. But one trivialized element of playing wide receiver, especially in Rice’s “pound the rock, control the clock”-style offense, is the ability to work as a blocker on the majority of snaps. When asked about adding this skill to his repertoire, McCaffrey’s eyes lit up as if blocking was his calling card from birth.

“It’s a lot of fun. You get to let out some of that anger that you have,” he said. “At quarterback you probably just have to put your hands in a fist and get mad, whereas at receiver, you can get into that action a bit more. It’s fun. I probably had a few whiffs early in spring ball and then learned how to block a little bit better after the first week or two and how to do it properly.”

NCAA Football: Houston at Rice
Luke McCaffrey’s collegiate rushing total currently stands at 662 yards. His 5.1 yards per carry is complemented by six career rushing touchdowns.
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Rice’s wide receivers were well-acquainted with McCaffrey during the 2021 season when he served as their facilitator. Now that he has assimilated into membership in the group, the longtime incumbent receivers recognize the value McCaffrey brings from a camaraderie standpoint and from a knowledge of the game standpoint.

“He’s a goofy dude. He brings a different personality than I’ve ever experienced before, but he’s been great,” senior wide receiver Brad Rozner said. “His understanding of the offense, his athletic ability, his ability to get open mixed with his understanding of formation and concepts — it’s been really fun to watch.”

Even though McCaffrey is a novice at receiver compared to the other Owls, the rapid learner is already demonstrating areas of expertise at the position. Rozner enters his fourth season on the roster and first held a starting role since 2019, but even he has internalized advice distributed from the first-year receiver this offseason.

“We always did a bunch of drills after the summer runs and he’d always give me pointers on keeping my head over my shoulders or small little things,” Rozner said. “He would always help out with that kind of stuff being a bigger body of how to get in and out of cuts. It’s been great learning some stuff from him.”

McCaffrey is still expanding his expertise and skillset, but members of the coaching staff have cited the former quarterback as one of the most explosive talents on the offense. His proficiency for manufacturing such plays should play a major factor in elevating Rice’s aerial attack, which ranked 87th nationally last year. McCaffrey’s rising presence, combined with returning starters like Rozner and Cedric Patterson, as well as a slew of experienced transfers, concocts a receiving corps deeper than any other in the Bloomgren era.

“We’ve got experienced people that I’ve been learning from every single rep — Isaiah Esdale, Cedric Patterson, Bradley Rozner,” McCaffrey said. “To have that balance between the experienced guys and the people who are new to it trying to build that experience is huge. It’s so fun to be in this room because you never know who’s gonna make that play and how that play’s gonna happen.”

With a converted quarterback serving in a major role, this group hopes to enhance Rice’s offense to the point of ending the program’s prolonged seven-year bowl drought this fall.