Year five of the Mike Bloomgren era launches this September at Rice. The Owls, despite notching several marquee wins over the past few seasons, have yet to break through the glass ceiling to attain bowl eligibility. Rice owns the longest bowl drought in the C-USA dating back to 2014. Ending that trend will be of utmost importance for Bloomgren and his personnel, and in order to do that, fielding a higher-powered offense is the most essential step in the right direction.
“Our whole offensive staff has done a great job in understanding that it’s hard to do a 15-play drive every single time,” Bloomgren said. “We’ve made a commitment to creating more explosives.”
Rice’s offense has earned a running reputation as a slower-moving, classic-style offense that utilizes a heavy dose of fullbacks and tight ends and eats up time of possession. Tempo and empty sets are rarer sights to behold, but the Owls appear to be implementing those looks more often under second-year offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo in training camp.
“Marques Tuiasosopo has an unbelievable mind to this game,” Bloomgren said. “What he’s done has been awesome. Watching his creativity, watching the way he coaches the details, and everybody in the talks about recruiting — we’re bringing in players that are explosive.”
However, the ability to quickly fly down the field or post 300-yard passing performances hasn’t been apparent in recent seasons, and the team has yet to exhibit a top 100 FBS scoring offense since 2016. Adding this element of explosiveness to the offense is a premier focus for the Owls this year, but the team won’t shift too far from its “pound the rock, control the clock” identity.
“Everyone always wants to have explosive plays,” right guard Shea Baker said. “Whether you’re a running back or whether you’re a coach or whether you’re an offensive lineman, it’s always a burst of endorphins in your brain. I love that, but we’re still gonna pound the rock. But those two go hand-in-hand, right? Pound the rock and the defense gets tired and then we can get explosive.”
- Scoring offense: 21.5 points per game (107th)
- Total offense: 362.1 yards per game (96th)
- Passing offense: 211.7 yards per game (87th)
- Rushing offense: 150.4 yards per game (76th)
- Turnovers committed: 22 turnovers lost (t-107th)
- Completion rate: 59.6% (78th)
- Sacks allowed: 2.33 per game (t-72nd)
- First downs: 237 (t-96th)
- 3rd down conversion rate: 35.4% (100th)
- Red zone scoring rate: 73.7% (120th)
- Time of possession: 33 minutes per game (9th)
Injuries struck Rice early and often last year, and they were particularly cruel to the quarterbacks. The Owls never established a season-long starter, rotating between Wiley Green, Luke McCaffrey, and Jake Constantine throughout the year — depending on who was healthy, as all three quarterbacks were ruled out of a contest midgame at least once last fall. Constantine graduated from the program and McCaffrey transitioned to wide receiver, so the quarterback depth takes on a different form.
As has become a recurring theme in the Mike Bloomgren era, another season commences with a quarterback battle in fall camp. And similar to the 2019 and 2021 quarterback battles, longtime veteran Wiley Green is involved. Green, a member of Bloomgren’s first recruiting class, emerged as the Week 1 starter in 2019 over Tom Stewart and again in 2021 over Luke McCaffrey.
This year, the program is evaluating Green and former community college transfer T.J. McMahon for the role of starting quarterback.
“If you look back at spring ball and saw how they battled each other, it was a lot of fun,” Bloomgren said. “One of them had a great practice. Then the next guy stepped up and had a great practice the next day. We’ll go into it and give them equal reps.”
Green essentially has a PhD in Rice’s offensive system at this point and is the most experienced Owl quarterback with 12 career starts. However, he hasn’t been able to remain on the field for prolonged periods of time due to unfortunate injuries. The season-ending injury he suffered in late-October against North Texas was especially devastating because it immediately followed the best showing of his tenure. Green completed 17-of-22 passes for 205 yards and a trio of touchdowns the week prior, guiding the Owls to a stunning 30-24 road victory against a heavily favored UAB squad.
“Wiley Green’s an awesome guy,” McMahon said. “Ever since I first transferred in, he’s been helping me out. Our system isn’t the most simplistic. There’s a lot that gets put on the quarterback in terms of responsibility, so ever since I’ve been here, Wiley’s been helping me out. We help each other out now that I’ve mastered a little bit more. Iron sharpens iron.”
Green’s competitor in this preseason’s QB competition also suited up for the Owls in 2021, albeit one game. McMahon started last season buried deep in the depth chart and eventually became the hero of the season finale against Louisiana Tech. Entering the contest without ever throwing a pass at the FBS level, McMahon (12-of-20, 191 yards) delivered two touchdown strikes in the final five minutes to complete a 10-point comeback win over the Bulldogs — signifying the largest comeback of the Bloomgren era. That lone outing built confidence for the junior, which he has channeled all offseason.
“You always gotta be ready to play whenever not matter where you are on the depth chart, because things happen and you don’t want to waste your opportunity,” McMahon said, reflecting on the Louisiana Tech win. “It’s really hard to replicate true in-game experience but our coaches do a great job. I just went out there and did my best to execute what they taught me, and they did a great job with it.”
In Rice’s first scrimmage of training camp, McMahon took more reps with the first team offense, but the quarterback battle remains close between the two. Bloomgren hopes to name a starter soon for the benefit of the team, and the QB battle will come down to a word Bloomgren reiterates as the program’s theme this year — consistency.
“I love their leadership, I love their confidence. I love the way they execute the system the way it’s supposed to be done,” Bloomgren said. “I’m still looking for consistency. You have two guys right there that can lead a winning football team. Who’s gonna be the most consistent?”
Rice primarily utilized a running back by committee last year. The three main spokes on the rotating wheel were Ari Broussard, Khalan Griffin, and Jordan Myers. Griffin transferred and Myers saw his eligibility expire, leaving the returning Broussard as the likely lead back for the 2022 campaign. Broussard led all Owls in rushing yards last year, racking up 569 on 4.9 yards per carry.
The Owls exhibit considerable experience at running back depth behind Broussard. Sixth-year senior Cam Montgomery — whose time at Rice exceeds that of Bloomgren — featured his most lucrative season yet, cashing in on expanded playing time with 256 rushing yards on an average of 5.8 yards per run. Juma Otoviano, another seasoned program veteran, enters his fifth season on campus after totaling 679 yards and four touchdowns in his previous years with the Owls.
Community college transfer Dean Connors, redshirt freshman Christian Francisco, and true freshman Quinton Jackson are among other running backs who earned substantial playing time in Rice’s intrasquad scrimmages. Connors, who led all running backs in yardage during the spring game, is the most likely to crack the rotation of the three who all await their first in-game experience at the FBS level.
Wide receivers and tight ends
Rice lost two of its three leading receivers from a year ago to the transfer portal in Jake Bailey and August Pitre III. But the haul the Owls received in return was significant. When merging that talent with the returning faces, this is the deepest receiving corps the Owls have fielded in the Bloomgren era.
“I’m so fired up about the wide receiver room in general,” Bloomgren said. “It’s gonna be the best we’ve had in there, and it’s not close.”
Rice added former Tulsa starter Sam Crawford in December and West Virginia standout Isaiah Esdale in February. Crawford burst onto the scene in Tulsa as a sophomore in 2019 with 777 yards and five touchdowns. Esdale spent three seasons earning significant reps for the Mountaineers, accruing a career-high 362 yards last season — complete with a 113-yard showing against Texas Tech. The presence of both experienced wideouts has amplified the level of execution among all Owl receivers.
“Isaiah can make big plays,” senior receiver Brad Rozner said. “A few days ago, we were in a team setting and he just went up over the top and just snagged the ball right over the DB. He can bring that ‘wow’ factor and make a small play into an explosive one and go down the field.”
And to add to that, Rice recruited Tyson Thompson from Houston Baptist. Before completing the local transfer, Thompson started at the FCS level and had a year of experience working with record-breaking quarterback Bailey Zappe and All-American wideout Jerreth Sterns, who both seamlessly succeeded in WKU’s offense after transferring from Houston Baptist in the 2021 offseason.
“The portal has been kind to us,” Tuiasosopo said. “I think our recruiting department has done a great job of finding guys that fit in our locker room first of all, and have the ability to help us go where we want to go.”
All three new wideouts bring coveted experience to Rice’s new-look receiving corps. But so do the incumbents. Cedric Patterson III is the Owls’ leading receiver from 2021 that returns for this 2022 campaign. Patterson, a former New Mexico transfer, collected nearly 600 receiving yards in his first season as an Owl, and he finished the year strong with five touchdowns and two 90+ yard performances in his final five outings.
Rice also retains Brad Rozner, who led the team with 770 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2019. Rozner’s on-field action has been limited to one game since that breakout 2019 season after he dealt with an onslaught of injuries — missing the entire 2020 season and the last 11 games of 2021. But the longtime receiver feels he has reverted to excellent shape as he prepares a long-awaited comeback.
“You sit there on the sideline and you just envision yourself out there — what you could do and what you think you can do — and you just use that as fuel whether you’re in the weight room or training room, and that just motivates you to keep going hard throughout that therapy and recovery process,” Rozner said. “Doing (the recovery process) more than once, you kind of know the ropes.”
One other major addition to the receiving corps is a familiar member of the roster, but wasn’t inducted into the receiver room until spring. Quarterback Luke McCaffrey met with the coaching staff this offseason and ultimately decided to transition to wide receiver, and he already fills a role as a significant, explosive player in this offense. McCaffrey led all receivers with seven receptions and 98 yards in the spring game, and the quick learner continues to make frequent appearances with the first team offense in camp.
“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.”
Rounding out the impactful players set to be apart of the receiver rotation is Kobie Campbell. The elusive 5’7” ex-running back hauled in seven passes last year and operated in an expanded offensive role toward late November.
“He’s a guy that’s been meddling at the middle part, the bottom part of the depth chart at the receiver position,” Tuiasosopo said. “The development happens at different points for everybody and so far you see a level of maturity in him and he's making big plays. A guy like Kobie developing, that happens because of an experienced group. That happens because of Bradley Rozner... when you come in this building and you see guys that are focused and want to make a change, that gets you excited.”
The tight end position reigns strong in Rice’s pro style offense. The Owls utilize multiple tight ends quite frequently, so restocking the depth after the exodus of Robert French and Jaeger Bull was a notable item on the offseason to-do list. They addressed those departures by adding Gavin Reinwald, who worked with Tuiasosopo during his time at California. The grad transfer logged two starts at Cal last season, and he enters Rice with 315 career yards and four touchdowns under his belt.
Reinwald will most likely split time with Jack Bradley, who led all Owl tight ends in production last season. Bradley checked in at fifth on the team in receptions and receiving yards, and served as a valuable blocker in Rice’s more ground-oriented offense.
With five established starters manning the unit, Tuiasosopo expects an experienced offensive line to serve as the catalyst for a stronger Rice offense in 2022.
“Up front, those guys are a big reason why we will be successful, and we have guys who have played a lot of football,” Tuiasosopo said.
Shea Baker, a second-year MBA student, serves as the leader of the offensive line. Baker’s time at Rice predates nearly the entire roster and coaching staff as he was a member of head coach David Bailiff’s final season in 2017. Rice’s active leader in snaps should serve a pivotal role at right guard after operating at both guard and center in 2021. Heading into his sixth year, Baker is still making progress in the weight room by setting new personal records, most notably his 655-pound deadlift.
“I’m still able to show these young-ins what I got,” Baker said. “It seems like every year, they come in stronger and stronger. It’s a weird trend that’s happening. It’s great. A few years ago, it might not have been that way, but as the game of college football becomes more of a business, you’ll see a lot more younger players investing a lot more time and energy into developing themselves early on so they can get into college football already as strong as the veterans.”
Baker transitioned to guard for the second half of last season due to an injury to Isaac Klarkowski. Klarkowski, a former walk-on, should bolster the offensive line’s prowess when returning to his familiar role of starting center this fall. He recorded 10 previous starts at the position dating back to his true freshman 2019 season.
Veteran leadership reigns supreme on the exterior end of the offensive line as well. Left tackle Clay Servin looks to extend his team-high 25 consecutive starts into the opener at USC this year, and he served as one of Rice’s most disciplined blockers by committing just two penalties in 12 starts last fall. The right side should be occupied by another West Virginia transfer in John Hughes. Hughes recorded seven starts as a member of the Big 12, including six at right tackle, and he’ll leverage that experience into a probable starting role at his new school.
Completing the rotation is the youngest member of the line in guard Braedon Nutter. The sophomore from Tomball, TX became well-acclimated to the college game last year by stepping in after Klarkowski’s injury and starting Rice’s final nine games. That forms a potential starting lineup, from left to right, of Servin, Nutter, Klarkowski, Baker, and Hughes.
“We got our run game going and as an o-line, us five, we’re really meshing well together and we’re really close,” Baker said. “It just feels great to be out there together.”
In terms of depth, Baker looks for Ethan Onianwa to be a significant force if his number is called upon. The freshman right tackle preserved his redshirt last season while making three appearances in November, and his peers believe his development has spiked since he last played in the finale against Louisiana Tech.
“He’s blessed already with size, but he knows the system, he knows the plays, and he is one strong human being,” Baker said. “And getting to know him more, he is a great human being.”
Breaking the bowl drought
Last year marked Rice’s winningest season since 2015, as the team collected four victories including three in C-USA play. But the Owls still missed out on bowl eligibility for the seventh consecutive season, and had their two overtime losses fared differently, the program could be in a different place today.
“We cannot take the foot off the gas — we’ve got to finish,” Baker said. “Finishing is the most important thing for us this season. Having that consistent finish in the fourth quarter will make us bowl eligible.”
The seniors on Rice’s roster all echoed the same sentiment during the team’s media day on August 13 — they want to go out with a bowl appearance. Offensively, what will it take get there for the first time since 2014?
“We’ve got to be different,” Rozner said. “We’ve got to go out there, we’ve got to make plays, and we’ve got to forcefully go down the field and take what we want to do. If we want to go to a bowl game, we have to impose our will on opponents.”