In the culinary world, many dishes involving rice are best complemented by a bowl. The same theme holds in the realm of college football.
The Rice Owls football program had been starved of a bowl game for quite some time heading into the 2022 season. For the first time since 2014, that objective finally came to fruition as the Owls participated in the LendingTree Bowl against former CUSA foe Southern Miss.
However, Rice entered bowl season with a unique stipulation. Due to the lack of 6-win teams available to satisfy every bowl slot, the Owls qualified with a 5-7 record due to their supreme academic progress rating (APR) when compared to the other 5-7 programs.
While the goal of bowl experience was checked off the list in a 5-8 season, sixth-year head coach Mike Bloomgren understands his program is capable of accomplishing more, as the Owls seek a return trip to the postseason and their first winning season in nine years.
But new challenges coincide with those goals in 2023. On July 1, Rice officially left Conference USA behind to join the American Athletic Conference — a league which has sent its champion to the New Year’s Six in six consecutive years and claimed five AP Top 10 finishes since 2017. The Owls expect the level of competition to heat up in their new home, familiarizing themselves with new opponents like Tulane and SMU, while retaining challenging rivals like UTSA. It’s Bloomgren and Co.’s mission to navigate these obstacles and revert Rice to above-.500 territory for the first time in nearly a decade.
The Owls made a significant splash in the transfer portal last December, landing a quarterback Bloomgren had on his radar since his offensive coordinator days at Stanford. Rice is the fourth collegiate stop for journeyman quarterback JT Daniels, who previously started at USC, Georgia, and West Virginia — most notably winning a New Year’s Six bowl with the Bulldogs in 2020 and serving as the initial starting quarterback during their 2021 national championship run.
The West Virginia tenure was Daniels’ first time operating as a starter for the majority of the season since his true freshman campaign in 2018. Daniels completed 61.2 percent of passes for 2,107 yards, complete with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His best work, however, was observed at Georgia in 2020 where he led the Bulldogs to an undefeated record as a starter with a 10-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio on an average exceeding 10 yards per attempt.
Daniels will work closely alongside third-year offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo, hoping to sustain the developing trend of verticality in the Rice offense. The Owls have always been a “pound the rock, control the clock” program at heart under Bloomgren, but a promising trend was observed in the aerial offense last year. Rice ranked 65th nationally in passing offense at 233 yards per game, attaining its highest output since averaging 327 passing yards in 2008.
Rice hopes the former 5-star recruit remains healthy throughout the season, as the program hasn’t completed a full season under one starting quarterback since 2015. After TJ McMahon — the primary starter from 2022 — transferred to Marshall this spring, the second-string duties were placed in the hands of AJ Padgett. Padgett started Rice’s final two games last season, including the LendingTree Bowl against Southern Miss where he posted a gutsy performance featuring 295 passing yards and three touchdowns, averaging over 15.5 yards per completion.
Shawqi Itraish, who fielded a handful of snaps in last year’s WKU and UTSA games, is the likely third-string quarterback. Excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Rice has utilized three different starting quarterbacks in each year of the Bloomgren era which launched in 2018, so possessing quarterback depth remains crucial to this program.
Some of Rice’s proclivity to pass in 2022 was a side effect of not always attaining the desired result in the run game. The Owls ranked 80th in rushing yards per game without seeing a 100-yard rusher on the year.
Ari Broussard was Rice’s most utilized halfback before missing the second half the season due to injury. The sixth-year senior was lethal in short-yardage situations, pounding in nine touchdowns in his first six games, with all nine stemming from three yards or fewer. When healthy in 2021, Broussard led the offense in rushing with 569 yards and should be a focal point of a pro-style offense which prefers to eat up time of possession and keep the opposing quarterback sidelined.
Rice’s reigning rushing leader Cam Montgomery graduated from the program, opening up additional reps for other running backs including Dean Connors. Connors was utilized on a recurring basis toward the beginning of last season, and after checking in as one of the fastest Owls in their laser-timed 40-yard dashes this summer, the former all-state track star is expected to carve out a larger role in 2023.
The Owls also have another sixth-year senior at their disposal who has been with the team since Bloomgren’s arrival. Juma Otoviano has rotated in and out of the lineup over the years, but 2022 was his most successful stretch to date. After limited usage in the first half of the season, the veteran tailback set career-highs in rushing yardage, rushing average, and receiving yards thanks to a stellar November, and he’ll join Broussard and Connors in the main running back rotation for 2023.
Quinton Jackson, who handled three carries as a true freshman last season, is expected to be the fourth running back on the depth chart. Additionally, fullback usage is common in Rice’s offense — especially in 3rd and short, 4th and short, and goal line situations. Expect Micah Barnett to fulfill that position and operate as a blocker for such scenarios.
The Owls’ wide receiver room took several significant hits to depth this summer. The team’s leading receiver from 2022, Bradley Rozner, transferred to NC State toward the start of July. The 6’5” deep threat averaged 19.9 yards per reception last year and played a prominent role in manufacturing Rice’s best scoring offense in six years. Not only did the program lose Rozner and his 876 yards of production, but Cedric Patterson III — the Owls’ 2021 receiving touchdowns leader — medically retired from football and Isaiah Esdale (544 yards on 42 receptions) graduated.
Still, Rice possesses an explosive talent in the receiving room in Luke McCaffrey. Originally arriving to campus as a quarterback, McCaffrey excelled in the first year of his life playing wide receiver. McCaffrey ranked first on the team with 58 receptions while also attaining 723 yards and six touchdowns. Now that the former Nebraska transfer has a year of valuable experience at the position under his belt, the potential remains even greater for 2023 as he is expected to replace Rozner as the No. 1 target.
McCaffrey isn’t Rice’s only player who has started and won a game at quarterback playing receiver. JoVoni Johnson, a recurring QB starter in 2019 and 2020, made a position change similar to McCaffrey’s this offseason after exclusively playing quarterback since age nine. Given the vacancies in the receiver room created by the Rozner and Patterson departures, there may be space for Johnson in the lineup on fall Saturdays, even if the transitioning talent isn’t a Week 1 starter.
McCaffrey claiming one of the starting spots is a certainty, and the pool of candidates to line up alongside the team captain include UCLA transfer Matt Sykes, as well as incumbent pieces Kobie Campbell and Tyson Thompson. Sykes caught six passes for the Bruins last season and the Hawaii native will definitely see an expanded role as he relocates to the AAC. The speedy 5’7” Campbell boasts the second-most experience of any wide receiver on the roster with 17 receptions and 192 receiving yards to his name last year. Tyson Thompson, a special teams mainstay who arrived from Houston Christian last year, could see increased action on offense as a junior.
Braylen Walker was unleashed for the first time in the regular season finale last November, and the Louisiana-born wideout made the most of his reps with 77 receiving yards and a touchdown across the Owls’ final two outings. The aforementioned exodus of players like Rozner and Esdale should create more room for the redshirt freshman in the rotation. Additionally, true freshmen could see the field including the ultra-quick Drayden Dickmann and 17-year old Landon Random-Goelz, who has seen a handful of first team reps in fall camp.
Heavy tight end utilization can always be expected within Rice’s offense, and the Owls operate in 12 and 22 personnel on a game-to-game basis. Jack Bradley will retain his gig as the No. 1 tight end after attaining personal bests in receptions (28) and yards (260) last year. He ranked fourth on the team in both categories and was frequently utilized as a run blocker.
The No. 2 tight end remains Boden Groen, who arose from community college status to a solid contributor in the offense last year, hauling in nine receptions for 79 yards. Groen hails from Mater Dei, the same California high school attended by JT Daniels, but there was no overlap as Daniels graduated the year before Groen enrolled.
Other tight ends vying for playing time on the roster are transfers from lower divisions. Matt Hall joins the Owls after earning all-conference status at the Division II level while Ethan Powell was named the team MVP at Southwestern University in Division III.
There are significant replacements Rice must make within its offensive line, specifically on the interior. Starting center Isaac Klarkowski and starting right guard Shea Baker (Rice’s only All-CUSA selection in 2022) were integral parts of the program over the years, and both long-tenured linemen exhausted their eligibility, causing Rice to look for anchors at these positions.
The Owls surrendered 2.69 sacks per game, which checked in at 92nd in the FBS, and averaged 4.01 yards per rush, good for 77th in the country. Both of those basic measures involving offensive line play were below 50th percentile, suggesting improvement can still be witnessed within this unit.
Even without Baker and Klarkowski, experience still exists in the form of Clay Servin, who returns for his sixth season on campus. The team captain mans the starting left tackle position for the fifth consecutive year and enters 2023 with 38 consecutive starts and 45 total as an Owl. The right tackle spot will be occupied by Ethan Onianwa, who rose to prominence last season as a 12-game starter while ranking third on the team in snaps accumulated.
The interior will be bolstered by transfer talent as Brant Banks and Lavel Dumont arrive from Nebraska and Toledo, respectively. Banks comes equipped with one collegiate start and 26 games of experience across four seasons while Dumont accrued 10 starts in his former stomping grounds, including seven at right tackle in 2023. Despite the majority of Dumont’s experience being at tackle, Rice has primarily utilized him in a right guard spot in fall camp, while Banks typically holds down the fort at left guard.
Other interior linemen competing for starting spots include John Long, who started 10 games at right guard in his first season earning collegiate playing time. Additionally, if Rice doesn’t shift one of these guards to center, a viable Klarkowski replacement is Weston Kropp — a versatile lineman who arrived on campus last year after a stint at Jones College. The Owls also retain Braedon Nutter, who started the first three games at left guard in 2022 and the last nine in 2021.
The most notable departure from Rice’s 2022 defense was defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons in April. Enechukwu was one of the most polished players on the unit over the last several seasons, contributing 86 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 9.0 sacks across the last two years.
Rice didn’t consult the transfer portal for many projected defensive starters, but the Owls utilized this tactic to fill the vacancy left behind by Enechukwu. They landed FCS transfer Coleman Coco from Colgate, who held offers at Pitt, among other FBS programs, before deciding to prolong his college career in Houston, TX. In 30 games at Colgate, Coco collected 92 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and 9.0 sacks, and he’ll be tasked with bolstering a pass rush which tied for 87th in sacks per game one year ago.
One familiar face lining up beside Coco is De’Braylon Carroll, who has been a frequent standout in fall camp. Carroll is a veteran starter for the program, making appearances with the first team defense dating back to 2020. However, an Achilles injury in fall camp of 2021 put his growth as a football player on hold, and despite playing in 2022, Carroll was still dealing with effects from the injury as well as other ailments. But the nose tackle is in his healthiest state since high school, ready to make an impact after producing 20 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss last year.
The other starting defensive tackle is Izeya Floyd, who was named one of three defensive captains for the Owls. The former offensive lineman turned defensive tackle saw a career-high in snaps in 2022, gathering 22 tackles and two tackles for loss. While Carroll and Floyd are the projected starters, Blake Boenisch should be a recurring contributor on the interior, coming off a season ranking 10th on Rice’s defense in total tackles.
Other reserves to watch in his position group include defensive end Jordan Campbell, who is set to make his FBS debut after earning All-American status at the JUCO level. Additionally, defensive end Demone Green and defensive tackle Elroyal Morris could expand on their playing time after seeing limited action in past years with Rice.
Brian Smith returns for his fifth year as Rice’s defensive coordinator, and the linebacker group has typically been the strength of his 3-4 defense.
Two of Rice’s team captains and top defenders hail from this position group — inside linebacker Myron Morrison and outside linebacker Josh Pearcy. Morrison first rose into a starting role in 2021 and has thrived in it since, finishing second on the team in tackles with 73 a year ago, in addition to amassing 6.5 tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions. Pearcy is the Owls’ premier pass rusher on the edge. He ranked supreme on the team in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (10.0), producing 50 tackles in his best season to date.
The Owls retain a third starting linebacker in Chris Conti. In his first season with the Owls after transferring from Rutgers, Conti led the team in tackles with 75. He’ll work alongside Morrison in effort to improve the team’s rushing defense, which was one of Rice’s fatal flaws in 2022. As demonstrated by Frank Gore Jr.’s record-breaking rushing performance in the LendingTree Bowl, Rice permitted 181.5 yards per contest on a 5.4 average — the eighth-highest opposing rushing average in the country. But with three returning starters at linebacker, that veteran leadership will be needed to mitigate the Owls’ run struggles in 2023.
The fourth linebacker in Rice’s defense is labeled a ‘VIPER’ which is essentially an outside linebacker and safety hybrid. Treshawn Chamberlain operated in this role for several years before entering the transfer portal, and it appears his departure will bequeath this position to Plae Wyatt. The redshirt sophomore was limited to four appearances last season, but he thrived with the aerial defense in the regular season finale against North Texas. Coverage ability is essential to this position, and whoever takes on this difficult role will exude the least experience in Rice’s otherwise-veteran linebacking corps.
Reserve linebackers expected to crack the rotation in 2023 include backup inside backer Andrew Awe (22 tackles in 2022) and Kenny Seymour Jr. (six tackles in 2022).
One of the sharpest improvements observed last year was in the passing defense. The unit improved drastically, ranking 38th in yards allowed per game at 208.6 after fielding a bottom 10 aerial defense in 2021. Only 12 defenses in the FBS yielded fewer completions per game, and while opponent rushing success was somewhat responsible for the lack of completions, the secondary was still a force to be reckoned with.
Cornerbacks Sean Fresch and Jordan Dunbar were among those who elevated their games the most in 2022. Fresch registered 21 tackles, five pass breakups, and an interception while Dunbar ranked first on the team in deflections with 10 to complement his 25 tackles. Injuries within the cornerback room caused both Fresch and Dunbar to take on premature starting roles as freshmen in 2021, and that early experience paid off as each member of the tandem witnessed a sophomore surge.
Fresch and Dunbar will sustain their starting corner roles this fall, but other incumbent roster members such as Tre’shon Devones, Lamont Narcisse, and Jonathan Jean should see substantial playing time as well. Among these reserves, Narcisse contributed the most a year ago with 10 tackles, one interception, and two pass breakups.
The headliner in the safety room is Gabe Taylor, a Florida native who hails from strong NFL bloodlines as the younger brother of the late Sean Taylor. Gabe shares that signature hard-hitting ability and is the chief havoc-inducer of Rice’s defense. In 2021, he logged two interceptions, forced one fumble, recovered one fumble, and broke up five passes. It was more of the same in 2022 as Taylor posted a stat-line which include two interceptions, six pass breakups, and a pair of forced fumbles in addition to a career-high 60 tackles. Without George Nyakwol in the safety room, Taylor is now the most seasoned veteran to lead the position group.
There are several candidates to occupy the other safety spot alongside Taylor, and Marcus Williams is a name atop that list. Williams broke out as a reserve last fall with 22 tackles and should see linear progression with more playing time. Chike Anigbogu is another intriguing candidate for a starting role. Primarily a special teams juggernaut, Anigbogu enters September with a résumé featuring 27 tackles and one defensive start, which transpired back in 2020.
Rice retains both offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo and defensive coordinator Brian Smith, but the Owls introduce a new special teams coordinator in Pete Alamar. Alamar served as Stanford’s special teams coordinator under head coach David Shaw from 2012-22 and overlapped with Bloomgren on that staff from 2012-17.
In Alamar’s first season, safety Chike Anigbogu is the captain representing the special teams unit after coming off a team-high 269 snaps in this facet of the game.
After a disastrous kicking game plagued the Owls in 2021, Rice sharply progressed last year as kicker Christian VanSickle started 10-for-10 on field goals through 10 weeks before finishing 12-for-16. However, VanSickle’s graduation forces Alamar to find a new placekicker heading into 2023.
It’s a battle between Tim Horn and Enock Gota. Horn possesses the edge when it comes to experience, but not by much. The former Washington transfer drained three extra points on three tries at his previous stop, and missed his only collegiate field goal attempt last year at Rice. Also vying for the role is redshirt freshman Enock Gota, who awaits his first action with the Owls. Regardless of the winner of the placekicker battle, Horn is expected to retain his duties as the kickoff specialist.
All 49 of Rice’s punts in 2022 were courtesy of Conor Hunt, who remains on campus for a second season in that role. Hunt averaged 41 yards per punt and situated the ball inside the 20-yard line six times in his last three outings.
Every player who fielded a kickoff or punt return last year was also retained on Rice’s roster. The kick return duties were split by running backs Dean Connors and Juma Otoviano, as Connors fielded seven kickoffs with a 19.0 average and Otoviano handled 12 with an average of 17.0 yards. Wide receiver Tyson Thompson also dabbled in this realm with four kickoff returns in 2022.
Thompson additionally contributed to the punt return game along with cornerback Sean Fresch, and Fresch led the team with 10 punt returns and 103 return yards. Alamar may break in newer faces at some of these positions, but Rice exhibits a reliable cast of characters in the return game. Now, the mission is to capture an elusive kick return touchdown or punt return touchdown — occurrences that haven’t been accomplished in a Rice uniform since 2012.
2023 AAC Schedule - Rice.csv
|1||Sat, Sep. 2||@ Texas||N/A|
|2||Sat, Sep. 9||vs. Houston||L, 34-27|
|3||Sat, Sep. 16||vs. Texas Southern (FCS)||N/A|
|4||Sat, Sep. 23||@ South Florida||N/A|
|5||Sat, Sep. 30||vs. East Carolina||N/A|
|6||Sat, Oct. 7||vs. UConn||N/A|
|7||Sat, Oct. 14||BYE|
|8||Thu, Oct. 19||@ Tulsa||N/A|
|9||Sat, Oct. 28||vs. Tulane||N/A|
|10||Sat, Nov. 4||vs. SMU||N/A|
|11||Sat, Nov. 11||@ UTSA||L, 41-7|
|12||Sat, Nov. 18||@ Charlotte||L, 56-23|
|13||Sat, Nov. 25||vs. FAU||L, 17-14|
|14||Sat, Dec. 2||AAC Championship|
Rice’s 2023 schedule is very Saturday-oriented, with all games except a mid-October trek to Tulsa occurring on college football’s most common day of the week.
The Owls typically open against a juggernaut on the road, and this year is no exception. Rice has dropped 14 consecutive FBS openers, and the team must upend No. 11 Texas in Austin in order to buck the trend. The Owls seek to conclude a 15-game losing skid to their former Southwest Conference rival, a skid which originated during the conference’s final year 1995.
Rice continues its non-conference slate by hosting the Bayou Bucket rivalry against Houston. The battle between the two closest FBS teams in proximity has heavily favored the Cougars as of late, and Rice aims to snap a 7-game losing streak against the new Big 12 member. The other non-conference opponents present more winnable opportunities for Bloomgren’s squad, as FCS program Texas Southern and UConn pay visits to Rice Stadium on Week 3 and Week 6, respectively. Overall, Rice never has to leave the Lone Star State borders for non-conference play and has the luxury of playing three of these four games at home.
The eight-game AAC schedule consists of five incumbent AAC members and three familiar opponents transitioning from Conference USA. Rice’s first-ever conference matchup in their new league is a road trip to South Florida in late September, and the following week, the Owls host East Carolina for the first time since.
Tulsa, Tulane, and SMU grace the schedule following the midseason bye week, and then the Owls battle a slew of familiar opponents in UTSA, Charlotte, and Florida Atlantic — which they went 0-3 against the year prior. Those three former CUSA opponents conclude the regular season schedule for Rice, which chases its first 6+ win season since 2014. Notable absences on the schedule include the other two AAC newcomers — in-state foe North Texas, as well as UAB, which Rice defeated in consecutive years.
The three-week stretch consisting of Tulane, SMU, and UTSA (the top three teams in the AAC Preseason Media Poll) is the most difficult portion of the conference schedule. Wins may be hard to come by in that three-game sample, so in order to secure bowl eligibility, Rice must absolutely thrive in the early portion of its AAC slate.
If the Owls thrive in their new conference and sport one of the AAC’s top two records by the first week of December, they’ll participate in the AAC Championship Game. Similar to the CUSA, the contest will transpire at the home field of the team exhibiting the best conference record on Saturday, Dec. 2.