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2024 Rice Owls National Signing Day Recap

Rice lands highest rated recruit in history in Lavonte Johnson, headlining Mike Bloomgren’s seventh class with the Owls.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 11 Rice at UTSA Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wednesday, Feb. 7 was a landmark day in the lives of many college athletes across the country. While National Signing Day continues to lose some of its luster due to the presence of the early signing period in December, college football teams still use that Wednesday in February to round out their annual recruiting classes.

The Rice Owls officially signed 23 players to their 2024 class, representing the seventh recruiting class under head coach Mike Bloomgren. Of the 23, seven were transfers with three stemming from the FBS level — headlined by quarterback E.J. Warner, a two-year starter at Temple and the son of Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.

High school recruits consisted of the other 16 additions, with 15 hailing from the state of Texas and one from Arkansas. Eight high school recruits were officially recognized as part of the early signing class in December, while eight joined the Rice family on February’s National Signing Day. Building locally was clearly an emphasis for Bloomgren and the Owls, as a notable seven of the eight National Signing Day high school recruits came from the city of Houston.

Rice’s 2024 class

FBS transfers

Early Signing Day — December 20, 2023

  • Alex Bacchetta, P — Atlanta, GA (Penn State)
  • E.J. Warner, QB — Phoenix, AZ (Temple)

National Signing Day — February 7, 2024

  • Michael Daley, DE — Alpine, UT (BYU)

Other college transfers

Early Signing Day — December 20, 2023

  • Coleman Bennett, RB — Ft. Lauderdale, FL (Bucknell)
  • Spencer Cassell, OL — Hingham, MA (Harvard)
  • Charlie Looes, DL — Hillsdale, NJ (Dartmouth)

National Signing Day — February 7, 2024

  • Blaise Tita, LB — Houston, TX (Kilgore College)

High school recruits

Early Signing Day — December 20, 2023

  • Kaleb Blanton, LB — Manvel, TX (Manvel)
  • Owen Carter, WR — Cypress, TX (Cy-Fair)
  • Drew Devillier, QB — Plano, TX (East)
  • Ephraim Dotson, CB — Missouri City, TX (Hightower)
  • Bailey Fletcher, CB — San Antonio, TX (Reagan)
  • Lane Jeffcoat, OL — Centerton, AR (Bentonville West)
  • Luke Miller, OL — Round Rock, TX (Round Rock)
  • Rhys Phillips, TE — Katy, TX (Tompkins)

National Signing Day — February 7, 2024

  • Taji Atkins, RB — Houston, TX (Westfield)
  • Tyler Day, LB — Houston, TX (St. Thomas)
  • Lavonte Johnson, S — Houston, TX (North Shore)
  • Trey Kibbles, RB — Silsbee, TX (Silsbee)
  • Jabari McAlmont, OL — Houston, TX (Klein Cain)
  • Cade McMillan, DB — Houston, TX (Phillips Exeter Academy)
  • Jackson Ranucci, WR — Houston, TX (Episcopal)
  • Cullen Witt, OL — Houston, TX (Episcopal)

Recruiting mechanisms

Rice displayed the Bayou Bucket during recruiting visits after registering its first win over crosstown rival Houston since 2010.
Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

At this time last year, Rice was still operating as a lame duck member of Conference USA, anticipating its move to the American Athletic Conference on July 1, 2023. The Owls not only have a season of AAC experience under their belt, but they have a season of AAC success under their belt. Rice commenced its new conference affiliation with fireworks, reaching six wins for the first time since 2014 and faring .500 in league play — all while playing a tougher slate than it did in its previous league. AAC membership has certainly opened doors for the Owls when it comes to recruiting.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to say (our recruiting strategy) has shifted, but the people we can get in a conversation with might be even better,” Bloomgren said. “That’s true from top to bottom of this class. I don’t know if we could have got in these conversations before the AAC. One of our associate ADs made a statement in one of our coaches’ meetings that in our first five years here, we played in 10 games on national TV. I believe counting the bowl game this year, we played in nine games on national TV. You just talk about how much more cache that is, playing teams that people know, that just makes us a lot more attractive to a recruit.”

Despite reveling in its new AAC life, Rice’s most heated rivalry still resides outside of the conference. Nearly every season, the Owls compete with the Houston Cougars for the Bayou Bucket to claim supremacy of the nation’s fourth-largest city. It’s not only a rivalry on the gridiron between the schools — which are the second-closest in proximity among the entire FBS, only trailing Georgia State and Georgia Tech — but it’s also a rivalry in the recruiting sphere. Rice, which saw seven of its eight National Signing Day recruits hail from Houston, utilizes the rivalry as a pitch to local recruits — especially after last September when the Owls took home the Bayou Bucket for the first time in 13 years.

“That’s certainly one of the first things (recruits) saw when they came into our building on the recruiting visit was the Bayou Bucket,” Bloomgren said. “We talked about how ugly and beautiful it was at the same time. I think just seeing that and seeing clips on the highlight film of us doing pretty good things against that team across town, that means a lot.”

Highest-rated recruit in history

NCAA Football: Rice at Southern Mississippi
Prior to Lavonte Johnson, Rice’s highest-rated recruit in history was Gabe Taylor from the 2020 class, who remains on the roster for 2024.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In the last three seasons, Mike Bloomgren hauled in the three highest-rated recruiting classes in Rice history. And logically, with better classes comes better recruits. The Owls landed their highest-rated recruit in the ratings era on National Signing Day, officially signing 3-star safety Lavonte Johnson from North Shore High School in Houston. A certain connection on Rice’s staff was instrumental in the recruitment of Johnson — a historical commitment for the Owls.

“I can say one name and that’ll make sense to anybody else who follows high school football, and that’s (Rice linebackers coach) John Kay,” Bloomgren said on the process of recruiting Johnson. “Although John (who coached nine seasons at North Shore before joining Rice’s staff in 2023) didn’t coach him at North Shore, John coached his dad. His dad worked on John’s staff for a time, so the relationship was thick. The trust was thick.”

Johnson held offers from at least 15 FBS programs, ranging from the Big 12 to the Big Ten to the SEC. He was the 70th-ranked safety in the 2024 class per 247Sports and the 110th-ranked player in the state of Texas — one of the renowned recruiting hotbeds. Johnson finished his senior season with 62 tackles, two sacks, and 14 passes defended, warranting second team all-district honors for the 6’2”, 180 pound safety.

“We just got him here and got a chance to get him on campus and show him all the things we can do for him on and off the field,” Bloomgren said. “You have no chance at a kid like that without these relationships.”

Previously, Rice’s highest-rated recruit was safety Gabe Taylor, who signed in the 2020 class from Miami, FL. Although he participated in senior day festivities in November, Taylor is expected to prolong his college career and return for the 2024 season, where he can play alongside and mentor Johnson at the position.

Developing and building organically

NCAA Football: Temple at Rutgers
Former Temple QB E.J. Warner is one of just three FBS transfers Rice added in the 2024 recruiting cycle.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

College football continues to change rapidly in all facets, whether that’s the increased utilization of the transfer portal, the introduction of NIL, conference realignment, or the sport’s postseason structure. All of these changes certainly impact program-building and recruiting, and coaches must adapt with the times and adopt new strategies to construct their rosters.

There are different ways to build winning programs. For instance, Clemson rarely brings in transfers, yet Dabo Swinney has built a team that perennially competes for ACC championships and has landed in the final AP Top 20 in the 12 consecutive seasons. On the contrary, Texas State qualified for its first bowl game in history last December under first-year head coach G.J. Kinne, who built nearly an entire depth chart from the transfer portal. Different methods work for different coaches, and while most programs are a happy medium, Rice’s 2024 recruiting strategy leans more toward the Clemson side of the spectrum.

“I remember (former Stanford head coach) David Shaw’s daddy Willie Shaw telling me, ‘Bloom, college football is a junior and senior sport. When you can get old with those guys, get your experiences, the things you’ve taught, and the things that are important to your program-building, then you have the chance to do some really cool things,’” Bloomgren said.

Transfers have been an important component of Rice’s recent rise to bowl eligibility, as notable figures like Luke McCaffrey and JT Daniels took their talents from elsewhere to Houston, TX. But in the 2024 class, the Owls only added three FBS transfers and opted to primarily build through high school recruiting.

The primary reason for the lack of transfers added in the 2024 cycle — Rice lost fewer transfers than any FBS team this offseason. Starting defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll, who committed to Texas Tech, is the only Rice player who took the field in 2023 headed elsewhere for the 2024 season.

“It’s not a huge transfer laden class,” Bloomgren said. “That’s a factor of our culture and these kids loving each other and wanting to stay here. It’s a factor of us having one kid from last year’s team entering the portal — the least in America. I guess if we had lost 10, we probably would have taken 10 more transfers and we would have certainly taken more from the FBS level.”

When Rice takes the field Aug. 31 for its 2024 opener against Sam Houston, the program doesn’t require many transfers to assume starting roles. The Owls already have an established lineup, returning more production than almost any team in the FBS.

“We return 10 starters on defense and eight on offense,” Bloomgren said. “Within that number of 10 starters on defense, we also return 21 of our top 22. I’ve never been a part of anything like that at the pro level, high school level, college level, ever. Those are really exciting things, but at the end of the day, that’s why we didn’t have as many FBS transfers.”