Rice football has a quarterback battle on its hands between Wiley Green and newcomer Luke McCaffrey. Here’s where things stand halfway through fall camp.
Through 10 practices, the battle for the 2021 Rice football starting quarterback position remains in a dead heat. For the most part, Wiley Green will get the first reps with the starters, ceding to Luke McCaffrey for the second portion of any particular set of drills. They’re 1A and 1B thus far. After talking with several coaches and players, here’s where I believe things stand right now.
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Rice football kicks off against Arkansas on Sept. 4, less than three weeks away. With one remaining scrimmage between the Owls and their first game, one would think landing on a starting quarterback would be near the top of the priority list for head coach Mike Bloomgren and his staff. While that might be true, Bloomgren has made it crystal clear he’s not going to rush the process.
“I don’t feel a need to call a winner anytime soon,” he said following the first scrimmage on Saturday. “I’d rather it not drag into game week and I’d rather it not drag into the third week [of camp], if we can help it.”
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In an ideal world, picking a starter following the second scrimmage, slated for this Saturday, August 21, would pass Bloomgren’s final “rather not” test, before the third week of practices kick off next Monday. That said, Bloomgren has waited much longer to tab his starting quarterback in the past, so a Saturday decision is by no means written in stone. Still, one would hope a frontrunner emerges by then.
Given that backdrop, here’s how the battle currently stacks up:
Scheme understanding: Edge – Wiley Green
As has been the case in years past, Wiley Green’s comprehension of the system is head and shoulders above the rest of the quarterback room. One assistant coach told me this week Green “knows [the scheme] just as well as the coaches do,” and therefore, “he should feel more comfortable here at practice.”
That’s pretty much where Bloomgren left off following the scrimmage on Saturday. He described Green as “incredibly comfortable in the system” continuing on to say of McCaffrey, “there’s things that Luke does really natural,” hinting more at athletic ability than any schematic principals.
It doesn’t take too much conjecture to draw the conclusion that the battle has reached a similar place to where it’s been in the past. In each of the past two seasons, Green has battled with an incoming transfer for the starting job.
Green initially beat out Tom Stewart in 2019 before injury cost him the starting job for several weeks. Green was only a sophomore at that time and Stewart had never played a down of D1 football, transferring from Harvard during the offseason. When Mike Collins arrived last summer, his arm talent gave him the edge over Green’s scheme understanding. Once again, raw talent seems to be pitted against schematic understanding.
Athletic ability: Edge – Luke McCaffrey
The strongest argument in McCaffrey’s cap is, by far, his athletic talents. During his time at Nebraska, he showcased the ability to literally run circles around Power 5, blue-chip defensive players. He’s rushed for 530 yards so far in his collegiate career and thrown for 608. There’s no question he’s one of the most dynamic ball carriers the Owls have at their disposal. The question is, can he understand the offense and execute it?
From the first few weeks of practice, McCaffrey has shown a tremendous amount of poise with the football. Yes, he’s a natural runner, but he doesn’t look to run at the first sign of trouble. Time and time again he’s found ways to scramble out of the pocket, buy a few more seconds and rifle the ball to an open receiver. He did this on multiple occasions during the first scrimmage.
When he does throw the ball, he’s been accurate. Despite any narratives suggesting he’s purely a rushing threat, McCaffrey’s 64,8 career completion percentage would rank above every other returning passer in Conference USA. He’s demonstrated good ball placement and plenty of zip during practice. From a passing perspective, he has more than enough
One assistant summed it up like this, “[McCaffrey] allows you to be, maybe a bit more creative,” he said. “You can never have too much talent.” Another doubled-down on his rushing prowess, bluntly declaring “Obviously, [McCaffrey] can do more things with his legs, which is always a bonus.”
Where things stand right now
In response to a question about a specific play in Saturday’s scrimmage where McCaffrey beat Treshawn Chamberlain to the edge for a first down, Bloomgren offered this comment. On the surface, it’s very complimentary of McCaffrey and his ability, but digging deeper, it also gives some color as to where the competition could be right now.
“I think Luke’s a special runner,” Bloomgren said, “And the thing we know is we know is Luke can be a special quarterback and that’s what we’re continuing to work towards is getting him comfortable in the West Coast offense where we can execute all of it.”
If Bloomgren believes McCaffrey is already a special runner and that he “can be” a special quarterback, that begs the question of what the gap is between McCaffrey reaching that level, something Bloomgren answers almost immediately in the same sentence: “getting him comfortable in the West Coast offense where he can execute all of it.”
So it’s entirely possible, if not likely, Rice football finds itself in a place it’s been in several fall camps under Bloomgren. Green is the incumbent, of sorts, who knows the x’s and o’s like a book, but the incoming challenger possesses some level of athleticism or quarterback ability he doesn’t.
If the past years have been any indicator, when, not if, the incoming talent has mastered enough to lead the team seems the most likely outcome. What does that mean for Game 1 against Arkansas? We’ll have to wait and see. I’d lean McCaffrey ever so slightly, but the race remains tight today.
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