From walk-on linebacker to bellcow back, Ari Broussard saw his opportunity and seized it, earning the 2021 Rice Football Rising Star award.
Just about every college football team across the country has walk-ons, players that don’t have an athletics scholarship but find their way onto the roster for one reason or another. In today’s recruiting landscape, some are actually recruited, identified and sought out even though they might not make the cut for the initial count of 25 scholarships that are divvied out annually.
Rice football is no different in that respect. They target non-scholarship players, too, seeking every was possible to up the level of talent on their roster.
But as is often the case with the Owls, there are some uniquenesses to how walk-on players find their way onto the roster. Most notably, they have to apply to the university and be accepted on their own merit first. Often players of interest are directed to the applications process, then upon admission, granted spots on the roster.
Ari Broussard took a slightly different route. The former high school running back was lightly recruited by other schools and applied to Rice on his own. It was after he was accepted that he reached out to the football staff to see about walking onto the roster. He was the initiator, taking the onus on himself to get to where he wanted to be.
With depth at the running back position and several scholarship players ahead of Broussard on the pecking order, he was asked to play linebacker. Broussard had played some on that side of the ball in high school, and although he preferred toting the rock to tackling, he was eager to help out wherever he could.
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In the spring of 2019, Broussard was asked to help the team out by switching back to running back, where the Owls were light in numbers. He responded with a breakthrough performance in the spring game, capped off by the news he had earned a scholarship following the game.
As fulfilling as that moment was, there would be no immediate encore. Injuries and a suddenly more crowded running back room would every Broussard back to special teams for the 2020 season. That was expected to be his primary area contribution again in 2021, but this time fate had other plans.
Rice football entered the season with plenty of uncertainty in the backfield. Jordan Myers had converted from tight end to halfback in the spring. Freshman signee Christian Francisco was injured late in camp, bumping Juma Otoviano back to scout team duties. That left Broussard, Khalan Griffin and utility man Cameron Montgomery as the top options behind Myers in the backfield.
Myers was productive, but was hurt down the stretch, forcing his role to be scaled back significantly. Griffin ran hard, but lacked explosiveness and surehandedness and consequently fell out of favor on offense. It was finally Broussard time.
Broussard carried the ball 10 times for 61 yards against UTSA. He added 16 carries for 65 yards a week later at UAB. Then he exploded for 186 yards and his first two collegiate touchdowns against Charlotte.
“I told the guys at halftime he was running like a man possessed, ” head coach Mike Bloomgren said of Broussard’s breakthrough game. “Really proud of him. He ended the game averaging 9.3 (yards per carry) and had some big-time runs for us in there.”
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This time he didn’t return to the shadows. Even though he was banged up near the end of that game, he returned the next week to carry the ball 15 times against Western Kentucky, leading the Rice backfield in carries. He’d do the same two weeks later against Louisiana Tech. Whether he was feeling 100 percent or hobbled, Broussard proved to be a true bellcow running back that Rice football could rely on.
From walk-on, to ‘ol reliable, Ari Broussard exemplified a feelgood story, but made sure the heartwarming moments were filled with plenty of productivity. He earned his spot on offense and made the most of it.
Rice football will restock the running back room this offseason. They’ve already received a pledge from a junior college back and could be on the lookout for others, if the right fit materializes. Broussard is no strange to being counted out. He’s been at the bottom of the depth chart before, but now he’s proven he belongs on the field.
Broussard will be ready to go this spring, touting the rock like he always has. But his outlook for the fall will be different. Regardless of what happens next, it feels like Broussard has carved out a role for himself going forward. Our 2021 Rice Football Rising Star isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.