A veteran leader and one of the most consistent players on the roster, defensive lineman Elijah Garcia is our 2021 Rice Football Defensive Player of the Year.
The pandemic altered everyday life as we know it with ripple effects spreading far past the gridiron. In 2020, there were real questions about whether or not the games would be played. One year later, the question turned to who’d be available to play. Granted an extra year of eligibility by the unprecedented COVID year, defensive lineman Elijah Garcia is our 2021 Rice Football Defensive Player of the Year
There was a time when Garcia didn’t believe he’d still be on campus in the fall of 2021. Whatever doubts had lingered were erased midway through the 2020 campaign when Rice upset Marshall on the road behind a stellar defensive effort. Garcia had four tackles and a pass deflection in that game, the moment he would go on to describe made his decision to return for one more season “a no brainer.”
When it was clear he’d be back on campus, the focus returned to getting better. That drive had always been a part of what made Garcia tick, dating back to his arrival on campus. When he arrived, there were stalwarts like Zach Abercrumbia blocking his path to playing time. Then De’Braylon Carroll and Izeya Floyd both arrived in the 2019 recruiting class. If Garcia wanted to see the field, he’d have to earn it. He did.
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Defensive line coach Cedric Calhoun put Garcia on notice when Carroll and Floyd arrived. Garcia responded by winning the starting job and leading all interior linemen with 50 tackles. He progressed to finishing second on the team in tackles in 2020 and one-upped that mark this season, racking up a team-best 67 tackles as well as career highs in sacks (five), quarterback hits (nine) and total pressures (33).
Those gaudy numbers didn’t come as a surprise to those who knew Garcia best. In the lead-up to the season, defensive coordinator Bryan Smith said Garcia was “just scratching the surface” of how good he could become.
His play spoke for itself, but Garcia did a fair amount of talking, too. Although he wasn’t named one of the team captains during the preseason, Garcia was the man asked to take the mic frequently during postgame press conferences. On those hard nights, he showed composure and poise. He was a leader, on and off the field.
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“In life, things are not always going to go your way, but what matters is the fight you have in you,” Garcia said following the loss to Western Kentucky that officially took six-wins and a bowl berth off the table. He’d recovered a fumble and registered six tackles during the contest. Another strong showing regardless of what the final box score reflected.
The stat sheets don’t offend do many favors to players of Garcia’s position. They do so much more to impact games than making tackles. Forcing double teams, opening up gaps for teammates to get pressure are as important to a team as tallying sacks of one’s own. Garcia had always been an asset in the former skills, this year he added the numbers, too.
Garcia is off to test the professional waters now, but that’s not that surprising. NFL scouts have been in and out of practices throughout the fall watching Garcia go through his paces.
If the growth he’s exhibited throughout his collegiate career is any indication, those scouts might not have seen the best version of Garcia that exists quite yet. He’s always had one more gear. His work on the field this season earned him our 2021 Rice Football Defensive Player of the Year honors. And the best might still be yet to come.