Rice football enters the 2022 season with a revamped roster and high expectations. Are outsiders sleeping on the Owls this year?
Saturday’s Rice football media day served as another touchpoint in the ever-quickening run up to the 2022 season. Beyond the encouraging sentiments and discussions of schemes and depth charts, the gathering served as a reintroduction to a host of Rice players that wasn’t on the field in the same capacity last season.
Last September, TJ McMahon was the scout team quarterback. Now he’s vying for the starting job. Luke McCaffrey threw passes; now he’s catching them, alongside Bradley Rozner who has missed essentially the past two seasons with injuries. Safety George Nyakwol, who hasn’t played in a conference game since 2019, was there as well.
And while these are familiar faces to Rice fans, few outside of South Main have any real level of appreciation for what they could become on the field in 2022.
Nyakwol, typically a soft-spoken leader in years past, wasn’t bashful when given the opportunity to inform the world what the Owls were truly capable of becoming this season.
“I definitely think we’re underrated.” Nyakwol declared. “And this year, I think people will notice us. When we’re in a dogfight and we come out on top, people are going to notice because the guys we’ve had before are more experienced and older, wiser, smarter, faster and stronger”
Optimism always abounds in the preseason, but Nyakwol stressed this team isn’t relying on individuals improving their own games, although that would certainly be a component of his team’s growth. No, instead Rice was finally getting all of their weapons back on the field at the same time.
“We’re pretty much just reloading,” he surmised.
Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren has taken notice of Nyakwol’s increased outspokenness. “He’s become an awesome leader. He’s been more vocal than he’s ever been,” Bloomgren said. “It’s still not in his comfort zone to be rah-rah but he is coaching and leading that group back there. And it’s been awesome for me to see.”
Bloomgren can see the growth. Nyakwol sees how talented his peers are around him. The roster on a whole is, objectively, as talented as it’s been in Bloomgren’s tenure. Rice football hasn’t accomplished what they’ve hoped to on the field just yet, but they seem to be embracing their underdog role with vigor.
When asked about the program’s perception from outsiders, McCaffrey — now a wide receiver — just grinned. “I don’t know if [being underrated is] a bad thing. Hopefully, if it’s a well-kept secret, we can shock some people.”
Nyakwol offered a more emphatic tone. “This is the year, believe me. I can see it in the eyes of our guys. I can see through the attention to detail that we’ve had and the focus that we’ve had,” he declared. “It’s good to be back.”
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