Rice football rebuilt its offense during the offseason, bulking up the receiving corps and finding a playmaker in Isaiah Esdale.
After playing a part-time role at West Virginia before he arrived in Houston, Isaiah Esdale wanted to make his final season count. “I want to break records,” he said with a serious smile upon his arrival. While the big records might not have fallen, Esdale carved out his portion of history and earned his spot as our 2022 Rice Football Offensive Newcomer of the Year.
Like his play, Esdale’s path to Houston was an extremely positive surprise. The team had a loaded wide receiver depth chart and didn’t appear to be in the market to add another pass catcher. Then he entered the Transfer Portal and Rice couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring him in.
On the day he committed to come to Rice, head coach Mike Bloomgren described him as a guy “that absolutely made 50/50 balls more like 80/20 balls.” Wide receivers coach Mike Kershaw joked that he didn’t know how he was going to get so many different receivers on the field at the same time, but Esdale would make plays. Esdale was clearly a talented player, but where would he fit in this offense?
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Then two things happened. Injuries cropped up in the receiver room, knocking out fellow transfer Sam Crawford for the season as well as the loss of Cedric Patterson going for an extended period of time, too. While the room was thinning out, Esdale was producing. He flashed in practice, making plays at all levels of the field.
It was crystal clear by the midpoint of fall camp that he had earned a spot on the field. How big that role would become would come down to him.
Esdale would go on to catch 42 passes as a Rice Owl. 25 of them went for a first down. 13 of them were for 15+ yards or longer. He was a chain mover and a big-play maker, coming through in clutch moments time and time again. While Bradley Rozner and Luke McCaffrey were the wideouts that most often found paydirt and racked up the yards, Esdale’s contribution was clutchness.
“When you need a big catch, when you need a big play, he’s coming through,” Bloomgren said. “He makes things look easy, including those big-time catches in big-time situations.”
And even more impressive still, Esdale accounted for almost a third of that production with an injured hand. The veteran wideout got hurt at the beginning of the Western Kentucky game and would wear a split on one finger during practice for the next two weeks. One would have never been able to tell by watching his play on Saturdays.
“Isaiah’s not going to be bothered by this stuff. Isaiah is going to be fine,” Bloomgren said following the Western Kentucky game in which Esdale was banged up. “I don’t think anything is going to keep him from playing.”
Bloomgren would be right. Esdale finished the season and kept producing. After battling through injuries midseason that limited his practice time during the week, Esdale persevered and continued to show tremendous toughness, catching his only two touchdowns as an Owl in the Lending Tree Bowl, both of which came on plays of, you guessed it, 25+ yards. Rice football doesn’t get to where it did this season without his contributions.
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