First-year wide receiver Luke McCaffrey proved to be a game-changer at his new position and was a clear pick for our 2022 Rice Football Offensive Player of the Year.
More than a year ago, amidst introductions of another decorated 2022 Rice football recruiting class, head coach Mike Bloomgren dropped one not-so-subtle nugget regarding one of her current players. Luke McCaffrey, brought to campus to play quarterback, would be playing wide receiver going forward. “It was Luke’s idea,” Bloomgren shared
By the time spring practice came around a few months later, McCaffrey seemed to be taking to the new position like a fish to water. His route running was smooth. His cuts were crisp. And if all else failed, he could beat most every defensive back that lined up against him in a footrace.
“Quarterback was something I loved,” McCaffrey admitted. “But I’m so happy I made the switch.”
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Wide receivers coach Mike Kershaw was just as happy about the switch. It didn’t take more than a few practices in the spring to understand the possibilities McCaffrey as a receiver would bring to the Rice offense. “He’s that puzzle piece that has a lot of different prongs to it. The creativity you can come up with him is endless,” Kershaw said. “He will not stand in one spot.”
Kershaw’s prediction would come true in the months ahead. McCaffrey hauled in nine passes for 46 yards in his first two contests before exploding for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 10 receptions in his third game playing the position. He followed that up with a seven-catch, 121-yard and one-touchdown game the week following against Houston.
As it weren’t clear enough at that moment, McCaffrey was proving to be even more lethal as a pass catcher in space than he was with the ball in his hands under center but even he would testify that his experience as a quarterback helped him fully understand this other side of the offense.
Offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo, who watched the entire development process unfold before his eyes, was amazed. “I do think he’s special,” he said of the Owls’ newfound pass-catching weapon.
McCaffrey would go into the bye week averaging 72.2 yards per game and just shy of a touchdown per contest, with a few near-misses scattered in between. No Rice receiver would average more yards per game during the season than McCaffrey did during that stretch, and it was just the beginning of his career as a wideout.
“He’s playing well and a lot of people will forget, this is his first year playing receiver,” Kershaw mentioned during the Owls’ bye week. “He’s played five games at the position. He’s still learning.”
After a quiet game for the Rice offense against Florida Atlantic, McCaffrey exploded the following weekend against Louisiana Tech. He amassed 202 all-purpose yards, catching 10 passes with two scores through the air and another on the ground. He was unstoppable. It was his third 100-yard receiving game in seven tries.
McCaffrey would score again the following week against Charlotte but left the next contest against UTEP early with an ankle injury. That would essentially sideline him for the remainder of the regular season, one single snap against Western Kentucky notwithstanding.
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Through the first nine games that McCaffrey was able to start, Rice was 5-4. They would lose the final four contests, with McCaffrey playing in just the bowl game against Southern Miss. 100 percent or not, he still posted seven receptions (all other Rice receivers had eight combined) and 67 yards.
It would be hyperbole to call McCaffrey the silver bullet, but there was no denying he made the Rice football offense work. Three of the Owls’ five worse scoring outputs of the season came without him in the lineup (at WKU, vs UTSA, at North Texas).
The emergence of McCaffrey coincided with an offensive awakening that never seemed to be fully realized. Rice football is better with McCaffrey on the field and the Owls are fortunate he’s got more eligibility to spend catching footballs at South Main.
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