From JUCO playmaker to bonafide FBS superstar, running back Dean Connors is our 2023 Rice Football Rising Star.
If Dean Connors had gotten tired, he would never tell you so. “The energizer bunny” who “doesn’t have an off switch” as offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo called him, Connors emerged as the newfound star Rice football running back this season. It was quite a long journey from the JUCO ranks to get him to where he is today, but the winding path is finally paying dividends.
In 2020, his senior season of high school was canceled and moved to the spring. He played a shortened season in March and April of 2021, then enrolled at Riverside City Junior College where he played a full 13-game schedule that fall. By the time he arrived at South Main, he’d played 18 football games in the span of six months.
Wary of overworking their new investment, the Rice coaching staff utilized Connors sparingly in his first year with the Owls. He carried the ball just 28 times for 128 yards and scored just one touchdown via a reception, not a carry.
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If Connors was ever frustrated by the slow start to this Rice career, he never showed it. By his own admission, he spent his first season trying to soak in as much football knowledge as possible. “Up until now, I’ve really kind of just went out there and played,” Connors said this past spring. “But I think once I got here I’ve been really expanding my knowledge of the game.”
He stole the show in spring practices and operated as the co-starter with veteran Juma Otoviano through fall camp. When the season arrived, Connors exploded with 145 all-purpose yards in a win over crosstown rival, Houston and scored his first FBS rushing touchdown a week later against Texas Southern.
Still, everyone in the offensive meeting rooms felt like Connors and the offense could do more. Following that game against Texas Southern in which the Owls hung 59 points on their opponent, Connors said he and the offense were “not close at all” to reaching their ceiling.
Connors had runs in that game he wanted to have back. The offensive line was working through some early season challenges. Everything wasn’t lining up just yet. But rather than get discouraged, Connors got to work.
“When Dean Connors does it the way he’s coached, it’s pretty impressive,” running backs coach John Settle said around that time. “Good Dean, is really good.”
Bit by bit, play by play, Connors started to find his groove. He hauled in an 80-yard touchdown reception against USF, the longest play from scrimmage Rice football had this year. A few weeks later, he exploded for 120 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries during a Thursday night primetime game against Tulsa.
“Dean is such a proven commodity to this coaching staff that anything he does in a game now, it doesn’t surprise any of us,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said that night. “We expected that of Dean.”
With the Owls’ backs against the wall, in need of two wins in two weeks to clinch bowl eligibility, Connors delivered a combined 33 carries for 259 yards, the best two-game stretch of his entire career. Rice won both games and made it to the postseason, thanks in large part to Connors’ efforts.
Even with his meteoric rise, Connors remains level-headed and focused on what’s in front of him. A comment he made in the preseason rings true. “I can’t really think about starting or how many carries I’m gonna get,” he said. “I just gotta come here and work like I’m just that JUCO kid that just got here.”
That JUCO kid amassed the most scrimmage yards on the team and the fifth most yards in the American Athletic Conference. A relatively unknown commodity outside of Houston, Connors had officially arrived. He won’t be flying under the radar for much longer.
** Photo Credit: Maria Lysaker **
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