The Rice Football offense grew a lot over the course of six weeks. Here are five things we learned from the unit this spring.
The offense had its moments in scattered practices throughout Rice football spring practices but always seemed to struggle in game-like situations. They finally broke through with a big spring game. Who stood out the most and what did we learn from this unit as a whole during the spring?
Get Caught Up
- Rice Football Spring Notebook 1 – Introductions
- Rice Football Spring Notebook 2 – Depth Chart
- Rice Football Spring Notebook Q&A – Luke McCaffrey, WR
- Rice Football Spring Notebook 3 – Scrimmage 1
- Rice Football Spring Notebook 4 – Offense bounces back
- Rice Football Spring Notebook 5 – Scrimmage 2
- Rice Football Spring Notebook 6 – Running backs ramp up
- Rice Football Spring Notebook 7 – Spring Game Takeaways
- Rice Football Spring Notebook – Defense Takeaways
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1. Some QB Clarity
There will be a day when Rice football has solved its quarterback dilemmas. It just won’t be this day. To be fair, there wasn’t a single thing either quarterback could have done on the field during the spring game that would have given head coach Mike Bloomgren enough confidence in the moment to declare a victor in the two-horse battle, especially not after they’d each had up and down days throughout the spring. But there’s a lot of time between now and August.
While I do still expect there to be an open competition when fall camp begins, I do believe Rice got what it wanted out of the quarterback position during the spring, namely this: proof that TJ McMahon can do it. That’s not to say Green is out of the running — he’s risen from the back end of a competition multiple times in his career thus far — but it does validate any concerns regarding McMahon’s ability.
Following McMahon’s comeback victory at the end of the 2021 season, one Rice staff member told me point blank that McMahon should be the starter in 2022. I mulled it over, and my only real concern at that point was McMahon’s proclivity for risk taking. It was his interception that put the Owls in the two-score deficit against Louisiana Tech to begin with, necessitating the miraculous comeback.
But McMahon proved me wrong this spring, and that’s a good thing. I labeled him a “gunslinger”, McMahon offered his rebuttal after the Spring Game.
“Some people want to label me a gunslinger, I take that with pride. I can make some good throws,” McMahon said, noting the area he believed he’d grown the most this spring was decision making. “Not forcing it and then just overall, understand the whole concept so I can go through my progression to get us where we need to be and take care of the football and be consistent.”
McMahon looked more composed in the Spring Game. He didn’t make any wild throws, didn’t turn the ball over and accounted for two of the Owls’ three touchdowns.
All of that is to reinforce that I believe the Rice coaching staff thinks they have two bonafide options at the position. After further scrutiny this spring, McMahon can ball. The next step will be making a decision, most likely in fall camp, and sticking with it.
2. Gamebreaker players identified
When he initially arrived on campus, I wrote Luke McCaffrey had ” the potential to revolutionize the Rice offense.” At the time, it was assumed that would come from the quarterback position. But the shift to wide receiver did not diminish McCaffrey’s innate athletic abilities. No, rather it may have amplified his ability to make a difference on the field for the Owls this season.
The subtraction of Jake Bailey from the offense this spring thrust the starting slot role into his hands and he ran with it. McCaffrey was targeted downfield. He caught the ball on screens. He even registered a traditional carry from the backfield during the spring game itself. And that’s not considering what sort of wildcat packages Rice might employ with him on the field this fall.
McCaffrey will be among the more dynamic athletes on the field in most games he suits up for the Owls, especially against conference foes. He’s worth scheming touches for and all indications thus far seem to point to him being fed the ball early and often.
Alongside McCaffrey, Dean Connors flashed explosive plays throughout the spring. He consistently produced in scrimmage situations and gained yards against the first-team defense.
3. Offensive line rounding into form
The offensive line was never supposed to be a problem for Rice when they hired Bloomgren, known for his experience coaching in the trenches. Injuries and rotating combinations of starting lineups have hindered consistency throughout his time at Rice, but eventually, this part of the offense is supposed to work. The spring produced some early inklings that the Owls might have something cooking up front.
Left tackle Clay Servin was described by position coach Sanders Davis as “playing the best football — by far — that he’s ever played in his life,” a bold superlative, even for the spring. Shea Baker and Isaac Klarkwoski return as consistent cogs in the interior of the line.
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Braedon Nutter moves back to guard after spending last season as the fill-in center. Newcomer Ethan Onianwa held the starting right tackle job from wire to wire.
Barring injury, those are the five. And that’s a definitive statement. Fall camp won’t be spent seeking to find an answer or shuffling pieces, it’ll be aimed at finding the consistency they displayed in the alter portions of the spring game. That finale was by far their best outing of camp.
4. Creativity on offense
Sometimes the realities of incremental experience can be lost in the shuffle of depth charts and accolades. It was a mid-spring conversation with offensive coordinator Marque Tuiasopopo that helped reorient the lens through which I looked at the Rice offense. “It’s good to be in year two,” coach Tui said then. “There’s a better understanding of the expectations and the standards and [we’re] seeing guys take that next step.'”
Tui noted the improvement can be seen during practice itself and statistically, seeing things like completion percentage with the quarterbacks rise year over year.
There were other tidbits along the way that hinted at more structural shifts. The deployment of McCaffrey in so many various ways was one. Feedback from the staff from their self-scouting sessions following the 2021 season. There were tactical, positional-level shifts instilled into the offense that was different from the fall — one notable shift, less tight ends in favor of more wide receivers.
It won’t mean much if we see more of the same come August. But six weeks of more free-flowing offensive movement with more explosive plays and an encouraging spring game serve as bread crumbs toward a brighter offensive future.
5. Getting the most from the backfield
Before watching Dean Connors run, I had serious doubts regarding the running back room. It wasn’t so much a lack of faith in any of the individual players — it was their injuries. Ari Broussard had some great practices, but he was unable to finish the spring after suffering an injury toward the end of camp. Cam Montgomery started the spring but missed the spring game with injury as well.
That’s not the first time either of those players has been banged up and forced to miss time in their Rice careers. It’s just the reality of the position.
That left Connors and Juma Otoviano to carry the load. Had this been the fall, it would have spelled desperation for an offense intent on running the football to have just two healthy running backs available.
Through all the churn, Connors was fantastic. He admitted the adjustment to the Rice-sized playbook was challenging, as was the lead from junior college to this level of academics. The spring was a true adjustment period for him, both off and on the field, and he passed with flying colors.
When they’re all healthy, the synergies between those four backs were hard to ignore. Montgomery adds an element of speed none of the others have to his degree. Broussard is the bruiser. Connors can slash through bodies and come out the other side. Juma runs with energy.
If they can stay healthy, Rice will be able to mix and match to their liking. That’s something they haven’t really had the luxury to do in recent history.
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