This offseason Mike Bloomgren finally landed quarterback JT Daniels. The veteran quarterback delivered and became the 2023 Rice Football Team MVP.
It’s not every day national news media are buzzing about the latest happenings on South Main, but that was certainly the case when word broke last winter that long-traveled quarterback JT Daniels was headed to Rice. Expectations were high. Daniels delivered. He’s our 2023 Rice Football Team MVP.
On that day, Bloomgren stepped to the podium and explained the process that allowed the two sides to come together, after almost a decade of attempts from Bloomgren himself to get Daniels onto his team.
Bloomgren started recruiting Daniels in high school, while Bloomgren was on staff at Stanford, and followed every step of his college football journey. From USC to Georgia to West Virginia and, finally, to Rice.
“I’ve known him forever and have wanted to coach him forever,” Bloomgren said then. “As he and I are saying now, the fourth time’s the charm. I’m just really glad it’s working out.”
The pairing, alongside offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo, proved to be lightning in a bottle. Following seasons of a dogmatic commitment to the running game, the Owls leaned fully into an aerial attack in 2023 with Daniels at the center.
Take the ECU game, for example. Rice averaged less than two yards per carry, running the ball just 20 times. They turned to Daniels to air it out, tossing 32 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns.
“I really don’t care about the word balance in the context that I used to when I was trying to manage the game and shorten the game. Now I feel like we can score points,” Bloomgren said after that game. “I don’t really care how we do it, how we move the sticks and end up in the zone right now.”
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Move the sticks, Rice did. The Owls led the American Conference — a conference with a slew of talented quarterbacks — in passing while Daniels was on the field as Daniels climbed program leaderboards with each successive feat. He became the first Rice quarterback in program history to throw for 400+ yards twice in a single season, and tossed a career-best 21 touchdowns, which were fourth all-time in a single season at Rice.
It wasn’t just volume that powered Daniels up the charts, though, it was an unbelievable playmaking ability that you had to see to believe. Wide receiver JoVoni Johnson said it best. “It feels like he’s Houdini. Whenever he’s put in really tough situations, he always makes a play or finds something, somewhere on the field,” Johnson mused. “He makes all the plays he’s supposed to make, but when things break down and he has to make a split-second decision, he’s always finding something positive on the field.”
Every week, Daniels dazzled. From off-scheduled heaves down the field to laser-lined balls put into pockets with defenders on either side, no throw was too much for Daniels. He made them all. His prowess was so stunning that it almost became a running joke among his pass-catchers.
“I wasn’t even expecting the ball on the play I scored on. They were literally calling out my route while I’m sitting there,” freshman receiver Landon Ransom said, recalling his touchdown grab against Tulsa. “He can put the ball anywhere. I’m never surprised. That’s why I always run my routes to full potential because he can put it anywhere that he wants to, whenever.”
Injury would prove to be the only way to slow down Daniels’ dealing. He suffered an ankle injury that forced him out of the end of the USF game, a game many onlookers contend Rice could have won had they had Daniels down the stretch.
Playing on essentially one leg with no practice the following week, Daniels led Rice football to victory over ECU. Afterward, when asked about the injury to his leg, Daniels joked he spent a good portion of the game “basically trying not to use it.”
Without the luxury of rest, Daniels and the Owls marched on. He led Rice to a primetime win over Tulsa and nearly knocked off Tulane at home the following weekend, falling by two points. His season would come to a premature end the following weekend when he suffered a blow to the head against SMU, a hit that would end his playing career once and for all.
Daniels would not play for Rice football again after that game, suffering a concussion that would eventually lead doctors to recommend he medically retire from the sport. Even still, Daniels’ productivity and impact in nine games is hard to understate.
Daniels led a run-first team, with an explosive back in Dean Connors, to the top of the AAC leaderboard in passing. He took a team that hadn’t beaten crosstown rival Houston in 12 years to a thrilling overtime victory, the only Power 5 win by an AAC program in the regular season. Lastly, with Daniels leading the charge, Rice football reached six wins and a bowl game, their second-consecutive postseason trip.
“He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever coached,” Tuiasosopo declared after the regular season. “It would have been fun to have a fun version of him healthy. You know? What could have been?”
For better or worse, that will be the question that lingers from Daniels’ time with Rice football. He took the Owls to new heights, but how much higher could this program have gone had Daniels been able to finish the season healthy?
That question will never be answered, but the evidence Daniels delivered in his healthy games will be remembered by Rice football fans for decades to come. He was special.
“Everyone believed,” Tuiasosopo said. “When they see this guy perform, they’re like, ‘We have have a chance.’ And that’s exciting. ”
* Photo Credit: Maria Lysaker *
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