Returners Sean Fresch and Juma Otoviano were the brightest spots on special teams and our pick for Rice Football Special Teams Players of the year.
Encouraging moments from the Rice football special teams unit were few and far between this season. After ranking near the top of the nation in special teams efficiency over the early years of Mike Bloomgren’s tenure, the Owls hit a rough patch. The kicking game struggled. The punt team was more or less just okay. Coverage was solid, but it was the return game that created the biggest sparks.
Traditionally, The Roost’s Rice Football Special Teams Player of the Year has been reserved for one standout. Jack Fox, Garrett Grammer and Charlie Mendes were previous honorees. This year, we’ve expanded the award to recognize two individuals, Sean Fresch and Juma Otoviano, who each provided game-changing sparks that set Rice up for success and led to Rice wins.
First, Fresch, who opened the season as the leading punt return man for Rice and was one of the most effective specialists Rice has had in that space in a decade. Fresch returned 10 punts this year for 99 yards, averaging 9.9 yards per return. That exceeded the best marks of Austin Trammell, a staple at the punt return spot for Rice in recent years.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2011 when Mario Hull. who returned 16 punts for 163 yards, posted a better average per return (10.2) than Fresch did this season.
The consistent ability to gain yardage on returns was encouraging, but Fresch flashed a growing maturity in his understanding of when not to return kicks, too. He developed a knack for luring defenders away from balls booted toward the endzone, feigning a fair catch as the punt rolled harmlessly past the endline for a touchback.
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It was Fresch’s final return of the 2021 Rice football season that stands out the most. Trailing Louisiana Tech 31-28, Fresch stood at the Rice 34-yard line to receive a booming kick from Tech’s Cesar Barajas. Fresch made the first guy miss and turned on the jets, racing past a sea of Bulldogs to the Louisiana Tech 18-yard line, for a 48-yard return. Rice would score the game-winning touchdown four plays later.
“We’re been waiting for one of those the whole season. pretty much.” Fresch said. “I made the first couple of guys miss and then I had to just follow behind my blockers at that point. It just gets easier after you make the first couple of guys miss. It was just open grass from there.”
Down to their fourth quarterback of the year, with less than 90 seconds on the clock, the short field provided by Fresch and the return game was absolutely crucial to the come-from-behind victory.
Fresch also played a role on kick-off returns, averaging 22.6 yards per return. He was joined by Juma Otoviano, who averaged 22.4 yards per return. That tandem combined for 28 of the 30 kick returns Rice had this season. It was on a kick-off return where Otoviano delivered his defining moment.
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Otoviano had fallen down the running back depth chart this season and taken over scout team duties with an injury to freshman running back Christian Francisco. He had one carry and zero returns through the Owls’ first six games of the season. But his hard work behind the scenes had been noticed. That’s why he was the man who stood on the edge of the endzone and received the opening kickoff at UAB.
Otoviano reached up, secured the ball and took off. He would finally be brought down 50 yards later right at the midfield stripe. That burst sparked an eruption on the Rice bench and spurred the offense onto a 50-yard scoring drive to put Rice in front of the defending conference champions.
Starting fast was incredibly important for Rice football in 2021. More often than not, when they’d fallen behind, it signaled another loss. That’s part of what made this return so impactful. It put Rice in the driver’s seat for their most impressive win of the year. Otoviano became a mainstay on kick returns from that point onward.