2022 G5 Preview: It's Time For Rice To Show Some Proof Of Concept
The Mike Bloomgren hire was inspired, but it's time for him to prove it.
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Mike Bloomgren is entering his fifth season as the head coach at Rice without much of anything to hang his hat on from the first four. The former Stanford offensive coordinator preached patience when he took the job, establishing with fans and boosters that if Rice wanted to do build the right way, it would require a full-scale overhaul. The Owls wanted to replicate the Stanford model, and that can’t just happen overnight.
He was correct in asking for patience, and Rice has been largely very good about extending it to him. Four years without much of any hot seat talk – from within, at least, because parties without have placed him on their lazy lists for several years now – isn’t entirely unheard of in college football, especially at this level, but it is increasingly rare.
Rice has kept its hands off Bloomgren’s rebuild, allowing him plenty of slack to bring in the kind of players he wants the way that he wants to bring them in, in hopes of building a program that can be sustainable in the long term, like it once was under Bloomgren’s successor, David Bailiff.
Bailiff never truly broke through into consistent bowl contention but he did reach four bowl games, had a pair of 10-win seasons and only fell off at the very end of his 11 years in town. His ideology around building a program and Bloomgren’s are very similar because they came from the same core that many of the academic-first FBS schools tap into.
We’re going to refer to it as “the Phoenix approach,” which is pretty much exactly as it sounds. Teams like this (Duke, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, Vanderbilt, others that I’m forgetting but that should not take offense to that) like a slow build around one really strong class of players. They roll with youth movements and take their lumps until they find that core of talent, and then recruit the next few seasons for complementary pieces above pure talent, winning small at first (bowl game, near .500 territory) and then burning hottest when that core is largely seniors.
Rice did it in 2008 and 2013 under Bailiff, Duke did it in the early 2010s, Northwestern does it every three years, Stanford went to the Rose Bowl in 2015, Vanderbilt had the James Franklin era. You get the idea.
Then, after they’ve burned brightest, these programs immediately die – hence the Phoenix approach – and re-enter the youth movement cycle in a hunt for new talent upon which to build.
That’s all fine and good. It’s a better existence than being perpetually 6-6, which is about what the recruiting bases these programs have access to would yield in a standard building strategy, and it’s worked in the past with Rice. Bloomgren has experience in it and has been very open in the youth movement for four seasons now.
Therein lies the issue. Despite four years of hunting for a foundation, it’s pretty difficult to discern one, and Rice is now only a few years away from a jump up to the AAC, where it could very quickly become a perpetual bottom feeder if it doesn’t generate some quick momentum.
That’s not to say there have been no positive developments within those first four years – Austin Trammell was a consistent bright spot at wide receiver, Brad Rozner had a great season in the same spot in 2019, Michael Collins showed a lot of potential throwing the ball in 2020, the defense, led by linebacker Blaze Alldredge, was legitimately very good in 2019 and 2020 – but none of it has stuck enough to build on.
Collins and Trammell graduated after 2020, Rozner has missed nearly every game of the last two seasons with injuries and Alldredge transferred to Missouri ahead of 2021, which led directly to a collapse on that side of the ball last season. The rolling youth movement needs to create something to build around at some point, and it’s yet to do that entering year five. Last season was supposed to be the leap, building on a shortened 2020 campaign that Rice felt, had it played a full schedule, would have yielded a bowl berth.
Instead, the Owls took a step back in just about every category. The offense remained stagnant as it sorted through three quarterbacks (none of whom showed much) and four running backs, and the defense fell apart after standing on its head for two years. Injuries harmed continuity, big defensive plays disappeared and cracks formed that the best offenses on the schedule were able to exploit.
Now, in year five and on the precipice of a jump to the AAC, questions about the program direction are finally fair to ask. Rice needs tangible improvement – or at least something positive to latch to beyond a few players – or it’ll be breaking in a new coach as it shifts into a new, better league. It’s now or never for Bloomgren’s vision.
The roster is at least pretty friendly for a coach under that kind of pressure. Quarterback Jake Constantine, who threw the majority of Rice’s passes in 2021, is gone. He wasn’t very good and his departure is not a seriously damaging one.
More worrying is the depth behind him stepping into the completion for the starting job, because there’s just not much to be optimistic about here. QB2, Luke McCaffrey, returns but is moving to wide receiver after proving pretty definitively that he does not have the accuracy to play quarterback at this level. He’s a good athlete and will do well there.
Without any incoming transfers at the position, the projected starter here is Wiley Green. He started three games as a true freshman in 2018, seven in 2019 and two in 2021, against Arkansas in the opener and UAB in October.
He’s completed more than 60 percent of his passes in only three of those starts, surpassed 200 yards three times (one game of overlap between those two) and has one more touchdown (11) than he does interception (10) in his career. Rice’s surprising win over UAB this past season is just about the only “good” game he’s had as a starter.
JoVoni Johnson could prove an option here too, though he worked with the wide receivers ahead of the 2021 season and didn’t do much once the games started. He’s listed again as a quarterback this spring and owns a trio of at least marginally impressive moments in 2019 and 2020.
He was 10 of 17 for 97 yards and a touchdown against Marshall in the former and managed to beat the then-No. 15 Thundering Herd a year later as a starter, completing 10 of 14 passes for 84 yards. He was 17-of-23 passing for 139 yards and a touchdown a week later against UAB. He’s a capable runner and seems to be at least kind of capable of playing quarterback, which would be an improvement.
T.J. McMahon is here as well – his claim to fame being a 12 of 20 for 191 yards, two scores and one interceptions performance in relief against Louisiana Tech, one of Rice’s four wins in 2021. Green looks like the favorite to start and also easily the worst scholarship quarterback on the roster.
Whoever wins that job will have plenty of help, at least. Khalan Griffin is transferring from the running back room, backup Jordan Myers is graduating and fullback Brendan Sturkey is gone, but leading rusher Ari Broussard returns and will be backed up by Cameron Montgomery, who averaged nearly six yards a carry in 2021. Jerry Johnson III takes over at fullback.
The offensive line brings back four players with starting experience, though figuring out where to slot them in is a bit difficult. Left tackle Clary Servin is locked in there, right guard Braedon Nutter has the same status, but the other spots are a question with left guard Cole Garcia and right tackle Jovaun Woolford departing, as are his top two backups. Shea Baker is back at center and likely stays there, but Isaac Klarkowski, who started the season at center before an injury, will need a starting spot somewhere. It would make a decent amount of sense for him to take over for Garcia, with backup guard Faae Pepe making a move outside as the biggest member of the two-deep (6-4) without a starting spot already locked in.
The gems of the offense are out wide, where Rice has accumulated a legitimately bizarre amount of talent given the passing game struggles it has had. Jake Bailey is a star in the slot, Cedric Patterson III was an awesome No. 2 on the outside and should be ready for the move into the top spot with August Pitre III’s transfer to Ohio. Andrew Mason also returns and McCaffrey will factor in somewhere, but the depth gets even better with Sam Crawford in from Tulsa and Isaiah Esdale from West Virginia.
Both were contributors for their former teams in 2021 and will battle for playing time. I’d bet that Patterson III takes over as WR1 opposite Crawford with McCaffrey and Mason behind them, while Esdale fills in behind Bailey in the slot. Rozner fits in somewhere too, potentially as a starter on the outside if his health permits. It’s a great group, especially with Jack Bailey also back at tight end to round out a ready made passing attack if Rice can get anything going behind center. That’s going to be the determining question for success here, though.
The defense returns just about all the bones from that awesome 2020 group outside of Alldredge, it just needs to figure out why it fell so hard a season ago. Eight starters return, starting with two pieces of the defensive front in this flexible 3-3-5 look.
On the outside, Trey Schuman is back at end, opposite tackle Ikenna Enechukwu with nose Elijah Garcia departing and ceding his starting job to Izeya Ford. That loss hurts, but the returners offer plenty to make up for it. Enechukwu was second on the team in TFL in 2021, Schuman had five in only eight games and Ford played well in the seven games he was on the field. Someone is going to need to emerge as capable of rushing the passer, but that was an issue across the board last year, not just up front.
Rush OLB Kenneth Orji returns as well and could help with that, as does Josh Pearcy. The two split time last season with the latter closing out the year, and will likely do the same this year. Neither emerged as dominant, but if we’re looking for a rusher to seriously sprout up, Pearcy is probably the best pick outside of Enechukwu.
The viper OLB spot, which is more of a box safety, belongs to Kirk Lockhart. He doesn’t do anything transcendent, but he’s rock solid in a position that requires consistency. Plae Wyatt looked capable as a backup when he was called on, and Treshawn Chamberlain returns after missing most of last season. More on him later.
Desmyn Baker and Antonio Montero are both gone from inside linebacker spots, though it’s not a major concern because the inside linebacker play was rough last year. Aidan Siano returns with a bit of starting experience and Cam Dillon is in from Columbia to clean this group up after a sloppy year.
The cornerback room is clear cut, as is the battle at free safety. Jordan Dunbar, Sean Fresch and Miles McCord will rotate in the former two spots, Gabe Taylor fills out the latter with no questions asked. The lack of a pass rush really hurt these guys last season, but their coverage wasn’t noticeably bad beyond that. They should be fine.
The question is opposite Taylor at strong safety, where Naeem Smith and Prudy Calderon both depart. A healthy George Nyakwol, who has plenty of starting experience but has struggled to stay on the field, would provide a resounding answer, but Chamberlain may need to step in here if that isn’t possible. Getting him onto the field would be a plus anyway and may prove an interesting schematic challenge.
[World’s biggest inhale] Improvement here seems likely, but it seemed as though the defense was going to be awesome last year too, and that didn’t exactly come to fruition. A bounce back on this side of the ball is absolutely critical to making a bowl game and in turn, saving Bloomgren’s tenure, but finding someone who can get the ball out to those receivers is just as important. The Owls are going to need both after blowing through all that goodwill and while it isn’t impossible, it’s a lot to expect of a program that’s provided no real reasons for confidence in its ability to leap like that.