Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren enters his fifth season in charge of the Owls with what he believes is the deepest and most talented roster of his tenure. Bloomgren, who took over the program prior to the 2018 season, is 11-31 through four seasons. His Owls were two overtime losses away from reaching bowl eligibility in 2021, but their four wins were the most during Bloomgren’s four seasons.
“We’ve made steady progress year after year,” Bloomgren said. “We’ve been the perfect illustration of a stone cutter, and we’re going to keeping chipping away, but we’re so ready for that rock to break.”
Rice hasn’t lacked evidence of its slow climb up the Conference USA mountain. The Owls knocked off a nationally ranked Marshall squad during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and upset UAB on the road in 2021. Rice is no longer lacking in talent. Bloomgren feels the 2022 roster is his most complete with every player on the two-deep capable of playing winning football in C-USA. The program simply needs to be more consistent on a week-to-week basis.
“Competition is everything and we finally have that within our roster,” Bloomgren said. “It’s not just the competition with yourself to get better. You better produce or someone is coming to take your job. That’s a magical thing that we haven’t had here.”
The goal for the 2022 version of the Rice Owls is to reach a bowl game and be the next team to make a steep rise towards the top of the C-USA standings. UTEP managed that feat in 2021 when it reached bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014 thanks to a seven-win season. Coincidentally, Rice’s last bowl game was also in 2014. The Owls are 20-58 since the end of that 2014 season. The program feels capable of making a run in the West Division.
“For most of the Conference USA teams, there isn’t a huge gap between the best and the worst teams,” defensive lineman Ikenna Enechukwu said. “It is a very competitive league, and it is always up for grabs for anyone who wants to get it.”
The cause of that optimism is due to the amount of returning talent on both sides of the ball, as well as Rice’s ability to add potential impact players through the transfer portal. The Owls’ pool in the portal, just like on the recruiting trail, is limited due to the academic standards required for acceptance into Rice, but that hasn’t stopped Bloomgren’s staff from adding talented prospects from the Ivy League ranks, as well as Stanford and Vanderbilt.
That depth won’t matter if Rice continues to catch the injury bug. The Owls played four different quarterbacks during the 2021 season. The perfect illustration of the issue arose in an out-of-conference game against Texas early in the season. Rice lost its starting quarterback to a migraine after 12 plays. Its backup was knocked out of the game later in the first quarter, causing the Owls to play their third quarterback of the game by the end of the first 15 minutes. And the bad luck wasn’t limited to the offensive side of the football.
“I randomly found the depth chart from spring ball during the season last year and noted that we were without seven of our 11 projected starters on defense by the eighth game of the season,” Bloomgren said. “It will help us in 2022, but it wasn’t fun in 2021.”
Coaches tend to be optimistic during spring ball. The players can be better barometers of the belief inside a particular locker room. Rice is clearly confident that the 2022 season can be a breakout campaign, especially if a quarterback emerges before Week 1. The Owls return a talented backfield led by Ari Broussard to run the ball behind an experienced offensive line. The defense has a chance to be special despite losing all-conference defensive tackle Elijah Garcia to the NFL.
“Everyone wants to be better for themselves and each other,” Broussard said. “We have a lot of guys on this team that want to get to the next level. That competition and energy keeps us going.”
Rice manages to put away close games and reach the six-win threshold needed to qualify for bowl eligibility.
More inconsistency at quarterback and on defense cause the Owls to miss out on a bowl game for the eighth consecutive season.
Game of the Year
Rice at North Texas — November 1
Rice was two overtime losses away from six wins and bowl eligibility in 2021. One of those tough defeats was at home to North Texas, a future dance partner with the Owls in the AAC. The goal for Rice is to reach a bowl in 2022, and that requires winning close games against opponents such as the Mean Green.
Rice’s old-school approach to offense makes the Owls a unique matchup within Conference USA. Mike Bloomgren’s program still lists fullbacks and tight ends on its two-deep while most of the Owls’ conference foes sport spread offenses.
He’s used to being the contrarian. As Stanford’s offensive coordinator, Bloomgren enjoyed many advantages because his team still preached smash-mouth football. Most opponents struggle to field a scout team capable of providing quality looks simply because their rosters don’t possess the type of players Rice utilizes.
“We are different, and that needs to be our edge,” Bloomgren said about his offense. “We’re still a team that believes in the motto ‘pound the rock, control the clock, and play great defense.’”
Rice feels confident in its run game entering the 2022 campaign. Leading rusher Ari Broussard returns behind an offensive line with four returning starters. Left tackle Clay Servin and right guard Shea Baker possess years of starting experience. Bloomgren calls center Isaac Klarkowski a genius. Right tackle is the only real question mark, but Ethan Onianwa performed well during spring practices and possesses as much upside as any offensive lineman on the roster.
Quarterback remains a question mark for the Owls. Wiley Green and T.J. McMahon split first-team reps during the spring. Bloomgren would like to see one of those two take the reins of the position during fall camp. Green started Week 1 for Rice in 2021. McMahon showed his upside in a comeback win over Louisiana Tech.
“The more comfortable, and the sooner, we can get a starter, the better for our team,” Bloomgren admitted. “It’s going to be a great fight between those two.”
The biggest loss for Rice offensively was wide receiver Jake Bailey, who transferred to SMU after the start of spring practice. Bloomgren believes the mass of talent in the wide receiver room should offset the loss of Bailey’s production. Luke McCaffery moved to wide receiver in the offseason. The Owls also added transfer Sam Crawford at the position and return Bradley Rozner from injury. Cedric Patterson III was the go-to receiver at times in 2021.
Offensive MVP: Clay Servin
One aspect of the quarterback position that Rice’s coaching staff doesn’t need to worry about is its blindside. Servin is a four-year starter with all-conference aspirations.
Offensive Name to Know: RB Dean Connors
Rice expects running back Ari Broussard to be the focal point on offense, but a change of pace is required. The coaching staff was impressed with Riverside C.C. transfer Dean Connors during spring practice. The 205-pound California native is big enough to earn the tough yards, and quick enough to threaten defenses on the edge. Rice wants to be a run-first football team, so there are plenty of carries to go around.
Four different Owls threw at least 20 passes during the 2021 season. Sophomore Wiley Green is expected to provide consistency if he can stay healthy.
RUNNING BACKS: C+
Ari Broussard emerged as the Owls’ bell cow in the 2021 season, leading them in rushing and yards per attempt. Cameron Montgomery provides elusiveness.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: C-
The loss of Jake Bailey to the transfer portal hurts the Owls passing game. Cedric Patterson III is the leading returner in receptions after posting 38 last year.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
Position battles along the offensive line were among the top storylines of spring practice for the Owls. Building a solid two-deep remains a priority.
Rice’s coaching staff believes its defense is the strength of the team heading into the 2022 season thanks to a deep and talented defensive line and secondary. The Owls did lose all-conference defensive tackle Elijah Garcia to the NFL, but head coach Mike Bloomgren still considers the group the most talented on his roster.
“Our defensive line group of seven or eight players will be hard to deal with, and it will allow us the flexibility you need in Conference USA with the tempo teams,” he said. “We can roll new guys in and stay fresh, and that’s something we haven’t been able to do here.”
The star of the group is Ikenna Enechukwu. Improved depth in the middle of Rice’s defensive line should allow him to play more on the edge in 2022. The Owls want to take advantage of Enechukwu’s pass rushing ability on an every-down basis. He’s joined on the edge by pass rushers such as Trey Schuman, when healthy, and Kenneth Orji. Izeya Floyd, a former offensive lineman, and Blake Boenisch are anchors at nose tackle.
The secondary is also loaded with high-end talent and depth. Bloomgren estimates that Rice possesses six or seven safeties that can play winning football. The return of sixth-year senior George Nyakwol provides Rice’s secondary with an enforcer. Gabe Taylor is a ball magnet, while Treshawn Chamberlain is a potential NFL draft pick.
“We still have the potential to be a great defense because we know what we’re doing,” Enechukwu said. “Now, we need to train for the season so we can be stronger and faster to win those extra inches on the field.”
Linebacker is a concern exiting spring ball, but Bloomgren believes the addition of a pair of grad transfers arriving in the summer should help provide competition and depth to the position. Kenny Seymour was the most impressive linebacker during spring camp. The Rice defense allowed 36.17 points in 2022, but that number is skewed by an out-of-conference slate that included Texas and Houston, as well as two overtime losses during conference play.
Defensive MVP: Ikenna Enechukwu
Enechukwu was honorable mention All-Conference USA as a sophomore in 2021. He started all 12 games in 2021, nine at defensive tackle and three at defensive end.
Defensive Name to Know: OLB Josh Pearcy
The Rice coaching staff thinks Pearcy can be a breakout player on the edge in his fourth year on campus. Pearcy was third on the team in 2021 with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He was also tied for the team-lead with seven tackles on special teams. Pearcy and Kenneth Orji provide the edge pressure for Rice. A talented interior of the defensive line should provide both with 1-on-1 opportunities.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C+
Rice must overcome the loss of all-conference talent Elijah Garcia in the middle of its defense. Ikenna Enechukwu returns after registering 4.5 sacks in 2021.
Replacing the production of Antonio Montero is priority No. 1 for the Owls at linebacker. It’s an inexperienced group. Treshawn Chamberlain is back from injury.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: B
The secondary is the strength of the Rice defense heading into 2022 with Gabe Taylor, Jordan Dunbar, and Sean Fresch leading a group of experienced starters.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Christian VanSickle returns as the place kicker after an inconsistent campaign in 2021. A new punter must emerge for the Owls. Frensch is a capable returner.
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