The eight-year recruitment that brought JT Daniels to Rice

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Mike Bloomgren was blown away by JT Daniels the first time he watched him play quarterback live eight years ago. Bloomgren had a lot of athletes to monitor at Stanford's prospect camp. Still, the offensive coordinator couldn't take his eyes off the freshman from Mater Dei High School.

"Nothing about him seemed like a ninth grader," Bloomgren recalled Tuesday at American Athletic Conference Media Days. "He could really put a lot of velocity on the ball. He had a very quick release, he was efficient in his movement. But the thing that really blew me away was his ability to talk football at that point in time."

Bloomgren and Stanford head coach David Shaw sat mystified as Daniels described Jet protection perfectly. Three offensive linemen on the call side would engage in slide protection, usually doubling the defensive tackle. The backside guard and tackle would be man-on-man protection with help from the tailback picking up a blitzer.

Sound complicated? Bloomgren spent four years as an assistant for the New York Jets, and some professional quarterbacks couldn't explain a protection scheme like Daniels was.

The coaches were sold. Daniels was the only quarterback Stanford offered in the 2019 cycle. That is until the five-star reclassified to skip his senior season and enroll a year early at USC. The Gatorade National Player of the Year seemed destined to take the torch in USC's long line of prolific passers after starting all season as a freshman. Then an ACL tear in the 2019 season opener marked the first domino to a journeyman collegiate career.

He transferred to Georgia for the 2020 season, tossing 10 touchdowns to two interceptions in the last four games of the year, including a Peach Bowl victory. An oblique injury the next year hampered him all season as he watched Georgia win the National Championship from the sideline. He transferred again to West Virginia for the 2022 season but was benched toward the end of his sole campaign as the Mountaineers limped to a 5–7 record. That forced Daniels to enter the portal once more, a former top 10 national recruit searching for his fourth school.

All the while, Bloomgren, now the head coach at Rice, was searching for a quarterback to lead his pro-style offense. No FBS programs started more quarterbacks in five years than Bloomgren's Owls. It wasn't until 2022 that Rice had a quarterback throw for over 2,000 yards in a season, but it bottomed out with a turnover margin that ranked 130th in the nation. When Daniels became available, it was a no-brainer for Bloomgren to shoot his shot with the quarterback he first became enthralled with eight years ago. This time, it worked.

Rice is ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the AAC Preseason Media Poll, but there's more excitement surrounding this program than in years past. For starters, they've made the jump from Conference USA. Now they have the highest-rated recruit in program history slated to start at quarterback. Rice lives up to its brand of Intellectual Brutality with a complicated offensive scheme requiring the quarterback to audible at the line of scrimmage based on what the defense gives it. That's precisely why Bloomgren needed Daniels to captain it. He's shown a high football IQ since his freshman year in high school.

As soon as Daniels got the playbook, he plugged as much of it as he could into the Madden video game so he could get mental reps, a process he's followed his entire quarterbacking life.

“(The offense is) Multiple set pro-style, multiple personnel, double and triple play calls," Daniels said. "(It's) A ton of responsibility on the quarterback. That’s my thing and that’s what I do well. It’s probably the area I would separate in is that I’m just really good mentally.”

But Daniels wasn't the only former high-profile quarterback recruit representing Rice at AAC Media Days. Luke McCaffrey was the top-ranked recruit in Colorado when he joined Nebraska in the fall of 2019. After two years with the Cornhuskers, McCaffrey transferred to Rice for a fresh start at quarterback. Injuries, however, riddled his 2021 season as he completed 50 percent of his passes with two touchdowns to four interceptions. In the spring of 2022, McCaffrey sat down with Bloomgren to discuss his future. The coach knew McCaffrey was a remarkable athlete who could contribute. After all, he'd coached his brother, Christian, at Stanford. So the pair decided McCaffrey would follow in the footsteps of his father, Ed, who'd won three Super Bowls in 14 years in the NFL, and line up at receiver.  

McCaffrey responded with 58 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns in his first season lining up out wide full time.

"He’s an unbelievable football player. He’s an unbelievable athlete," Bloomgren said. "But he is selfless too. He just wants to win football games and he wants to do whatever that looks like." 

McCaffrey will have an outsized role this year in Rice's offense after Bradley Rozner, who led the Owls with 10 touchdowns, transferred to North Carolina State and fellow receiver Cedric Patterson III left the team. His grasp of the offense as a former quarterback in the system has allowed him to develop an innate chemistry with Daniels over the spring.

“The quarterback transfers to receiver understand that quarterbacks don’t really see what they’re throwing at," Daniels said. "Like, you see parts of a body and have to know where the ball is supposed to go. Having someone that knows it’s very specific where I have to be and when I have to be there, (it’s a) huge, huge, huge difference."

McCaffrey understands what Daniels sees in the backfield. He also understands what it's like to be a highly touted recruit turned transfer looking for a fresh start. Now their connection looks to power Rice to its first winning season since 2014.

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