The three-state, position-changing journey that freed Luke McCaffrey to have fun playing football again

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In the first quarter of the Bayou Bucket against Houston, Rice quarterback JT Daniels dropped back, looked left, and lofted a pass 40 yards through the air that nosedived toward the endzone.

Wide receiver Luke McCaffrey had gained a smidge of separation off the line of scrimmage, but Houston's cornerback had caught up to blanket him as the ball hurtled back down to earth. As McCaffrey and the corner collided at the goal line, the wide receiver stuck out one hand and trapped the ball to his body while the defender rolled over the top of him, ripping his helmet off.  

McCaffrey stood, helmetless, in the endzone with both arms raised as his teammates mobbed him. It was his second touchdown catch of the first quarter alone in a game where Rice shocked Houston 43-41 in overtime. In that moment, he looked like a natural who'd honed his receiver craft all his life. He looked like Ed McCaffrey's son, a three-time Super Bowl champion wide receiver for the Denver Broncos.

But the 'Captain' patch on Luke's chest conveyed the long journey to becoming the leading wide receiver on the American Athletic Conference's top-ranked passing offense. It's his unselfishness and lack of ego that's put Rice in the position they are now. Because McCaffrey is not a natural wide receiver, he's a born quarterback and a damn good one. He's a former four-star recruit and high school state champion who went to head coach Mike Bloomgren two years ago and asked to move to wide receiver so he could help the team. 

There are instances, like the one-handed catch, where it appears he's been doing this forever. But McCaffrey quickly points out how far he is from the receiver he wants to be. And that's OK. His work ethic will allow him to master this craft someday. 

"I think it's such a long journey," Luke said. "It's funny because you see things every single week that you're excited to fix because it’s only going to make you better."

He's got a built-in wide receiver trainer in his father. Rice receivers coach Mike Kershaw teaches Luke the playbook installation and route concepts for the offense. Then, Luke reaches out to Ed after games for extra film study on the good, the bad and the ugly from his performance. Ed played receiver at the game's highest level, and he can tutor Luke on his footwork and route-running technique. It's a father-son, a coach-player relationship formed throughout Luke's life. 

After Ed retired from the NFL in 2004, he began working as an assistant coach for his eldest son Max's little league team. He took on that role for his other three sons, Christian, Dylan and Luke. But Ed stayed away from the sidelines when all the boys started playing at Valor Christian High School in Colorado. He didn't want to cast a shadow over his boys' high school experience, so he'd instead continue to coach the younger sons in peewee. 

But Valor Christian head coach Rod Sherman resigned ahead of Luke's senior year in 2018. At first tabbed to help find a replacement, Ed soon emerged as a front-runner for the job. His eldest son, Max, was a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers. At the time, Christian was a running back for the Carolina Panthers. Dylan was a high-profile quarterback at Michigan. All of them had starred at Valor Christian, and now Luke was the final McCaffrey in line as the team's starting quarterback.

So, with Luke's blessing, Ed took over as the head coach and guided Valor Christian to a 14–0 record and the state championship. Luke threw for 2,202 yards with 29 total touchdowns, the heartbeat of that team. 

"One of the big reasons you play the game is to build a relationship with your team and your players," Luke said. "When that’s somebody who's with you for your entire life, it only makes it that much sweeter."

Luke graduated in December 2018 and immediately enrolled at Nebraska, the fifth member of his family to play major college football. After playing sparingly his first year on campus, McCaffrey got two starts at quarterback and rotated through seven games. It was rocky. McCaffrey was turning the ball over for the first time in his football life, posting a 1-to-6 TD:INT ratio as Nebraska stumbled to a 3–5 record. McCaffrey entered the transfer portal at season's end.

Three years removed from that trying year, McCaffrey has the perspective to recognize how that experience made him a better man. Football came easy to him and his family. But when it got difficult, he was forced to look inward and evaluate himself as a player and person. 

"You learn everything," Luke said. "And not only do you learn, but that’s where you grow. That’s where you become the person you’re going to be. At the time, it’s so hard. You’re not thinking of the big picture. You just want to stop making mistakes. But what I think is so cool is that’s where you get to decide who you are, and that’s where you get to recreate yourself a little bit."

He chose to recreate himself at Rice. Mike Bloomgren was the offensive coordinator at Stanford when his older brother Christian made himself a college football legend. Bloomgren also had a strong relationship with Ed, who'd played college ball at Stanford and was still a prominent figure around the program. Rice was the fresh start Luke needed.

But he still struggled to find his footing on the field, getting yanked in and out of the starting lineup due to injuries and inconsistent play. In 2021, he passed for 313 yards on a 50 percent completion percentage with two touchdowns to four interceptions.

So after the season, McCaffrey again looked at himself and how he could better help the program. He was the former four-star recruit. He carried the McCaffrey name. He could've stuck to the position he'd always excelled at. Instead, he approached Bloomgren about switching to wide receiver so he could contribute more consistently. 

Because McCaffrey realized playing quarterback wasn't the reason he loved football. 

"I evaluated it to the extent of - I love football because it’s fun," Luke said. "I think the best parts are that you get to go out and play and be with your teammates and enjoy that combined victory and that combined battle. I realized that playing quarterback didn't necessarily eliminate any of that.”

And through multiple conversations about the switch, Bloomgren never forced McCaffrey into anything. Moving to wide receiver was McCaffrey's choice due to soul searching. That was huge for a father who'd entrusted two sons to play for Bloomgren.

"It's not an easy conversation to ask a quarterback to switch, which is why he never did it," Ed said. "He left it up to Luke. They talked about it many times before Luke was confident in making his decision. But I feel like he helped him work through that decision. He didn't force it upon him. He didn't make him switch positions." 

In his first season as a wide receiver in 2022, McCaffrey led the team with 58 receptions and 903 all-purpose yards, earning the George Martin Award as the Team MVP. This season, the Rice passing offense is taking off behind transfer quarterback JT Daniels. And McCaffrey is his go-to guy with 514 yards while tripling the next-leading receiver with six touchdowns. McCaffrey can diagnose defenses alongside Daniels and knows the precision he must play with for his quarterback because he's been the signal caller before himself. 

"The quarterback transfers to receiver understand that quarterbacks don't really see what they're throwing at," Daniels said at AAC media days in July. "Like, you see parts of a body and have to know where the ball is going 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 is one of many former quarterbacks playing a different position at Rice. Fellow wideout JoVoni Johnson-McCray played QB at Rice for two seasons before transitioning. Running back Quinton Jackson was a two-time Offensive MVP for his district as North Crowley's quarterback. Safety Christian Edgar played quarterback at Austin Westlake.

Rice is 3–3 this season in large part because McCaffrey decided that playing football in any capacity was more important to him than his title as a quarterback. This journey from Valor Christian to Nebraska to Houston, Texas, led him to life lessons on perseverance. It let him have fun with the game so integral to his family again. 

"I think it has strengthened Luke's resolve and his character by being able to withstand all the change and adversity," Ed said. "Now, he's settled in, and he’s met some really great teammates. The football players at Rice are fine young men."

So is Luke McCaffrey.

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