Although football season has only been over for about two months, the most important day of the offseason happened earlier this month. On Feb. 1, national signing day, Rice football signed 17 new student-athletes to its 2017 recruiting class to bolster a roster that went 3-9 last season. The class ranked 123rd nationally and 12th out of 14 in Conference USA according to 247sports, a prominent source of recruiting data.
The group of recruits included four offensive linemen, three wide receivers, three linebackers, three defensive backs, one quarterback, one defensive lineman, one kicker and one tight end. According to 247sports, three of the recruits were three-star prospects while the other 14 were two-star prospects. Head coach David Bailiff said he is thrilled about the incoming group of players.
“We signed 17 young men today that we are extremely excited about,” Bailiff said. “We think their futures are bright and we think they make our future bright.”
The top three rated recruits in the class were quarterback Miklo Smalls, defensive back George Nyakwol and linebacker Kenneth Orji. Smalls in particular is an intriguing player. He is officially listed as an athlete, not a quarterback, by 247sports, which is a testament to his ability to make plays both by throwing and running the ball. He won the offensive MVP award in his district during his junior season while playing at Plano East High School. Given Rice’s uncertain quarterback situation heading into the season, he could compete for a big role in his freshman year. According to Bailiff, Smalls is hoping to be Rice’s starting quarterback this fall.
"That's his intention," Bailiff said. "He’s told us he's going to come in here and he wants to compete. When you see how he handles himself as a young man and the confidence that he has in his game, I know he's going to come in and study and he's going to try to do just that."
While the majority of the recruits had committed to Rice last summer or earlier, Orji joined the class just days before national signing day. He turned down offers from nine schools to come to Rice including the University of Illinois and Vanderbilt University from the Big 10 and the Southeastern Conference, respectively. Orji, who Bailiff said would play outside linebacker for the Owls, led his team in tackles and was named to the All-State team while at Elkins High School in Missouri City, Texas. Bailiff said he was pleasantly surprised that Orji committed to come to Rice.
“He’s a tall kid with broad shoulders and runs extremely well,” Bailiff said. “His production is off the charts. We think we hit a home run there late [by] adding him to our class.”
The final three-star recruit in Rice’s class, Nyakwol, is a tall defensive back. He stands at exactly six feet tall, but despite his height, he is very agile. He has a 48-foot triple jump and, according to Bailiff, will have a chance to compete for the Texas state championship in the event this spring.
It would be easy to overlook the two-star recruits in the class, but in recent years, Rice has turned two-star recruits into top contributors. Current Houston Texans defensive tackle Christian Covington and current NFL free agent tight end Luke Willson both came to Rice as two-star recruits and eventually made it to the pros.
Among the most notable two-star recruits in this class are linebacker Garrett Grammer and kicker Will Harrison. Grammer was twice named to the All-State team while playing high school football at Foster High School in Richmond, Texas. Kicker Will Harrison led his high school team to its first ever state championship in Indiana, and Bailiff indicated that he expects Harrison to compete for the starting job immediately.
Coming into the 2017 season, offensive line was a need for the Owls. The team addressed that need by signing four offensive linemen to this class. Among the group is offensive tackle Gregor MacKellar. Much like Covington, MacKellar is a two-star recruit from Canada. He stands at 6 feet, 5 inches tall. Football, however, is not his only talent; off the field, MacKellar is a top-rated competitive bagpipe player.
Like MacKellar, wide receiver Cameron Montgomery has another off-field talent. Montgomery won the 100-meter Texas State Championship last year. Bailiff said he envisions Montgomery making highlight-reel plays for the Owls.
“[Montgomery] is a dynamic player,” Bailiff said. “He really makes great things happen when the ball is in his hands. To get that type of speed is really exciting.”
Despite the talented players in the recruiting class, Rice’s class ranks nearly last in both the conference and the nation. It is the third straight year the Owls have ranked 10th or worse in Conference USA in recruiting. Bailiff, however, said he is not concerned with the rankings.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Bailiff said. "And last I checked we had eight guys in the NFL."
The new Owls recruits will report to campus in June, and the football season will begin on Aug. 26 in Sydney, Australia when Rice takes on Stanford University.