Football heads into make-or-break season
The Rice football team won just four games last year, their most since 2016. Head coach Mike Bloomgren, who is entering his fifth season leading the Owls and has an 11-31 record since taking over, said he hopes his squad can finally take the next step that they’ve appeared poised to make for years.
“Our goal is to continue to grow as a football team,” Bloomgren said. “Obviously, we’re trying to win every game that we get the opportunity to play. These kids have worked so hard and have positioned themselves to go into these games with the confidence to compete and win these games. We want to go to a bowl game and win and compete for a conference title.”
Despite their lofty goals, the Owls will have to deal with significant losses on both sides of the ball. The Owls’ offense lost several significant contributors including leading wide receiver Jake Bailey, who transferred to Southern Methodist University, and Khalan Griffin, who had the second-most rushing yards on the team last season, transferred to Lamar University.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Owls lost several leaders including their three leading tacklers in defensive lineman Elijah Garcia, safety Naeem Smith, and linebacker Antonio Montero. Both Garcia and Smith graduated, with Garcia signing with the Los Angeles Rams, and Montero transferred to Villanova University.
To make up for their losses, the Owls were active in both recruiting and the transfer portal. The new additions to the squad are headlined by safety Litchfield Ajavon who transferred from Notre Dame to Rice during the offseason and was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school.
In addition, both the defense and the offense have several returning players that will be very important for the Owls this season. On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore defensive back Gabe Taylor, who won conference player of the week honors for his efforts in Rice’s upset win over the University of Alabama at Birmingham, will look to team up with Ajavon and graduate George Nyakwol to make the secondary the strength of Rice’s defense.
Taylor said that the defensive side of the ball can be successful due to the return of injured players and improved chemistry.
“I’m looking forward to our healthy players coming back,” Taylor said. “Our team has also really bonded together off the field. We think we can go in and take game and roll with that.”
Offensively, the returning players are highlighted by redshirt junior running back Ari Broussard, who led the team in rushing yards this past season, and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Luke McCaffrey, a key offensive do-it-all player. McCaffrey will be joined by redshirt senior Bradley Rozner, who missed the past two seasons with injuries but led the team in receiving yards in 2019, as the pair look to give redshirt junior quarterback Wiley Green plenty of options in the passing game.
McCaffrey made a significant decision during the offseason as he underwent a position change from quarterback to wide receiver. The early returns have been positive, as McCaffrey led the team in receiving during the team’s spring game, and scored two touchdowns in a recent scrimmage. According to McCaffrey, the position change has been a great experience.
“It’s been a blast,” McCaffrey. “Whether it is at quarterback, at receiver, at running back or special teams, just to be able to use my abilities in a different way in our atmosphere has been a blast.”
Heading into his fifth season and still without a bowl game appearance, Bloomgren knows that people outside the program see this as a make-or-break year, but said this pales in comparison to the pressure the team is putting on itself to win.
“I don’t know if there could be any more pressure than the pressure that we put on ourselves,” Bloomgren said. “We want to win every time we come on the field and every rep in practice against each other and we certainly want to win every football game we have the opportunity to play.”
The Owls will kick off their season this Saturday against No. 14 University of Southern California in the season opener. The Trojans made waves this offseason when they poached head coach Lincoln Riley from the University of Oklahoma, along with his Heisman Trophy-hopeful quarterback Caleb Williams. The game, which starts at 5 p.m., will be played in the venerated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which has hosted several major events such as the Summer Olympics in 1932 and 1984, as well as the first-ever Super Bowl.
In addition to USC, the Owls will also face off against another preseason AP Poll top 25 when they play the No. 24 University of Houston on September 24. Looking forward to these games, Bloomgren said that his team will be prepared to play against these top programs.
“We plan to prepare the way that we know works,” Bloomgren said. “What it is going to take is a very good performance to give ourselves the best opportunity to win those games.”
In addition to the Trojans and the Cougars, the other non-conference opponents that the Owls will play include McNeese State University on Sept. 10 and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Sept. 17. The Owls will begin their conference schedule on Oct. 1.
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