JT Daniels’ transfer highlights Bloomgren’s best asset: his ambition
A year and a half ago, in an interview, Rice’s head football coach Mike Bloomgren told me about his proudest memory from his days as Stanford University offensive coordinator. On the back of a New Year’s Day 45-16 thrashing of the University of Iowa in the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal ended the season ranked No. 3 in the country. Bloomgren thought that ranking was significant since Stanford had also cracked the top-four in that year’s U.S. News and World Report college rankings, meaning that his players had gotten the rare chance to play for a world-class football team while receiving a world-class education.
Bloomgren brought this up not just to tell a nice story but to explain his vision for Rice’s program. When he started taking interviews for head coaching gigs in the following years, he said, he set his sights on schools where he thought that he could pull off the same feat.
To even imply that Rice, a school that hasn’t been ranked in football since 1961, could finish a season in the top five, shows a level of ambition that is almost laughable. It’s the kind of ambition that can almost be a detriment to your program by preventing you from setting realistic, attainable goals. That is, unless you can back it up.
In the final days of 2022, after not doing so for most of his five years at the helm, Bloomgren did exactly that. He landed transfer quarterback JT Daniels, a former five-star recruit rated by Rivals.com as the No. 4 player in the country back in 2018. While recruiting rankings are about as accurate as President Leebron’s prediction for last year’s Rice-Texas football game, the names near Daniels in those rankings – Micah Parsons, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Patrick Surtain II – read like a who’s who of up-and-coming NFL stars.
Of course, while his peers are already enjoying NFL success, Daniels’ career hasn’t gone as planned. After starting for the University of Southern California as a true freshman, he missed his sophomore season with an injury before transferring to the University of Georgia. At Georgia, he bounced in and out of the lineup, starting seven games across two seasons, and winning a national title as a backup in 2021. This past year, he transferred to West Virginia University where he put up solid if slightly underwhelming numbers across ten starts.
His stock has undoubtedly fallen since he was mentioned in the same breath as NFL superstars, but he’s still someone who’s proven he’s a starting-caliber quarterback in three of the five major conferences. Just as notably, he’s a quarterback with a national profile who’s played for two of the most visible programs in the country. Simply put, he’s the kind of player Rice has no business eyeing, much less bringing in.
But, Bloomgren didn’t let that deter him. He went out and got his guy, even if plenty of people would have laughed at him for even suggesting it as a possibility. That takes a certain level of audacity that most coaches don’t have.
Maybe Daniels rediscovers the talent that made him so coveted coming out of Mater Dei High School, but there’s also a chance he’s nothing more than a solid starter like he’s been in recent years. Even in the best scenario, he still won’t fix the holes in Rice’s defense that allowed the fourth most points in the conference, or a running game that barely cracked four yards a carry.
But landing someone with Daniels’ prominence immediately raises Rice’s national profile and gives it a certain amount of legitimacy. This could have a ripple-effect in recruiting, especially combined with the fact that the incoming freshman class is their highest-rated in years. And as the Owls move on to the American Athletic Conference, a stronger conference than Conferene-USA, they’ll need more of a national profile if they have any hopes of being competitive.
There are still reasons to believe Bloomgren won’t make good on his lofty goals; anyone who reads this section knows I’ve been plenty critical of his game management and overly-conservative approach in the past. But if Rice doesn’t take the leap required to compete in their new, more-talented conference, it won’t be because Bloomgren isn’t trying.
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