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Bloomgren, players optimistic following football’s spring game


Junior quarterback E.J. Warner takes a snap in Saturday’s spring game. This is Warner’s first year at Rice after transferring from Temple University.

Courtesy Rice Football

By Andersen Pickard     4/16/24 10:50pm

Positive energy percolated throughout the Rice football program following their spring game Saturday, April 13. Perhaps no player encapsulated this energy more than senior running back Dean Connors, who opened his postgame press conference by enthusiastically playing New York Times games. Fresh off a six-carry, three-catch performance, he completed the Wordle in three attempts (the word was “STEEL”) and the Mini Crossword in 1:22.

Connors’ strong performance Saturday offered just a glimpse into a greater point of emphasis for the Owls: dominate the running game. Redshirt sophomore Quinton Jackson rushed six times for 49 yards and one touchdown on the ground, and he played a key role in the receiving game. The Texas native caught three passes for an additional 21 yards, including a touchdown pass from redshirt junior quarterback Shawqi Itraish in the back right of the end zone that required Jackson to beat a defender. Redshirt junior Christian Francisco also demonstrated good burst, finishing the day with seven rushes for 46 yards and one touchdown. He and Jackson showcased their ability to both fight for yards at the line of scrimmage, bounce outside and break big plays.

“Jackson [was] making himself very hard to tackle even when the defender arrived at the same time at the ball,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said, adding that Jackson is currently second on the running back depth chart.

Connors echoed his coach’s praise for Jackson, placing emphasis on the running back’s ability to handle big-bodied defenders who present a size mismatch. 

“He doesn’t look like he’s going to step up there and hit someone, but that dude is an elite perimeter blocker when it comes to sweeps,” Connors said. “He’s very good at positioning his body and getting around guys. Sometimes, he’s outmatched weight-wise, but he doesn’t act like it.”

Although the running backs led the way, all eyes were on quarterback E.J. Warner, a junior transfer from Temple University and the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. If confirmed as Rice’s starter next season, Warner will take over the offense from J.T. Daniels, who medically retired prior to the Owls’ 2023 bowl game. 

Outside of Itraish’s singular touchdown drive, Warner and redshirt sophomore A.J. Padgett split quarterback reps on Saturday. Notably, redshirt freshman Chase Jenkins played snaps at wide receiver but did not get involved at quarterback. 

Warner and Padgett both had quiet starts to their days as Rice’s first- and second-team defenses showcased their strengths early. Warner was not asked to throw deep very often as he averaged just 5.83 yards per completion. He finished the game with 105 passing yards and one passing touchdown. Padgett showcased more mobility than Warner but was also more trigger-happy, throwing into coverage and missing deep throws early in the contest. He began completing more passes as the game went on and ultimately threw for 117 yards and two touchdowns. 

Bloomgren said that the door remains open for either quarterback to win the starting job in 2024 but also suggested that Warner has the inside track, just months after transferring to Rice.

“I’m never going to be in a rush to announce anything,” Bloomgren said. “I’m glad we don’t have to decide today, but there’s certainly [been] times this spring where you felt like E.J. really had an upper hand.”

As the Owls look to replace NFL draft hopeful Luke McCaffrey in the wide receiver room, junior wide receiver Kobie Campbell built a firm rapport with Warner, catching five passes for 46 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt sophomore Braylen Walker led the team with 78 receiving yards and one touchdown. Redshirt freshman Drayden Dickmann and graduate receiver Matt Sykes were both targeted often, and redshirt junior fullback Colin Giffen also found the end zone. Meanwhile, senior tight end Boden Groen stood out with a physical 17-yard reception against strong coverage over the middle.

Defensively, Bloomgren identified redshirt senior Josh Pearcy as a major contributor. The returning starter played with the first-team defense in the second half. On one of his first plays, he broke through the line of scrimmage to swat a Warner pass as it was released. He continued to make an impact rushing the passer and in coverage.

“He is playing off the ball as much as he’s playing on it. That’s been a good transition for him this spring and it’s been fun watching that,” Bloomgren said. “His positional flexibility right now is really exciting.”

Another returning starter, senior cornerback Sean Fresch, made a ball-hawking impact as he broke up a deep pass from Padgett early in the game. Redshirt sophomore Demone Green recorded the defense’s lone sack.

For the most part, Rice’s defensive backs kept up with their receivers stride for stride. This took away options in the passing game and held the Owls’ quarterbacks to a combined 61.1 % completion rate.

Pearcy, who watched the first-team defense dominate even when he was on the sideline, agreed with Bloomgren’s assessment that the Owls are building a remarkable defense. 

“All the weapons we’ve been able to add and guys stepping up, I think we’re building something very special, and I think guys want to be a part of that, too,” Pearcy said. “I see the coaches trying to find ways to use all of us. There’s just so many of us to put out there, [and] it’s a good problem to have.”

Rice also experimented with different personnel on special teams, a unit that consistently struggled in 2023. The Owls used a different punter on each of their first three punts, ultimately giving redshirt freshman Reese Keeney the majority of the opportunities rather than graduate punter Conor Hunt. (Hunt’s 35.9 average net yards per punt ranked ninth-worst among NCAA punters with at least 30 attempts in 2023.)

Redshirt sophomore Enock Gota and redshirt senior Tim Horn attempted several kicks as the Owls’ kicking competition continued. Both players made all of their extra points, missed 38-yard field goals from the left hash, and converted 39-yard field goals from the right hash. However, Horn appeared to edge out Gota on the day as he converted a late 51-yard field goal with room to spare.

As the Owls’ spring meetings and practices come to a close, Bloomgren said he has high hopes for the 2024 season. This optimism stems from the excitement he’s felt while watching Rice practice as the clock winds down on the spring semester.

“We’ve worked really hard to get this team as talented as it is,” Bloomgren said. “It’s an exciting time. I can’t remember a time [when] I’ve had more fun with spring ball.”

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