Jared Rice was recruited to Fresno State as a tight end, and he was a perfect fit in the offensive system the Bulldogs were running at that time.
But the job description changed completely when coach Jeff Tedford was hired to revive a backsliding Bulldogs program, and Rice readily admits that it took more than a minute to wrap his head around that, and that he was not exactly enamored with the idea of playing with a hand down at the point of attack, run-blocking and seeing the occasional pass every now and then.
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He just never saw himself as an extension of the offensive line, for one very good reason. “I think I came in at like 205,” he said. “I was tiny.”
Plus, Rice has skills. He can run a route, can catch a pass — and once he does, has the speed and athleticism to elude tacklers. They’re called skill positions for a reason, and he is or was a receiver first.
But with about 25 pounds added to his 6-foot-5 frame, the fourth-year junior from Modesto without question now sees the benefits of playing the position and has developed into an every-down presence whether run-blocking or running a pass route.
With the Bulldogs headed into the Mountain West championship Saturday at Boise State, Rice has 46 receptions for 580 yards and three touchdowns and is on pace to break the school records for career receptions and receiving yards by a tight end set by Bear Pascoe, who went on to play seven seasons in the NFL.
Rice also is closing on the career touchdown receptions record for a tight end (* denotes program record):
▪ Bear Pascoe: 112 receptions*, 1,294 yards*, 10 TDs.
▪ Marty Thompson: 68 receptions, 1,097 yards, 11 TDs.*
▪ Jared Rice: 72 receptions, 974 yards, 7 TDs.
Rice also this week was voted a second-team all-conference selection, and his numbers prove that he can be an effective blocker and still be a weapon in the pass game on run downs. Of his 46 receptions this season, 19 have come on first downs, 20 have come on second downs and only seven have come on third downs.
“When we first got here that’s not what he was, but he does a really good job with it,” Tedford said. “He’s very smart, very technical. The tight end position is one of the most difficult positions on the field because you’re involved in protection, you’re involved in route running, you’re involved in run-blocking schemes.
“There’s a lot to learn there, and he has done an excellent job with that.”
But it did take a while to get here from there.
The look on Rice’s face when told that he would be a tight end? “He was a little skeptical,” tight ends coach Scott Thompson said. “You could tell. He wasn’t really into it, but it didn’t take long. He’s a competitor. He’s a talented kid. He took to it really like he needed to and he bought in really quick. That’s why he has had the success that he’s had.”
Rice didn’t have much choice. “They pretty much told me if I want to play, I’m going to have to learn how to be the in-line blocker and be at the point of attack,” he said.
But he had good examples in the tight end’s room to hone that run-blocking technique. With senior Kyle Riddering attached to a tackle or working at times in a double tight end set, there were plays last season where the Bulldogs could crater one side of a defensive line.
“Kyle might be one of the most technically sound people on the team, so just following his example was huge,” Rice said.
While working that technique, Rice also was in the weight room and consuming quality calories. He was around 214 pounds at the end of the 2017 season, about 230 now.
“He had a really great offseason,” said Riddering, who this season has six receptions, three for touchdowns. “I think he really dedicated himself in the weight room and was focusing on his craft. That hasn’t always been a known thing for him in the past – he was great receiving, but he just wasn’t up to that same level as a blocker. He was a great receiver and if he could become better at blocking, he would be the complete package.
“He has become a very good player for us. He has been solid all around and it has been great to watch his development and what he has turned into.”
That position group, which also has David Tangipa and Cam Sutton in the playing rotation, has developed through the season and could play a significant role in the title game at Boise State in the pass game.
It was against the Broncos last season that Rice started to emerge, catching three passes for 54 yards in a 28-17 loss to end the regular season, then three more for 44 yards in a 17-14 loss at Boise State in the conference championship game.
That goes for the run game, as well, which Rice has come to embrace.
“When you see the runs bust, it’s actually pretty exciting,” he said. “I now understand why people play offensive line.”