A healthy Connor Cella snagged in a pass Saturday from Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson and took off 64 yards for a touchdown.
While the play occurred in a team scrimmage rather than a game against Texas or Baylor, the return of the junior tight end was a welcome site to Rice players, coaches and fans at the scrimmage.
The 6-3, 260-pound Cella was limited to four game last year because of broken ribs and a broken ankle. Now, he’s breaking tackles and helping protect Jackson.
“Connor doesn’t look like the same person,” Jackson said on Rice Media Day. “He’s put on so much weight. It will be good especially with the type of offense we run. He can block and does did a great job catching the ball and getting as many yards as he can.”
Cella caught two balls in the scrimmage for 72 yards. In all 11, different wide receivers, tight ends, running backs caught passes from quarterbacks Jackson, Tyler Stehling, Nate German and T.J. Granato.
With the graduation of top receivers Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull, both of whom are in NFL camps, pass catching is among the bigger question marks offensively going into the 2015 campaign. Rice’s trio of tight ends may be targeted more often.
“Conner Cella is healthy and ready to go,“ Rice coach David Bailiff said. “In his absence, Cole Hunt got a lot of reps as did Robbie Wells. We think we will be real solid at tight end.”
Wells, a 6-6 junior from Katy, caught a touchdown pass Saturday. Hunt, a 6-7 sophomore from El Campo, hauled in a pass as well at the scrimmage. The 6-6 and 6-7 part of the equation has not escaped the notice of Rice quarterbacks.
“My goal with Cole Hunt is to exploit the height he has,” Jackson said. “Both he and Robbie Wells can get the ball in places a shorter linebacker can’t get to.”
Rice has numerous of options at wide receivers, led by Dennis Parks. Junior Cameron Decell had two catches for a team-high 77 yards at the scrimmage. Redshirt freshman Jesse Hudak scored on 14-yard touchdown pass. Trevor Long and Parker Smith had multiple catches. Both Wrights, Lance and Zach, figure to be in the mix, as does sophomore James Mayben.
“As far as the wide receiver position goes, some of the younger guys played or we’re in our meetings and they saw how it was done because we had two guys doing it right,” Rice offensive coordinator Larry Edmondson said of Taylor and Hull. “We’ve got some young guys that are quite talented. They just have to learn how to play the game.”
Jackson also used the word talented to address the receivers. He’s working on developing connections with them in practices as the Owls prepare for the Sept. 5 opener against Wagner.
“It was fun having the young receivers and young offensive linemen to see how this game intensity feels,” Jackson said after Saturday‘s scrimmage. “It was a good experience, and I’m looking forward to next week’s practices.”