The college football world has changed over the years. The players are bigger, faster and stronger than ever. Those factors would seem to work against a guy like Oklahoma senior Jacob Rice.
He was a good, if not great, tight end/linebacker for Norman High School in 2001. But his size and speed kept him off the recruiting landscape.
So, how does a guy so unheralded wind up being a four-year starter for a program like the Oklahoma?
Simple. He found a niche as a deep snapper and has been an integral part of OU's success the last four years.
"It's an art and a craft. It's an important deal like everything else," OU special teams coordinator Kevin Sumlin said of the position Rice has perfected over the last three and a half seasons. "When a guy develops it, and that's what he does very well, it's very valuable."
Division-I schools are limited to 85 scholarships. The depth is needed everywhere. Some would think giving a scholarship to a deep snapper would be a waste.
Sumlin says it's just the opposite.
"It used to be that over time those specialty guys — those skill guys, maybe a quarterback — would become long snappers maybe 10 years ago," he said. "Now the guys are so big and so fast that operation time is important. In many instances, the operation on a punt or a kick, it doesn't matter if you block them or not in certain situations. It's a premium deal."
And even Rice didn't know how premium his service would be.
During his days in elementary school, Rice learned how to deep snap. It wasn't a big deal. It just something he and his father, Fred, would do while playing catch.
But when Jacob tried competitive football for the first time in the sixth grade, he quickly landed the job.
He kept it all the way through his senior year at Norman High School, never thinking it would pave his way to college success.
Rice wanted to be a tight end.
"I wanted to be the superstar," he said. "I wanted to play tight end, do the linebacker thing, whatever. I guess God had a different plan for me."
Those plans took a major detour when Rice was in a motorcycle accident before his senior season. His hands and his wrists were severely damaged and the scars are still there to prove it.
It could have very easily signaled the end of his football career.
"Back then, that was what crushed me," Rice recalled. "I was just starting to get my name out there as a tight end. I was getting letters and getting calls. I was actually starting to gain weight. I had the wreck and lost 20-25 pounds and from there I didn't get a single letter from anybody."
But, by the end of his senior season, one school still had interest. It happened to be Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
It wasn't Rice's skill as a pass catcher or blocker that drew NEO's attention — it was his deep-snapping ability.
Rice didn't even know anyone had noticed what he was doing on punts and kicks. He didn't even know college programs would ever consider recruiting a deep snapper.
"I thought it was a position that someone who played another position did the best they could do," said Rice. "That's how I looked at it because when I was in high school I focused on tight end and linebacker."
But it came with a scholarship offer and football was firmly in Rice's future. Landing at OU still wasn't.
Fred Rice had already visited with OU Director of Football Operations Merv Johnson. Johnson runs the walk-on program and they talked about the possibility of Rice walking on at OU.
However, Johnson advised the Rice family to take the offer on the table.
But just to practice, the Sooners were happy to let Rice practice snaps with then-punter Blake Ferguson. Ben Panter, the previous deep snapper, had graduated and Ferguson needed someone to practice with.
So, Rice spent a few Tuesdays and Thursdays of his summer working out with Ferguson. Word soon reached Johnson via an impressed Ferguson: The kid was good.
"I came out here to do it because I'm from Norman and it was always a dream to come here, but I thought it was a long shot," Rice said. "So, I came out here and snapped to ‘Ferg' for about a half hour one day and ‘Ferg' told me if I came out, I'd play."
Ferguson told others.
Mainly Johnson and then special teams coordinator Jonathan Hayes. They both told him he could make the team as a walk-on.
At the time, Rice firmly believed he was destined for NEO. Remaining in Norman was barely a thought.
"I already had a scholarship somewhere. Why would I drop that?" Rice remembered.
But OU was selling something no other school could offer. He'd grown up immersed in OU football. It was the one school he'd always dreamed of playing for.
And when OU head coach Bob Stoops told him the same, Rice's college plans changed.
"He told me I'd have to earn my position by starting at it for a full semester, but if I came out I'd most likely start," Rice said about the conversation with OU's head coach.
The only problem was OU didn't have a scholarship to give. But Rice had heard enough and wanted to take a shot at playing for the Sooners.
"I called NEO the next day and told them I wasn't going to come and they were fine with it because OU's their sister school," he said.
But one final hurdle had to be overcome before it was all said and done.
At the end of July, Kansas found themselves shopping for a deep snapper. Then-new coach Mark Mangino, familiar with Norman prep football because his son had played quarterback at Norman North, thought Rice might just be what the Jayhawks were looking for.
Kansas was offering a scholarship, plus the chance to workout as a tight end.
Suddenly, Rice was a hot commodity.
"It was weird," he said. "I got a call from Kansas and they were offering me a full ride to snap there. It was a matter of walking on here and risking it or taking a full ride at another big D-I school."
However, the opportunity to play at OU was too good to pass up.
"It wasn't really a choice," he said. "Lawrence is seven hours away. I have a baby sister. I didn't really want to leave with her growing up and not really knowing who I was. Between that and my dad being a huge OU fan and my mom playing in the band here, I stuck it out and walked on."
It took Rice all of one day to earn the starting job.
Stoops called it "the feel-good story" of the 2001 summer.
It was just the start of what turned into a feel-good career for Rice.
"It's a position somebody has to do," Rice said. "It's rewarding to you to know you're doing your job, but it's not really recognizable.
"I grew to really like that. I grew to like being the one brick in the structure that really helps keep things together. I'm not much of a guy that really likes to be seen. It kind of fit in perfectly with my personality."
From his first start against Tulsa in 2001, all the way through the 2004 Orange Bowl, Rice's snaps were on the mark every time.
That's a span of three years without a miss. Try finding another streak in sports where a player has been on the mark that many times in a row.
The streak was at 423 attempts when the 2005 season began. It ended with a one-hopper this season against Texas. OU punter Cody Freeby still got off the kick and a new streak has started since.
And through it all, OU found a special teams bedrock and Rice became a significant contributor for the program he always wanted to be a part of.
Now that's a feel-good story.
The above article was published in the December issue of Sooners Illustrated. If you are interested in subscribing to our monthly magazine click the link below.
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