On Jan. 29, North Alabama welcomed new wide receiver coach Tyler Rice from UT-Martin. Rice takes over for Austin Tucker who found a new home at Florida State University.
Former receivers position coach, Tucker became the new offensive analyst for Florida State University in January. Heach coach Christopher Willis quickly turned around and brought Rice home to North Alabama.
“You don’t want to see anyone leave,” Willis said. “You would like to see all of them stay but this is a business and you have to move on. He got to move up to the FBS level, he is making more money and he is at Florida State. I hate that we lost him but it is a part of small college football.”
Before receiving the coveted position coach job under Willis, Rice began as a quarterback at Wayne County High School from 2007-2010. Here, he won the 1A Mr. Football Back award. He then went onto play two seasons at UT-Martin before transferring to Morehead State.
Before UT-Martin, he helped his former alma mater post a 13-2 record before falling to the eventual state champion that season. After this Rice spent three years at UT-Martin from 2017-2019 where he helped two different receivers earn All-Ohio Valley Conference honors.
UT-Martin is a Division-I university from Jackson, Tenn., that lies within the OVC along with teams such as Jacksonville State. Here, the Skyhawks saw their offense soar while Rice gripped the receiving core. His team ranked second in pass efficiency and third in pass offense.
“The main thing for me was to get with coach Willis and coach Aplin,” Rice said. “Learning from those guys, because I know how much knowledge they have and being with them. Obviously coach Aplin left but it is also about getting back home, I am from Waynesboro, Tenn. so those are the two biggest things.”
During the middle of spring practice, offensive coordinator Ryan Aplin left the program to join Western Kentucky’s staff. After the Tucker departure and hiring of Rice to the wide receivers coaching vacancy, Willis still has another hole to fill.
“I have gotten hundreds of emails and phone calls,” Willis said. “I have listened to everybody [candidates for OC] but also I am observing what we have here with coach Rice and coach Lisko. Players have come forth that they like the way things are and they don’t want to switch that up. This doesn’t mean I am going in-house [for the job] but there is a possibility.”
Since joining the North Alabama staff, Rice has been working with the receivers but also sharing the offensive coordinator responsibilities with offensive line coach Zach Lisko. Their duties are split evenly with Rice focusing on more of the passing offense with quarterbacks and wide receivers, while Lisko handles the running game with the running backs and offensive line.
“It has been a unique situation,” Rice said, “It has been an opportunity for Coach Lisko and I, to coordinate the offenses. To go over the schedules, scripting, what we are gonna do in practice, and it has been a fun situation. That’s what I want to end up doing is being a coordinator and I was sad that coach Ap[lin] left but I kind of jumped at that opportunity.”
While coordinating the offense, Rice has been able to get an in-depth look at the quarterback situation. Christian Lopez, the starter from a season ago, has since graduated and left a gaping hole on the offensive side of the ball. Now there are a total of five quarterbacks in the mix for a starting shot.
Blake Dever, Rett Files, Reid Herring, Ryan Elledge and Hayden Bryant all have legitimate candidacies for the starting role.
“I used to play quarterback,” Rice said. “I have been a quarterbacks coach before too. It is good to get back into that [quarterback] room; I did have to freshen up on it a little bit such as looking at it from the quarterback’s eyes and not the receiver’s eyes.”
The perks of an open coordinating position allows Rice to script plays that can best suit his offensive firepower. Holes at the quarterback and running back position lead to the receiving core becoming the oldest guys in the system.
“The biggest difference collectively as a group at UNA the football smarts are the best I have ever been around,” Rice said. “Understanding football, the top-four recivers are the best and it is not even close. How to run routes, knowing coverages, all of it.”
The top-four recievers are all redshirt-juniors that have been in the system since their freshman year. Cortez Hall, Dexter Boykin, Andre Little and Jakobi Byrd are all continuing onto their fourth season at UNA during the fall.
Each four of the receivers hauled in 25+ receptions and over 500 yards for North Alabama a season ago. Each of the receievers also brought in two touchdowns along with 12+ yards a reception.
Byrd is a five-foot-eight receiver that is homegrown from Florence, Ala. In each of his two seasons he has caught 45+ passes and surpassed 500 yards as well in both years. He also caught the eventual touchdown pass against Alabama A&M in the first year of the Division-I transition.
“What makes ‘Byrdman’ so good is his football smarts,” Rice said. “He is not the most athletically gifted and he will be the first one to tell you that. His feel as a receiver, his catchability and knowing the offense is so far along and more than anyone on this team.”
Next is Hall, the Hoover High School product stands at six-foot-one, 215 pound frame. While only playing in eight games a season ago for the Lions, he put up more yards per catch than his redshirt-freshman campaign. He averaged 68.6 yards per game, 9.5 more than the previous year as well.
“He reminds me of a dude that I played with at Martin,” Rice said. “His name was Jeremy Butler and he played five years in the NFL. From his body type and a catch-radius standpoint, he has that potential. He is definitely our wide-receiver one.”
A big-body and a huge target, Boykin hails from Fairfield, Ala. Totaling 11 touchdowns in his career along with 1,200 yards could be due to his six-foot-three body frame; the biggest of the four receievers.
“Dimension-wise, Boykin has measurables you would see at the NFL combine,” Rice said. “A height, body-type and weight standpoint he has the measurables to do that. To be so big, he is so good in and out of breaks and that is something I have never seen before. Bigger guys, you would think are tight in the hips and can’t get in and out as well, with him he has the best break time of all the receivers.”
Lastly, Little is the only one not from Alabama; he is actually the most northern player on the team coming from West End High School from Anchorage, Alaska. He is known as a receiver but can also line up as a running back and return kicks for Willis’ offense.
“Andre is probably the most explosive one of all three of them,” Rice said. “He is the most explosive guy we have and coach [Blake] Farris won’t like me saying that since we haven’t done any one-on-one’s yet.”
Rice transitioned two weeks before the start of spring practice, helping him get a feel of his new players. He came into a position that boasted a veteran group, having at least 10 guys that have been in the system at least three years.
“That is what he [Rice] has done a good job of,” Willis said. “He keeps the room in check; keeping everyone happy and getting along, keeping everyone’s egos in check when they hit the field, he has managed the room really well.”
Rice brings a different approach and personality to the position. Tucker, bringing a more mild-mannered presence to the field while he became more intense in meetings. Rice, however, always keeps his entergetic side flipped on whether he is on or off the field.
“For however long we are out there, he is on,” Willis said. “He coaches with a lot of energy and a lot of passion, some coaches aren’t like that. You have to have that and he is that.”
13 wide receivers on roster for the spring game left only four that had been in the Lion’s system for less than two years. Three redshirt-freshmen and one true sophomore are vying for spots behind the four redshirt-juniors.
“Parker Driggers is someone to keep your eye on,” Rice said. “He can play multiple positions, he can catch the ball very well, he is strong, he can do a lot of different things. My other one is, E.J. Rogers and he is building confidence in himself. If he continues to work, he can be a good player for us.”
The Lion’s in their second Division-I year and their first in the Big South Conference made out with a 4-7 record. They held the lead at halftime six times in their 11-game schedule but only amassed three wins from those games.
North Alabama averaged 26 points per game in the 2019 season while they averaged 25 points per game during 2018.
“From a talent standpoint there is not a lot of difference from where I was just at,” Rice said. “They just went 7-5 in the OVC and there isn’t much difference to this team who just went 4-7. The only difference is depth but the transition into FCS does that but there is no doubt this team is ready to compete in the Big South.”
Rice being only 35 minutes from UNA sought out the oppurtunity to coach under Willis and his staff. However, just like Tucker and Aplin, coaches take calls to potentially take higher jobs in the market. Rice knows that being at North Alabama is where he wants to be and even took a pay cut to be here.
“I love working here,” Rice said. “I understand the tradition here and I am building some relationships down here. I understand what it means to coach here and this tradition is something I have never been a part of and it is something I have been wanting to get into. It would take something very lucrative to leave here, definitely since I am closer to my family and my home. This is the next James Madison [University] or the next North Dakota State.”
After his stint as co-offensive coordinator in the spring game, Rice will make his debut in 2020 against Western Illinois. Rice will get to show off his receivers at home against state rival Jacksonville State on Sep. 12.