July 14, 2010 11:53:00 AM
David Miller -
John Rice didn''t have to go 800 miles to play in college football''s top flight, but he''s making the most of being a Western Michigan Bronco.
After growing up in Crawford and spending two years in Scooba as a defensive tackle at East Mississippi Community College, Rice has experienced a drastic change of scenery since relocating to Kalamazoo, Mich., in the spring.
Exactly why Rice chose to move so far from home was a mystery to many, especially his mother, Mattie Doss.
Rice said his mother was worried about the proximity between Rice and the family.
A recruiting visit from Western Michigan coaches and a trek to Kalamazoo for the spring game was enough to alleviate any concerns Ms. Doss might have had, Rice said.
After a diminished relationship with Louisiana Tech, Rice opted for Western Michigan instead of other four-year colleges that were close to home.
He wasn''t concerned about joining four other juniors in the interior tackle rotation, especially on a team just two years removed from a bowl game appearance.
Rice believed Western Michigan was a school he could attend and make an immediate impact, and that decision was made the moment he stepped on campus.
"I knew it was somewhere I thought I could play and they welcomed me right away," Rice said. "I felt I could come in and get everything accomplished. It''s business around here, a lot like Scooba."
Rice, one of 26 EMCC players to earn four-year college scholarships, said he entered the spring with a chip on his shoulder. Sure, he''s the nephew of NFL legend Jerry Rice, hailing from the same school that spawned the greatest receiver in pro football history.
Coming from East Oktibbeha, Rice found it challenging to break into the upper echelon of Football Bowl Subdivision recruits. He was a virtual unknown at the time, but like many small school products looking to improve their game Rice entered the storied Mississippi junior college ranks.
Talent is plucked from MJCAC by the likes of Alabama and Florida, and even smaller schools like West Alabama and Delta State. The Southeast is also a recruiting ground for Western Michigan, which has more players from the state of Florida than any other school in the Mid-American Conference, said defensive line coach Lou Esposito, who lettered four years at Memphis.
"We know about that talent down there and we''re going to turn over every stone to find the best players for our team," Esposito said. "John fit that bill. He''s stout and incredibly strong. He''s also a good competitor."
All of the positives that were ahead of Rice once he inked with Western Michigan soon turned into a handful of obstacles. Moving away from Mississippi was harder than he thought it would be, and making the switch to an FBS bowl-caliber team meant changing the way he prepared and worked everyday.
"Everything from conditioning to weights was a whole different level," Rice said. "On the field, you''re facing more competition than you did in juco. But there was a time when I got homesick, and that was tough. The coaches helped me through that, and having coach (Mike) Grant come down to talk to my mom was a big help."
Though Rice is feeling more comfortable after a successful spring, Esposito says his talented lineman is only halfway through his transition. Though Rice will enter the fall as a junior, the 2010 season will be his first outside of junior college. Having previously coached juco transfers, Esposito says some players take longer to adapt.
"In JUCO, not that they''re not held accountable, but they''re on their own more," Esposito explained. "You see guys make it in months and some in years. John is putting his best foot forward everyday and is transitioning well. Do I think he''s ready for 50 snaps? Probably not. Is he closer now than when he got here? Definitely.
"You try to keep a thumb on them because you don''t want them to stumble. Sometimes it''s hard for guys to be disciplined in a new environment."
Rice knows he can''t live off his reputation of playing for national power EMCC, a program he helped turn around as a part of Buddy Stephens'' first signing class. But while those days are in the past, the confidence from steamrolling to a state title and a junior college bowl win remains with Rice. The journey from unexpectedly sparking an epic turnaround in Scooba to signing with Western Michigan came with mixed emotions.
"The guys who moved on to the next level were excited, but we were all sad to leave," Rice said. "We built a dynasty down there in Scooba, and we talk about it all the time. When we were down there, all we could think about was winning and moving on to the next level. Now, we all miss each other.
"I didn''t know where I would end up, or if I would make to where I am. But keeping God first will get you far."
Rice and the Broncos begin the season Sept. 4 at Michigan State.