WESTWOOD (AP) — The name on the back of Jerry Rice Jr.’s UCLA jersey is an awfully heavy thing for a walk-on receiver to carry on his shoulders.
The Bruins are grateful it hasn’t slowed him down at all, because it’s time to see what the son of the NFL’s greatest receiver can do.
After nearly three years on the practice squad doing the grunt work expected from any walk-on, Rice is expected to play in the Rose Bowl for the first time on Saturday when the Bruins host California.
“I’ve been pretty mentally prepared for a long time,” Rice said after ditching his practice-squad gear and wearing his own jersey — No. 88, not his dad’s famed No. 80 — during practice this week.
“I know the playbook a lot, but it’s going to be different,” Rice said. “I know when it gets closer to the game, I’m going to get more anxious, more excited, more nervous, all those things will come up, so I make sure to keep level-minded and be ready for anything.”
Rice’s opportunity arose after four top UCLA receivers — Taylor Embree, Randall Carroll, Shaquelle Evans and Ricky Marvray — were suspended by the Pac-12 for participating in a brawl last week at Arizona. The Bruins’ roster is enviably deep with receivers, but the suspensions put Rice onto the depth chart right behind starters Nelson Rosario and Josh Smith.
“Jerry has a golden opportunity,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “Jerry Rice Jr. has done everything we’ve ever asked him to. He just needed an opportunity, and now he’s got one. He’ll play every play if we ask him to.”
Rice has been hard at work to earn this opportunity ever since arriving at UCLA in 2009. His coaches and teammates say he has none of the attitude or entitlement that might be expected from the namesake of the San Francisco 49ers’ Hall of Famer, and his talent has grown to the point that he earned a scholarship for next year.
“If you didn’t know his name was Jerry Rice, you wouldn’t know he was his son,” UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince said. “He’s just a really cool guy, a great teammate. Obviously, when your dad is the best receiver to ever play, you’re going to know the position, and you’re going to know how to play. … He’s got good hands and good route-running skills. I think he’ll fit in just fine. He doesn’t have quite the speed that Randall has. He doesn’t use his body like Taylor does, but he has the ability to catch the ball and get open.”
Rice grew up in Atherton, Calif., an upscale Bay Area enclave on the Peninsula between the 49ers’ Santa Clara training complex and Candlestick Park. He played well on both sides of the ball at the elite Menlo School, but wasn’t heavily recruited until Kansas State and Air Force offered scholarships late in his senior year.
With the educational background and financial freedom to go just about anywhere, Rice could have walked on at Arizona, Cal or Stanford, which is just a few blocks down El Camino Real from Menlo. Instead, UCLA’s unique combination of academics and atmosphere proved irresistible.
“I felt like I didn’t want to be too close to home, so I could live on my own and grow up,” Rice said. “I decided to come here for the opportunity education-wise, but also to be around the tradition of excellence at UCLA, all the national championships and all the great athletes that have come through this school.”
Rice knew the Bruins were deep at his position, and he eagerly accepted scout-team duties with a work ethic that echoed his father, who famously wasn’t recruited much on his way to Mississippi Valley State. His new teammates usually do a double-take when they learn his lineage, but the Bruins quickly discovered Rice is no spoiled rich kid.
“I remember when I first got here, that was one of the things I was nervous about,” Rice said. “I didn’t know if people were going to accept me, but they’ve taken me in with open arms. All the receivers are out here giving me support, and I’m sure they’re all going to be on the sideline Saturday, mentoring me and making sure I’m OK. They all have my back, and I respect that.”
Rice’s parents and sisters will be in the Rose Bowl stands on Saturday night, and he’s hoping to play well enough to earn a bigger role along with that scholarship in the next two years. He’s also working on his sociology degree, although he’s hoping his interests in business and music production lead to a career as an “entrepreneur,” he said with a laugh.
“I have plenty of ideas, and I like doing a lot of things,” Rice said. “I’m focused on football right now, and I’m just taking this time to network and meet a lot of people in L.A. I’ve got to start with this first. Hopefully I can get my name out there, and then go from the bottom up.”