Landon Rice stepped onto Auburn’s campus earlier this week as one of nine early enrollees.
His journey to the Plains goes back quite a ways longer than his new teammates.
Rice was the first verbal commit for Auburn’s Class of 2016 as a sophomore in high school back in November, 2013.
“It doesn’t happen as often as you like, but I’m a firm believer in your word is your word,” Calhoun high school coach Hal Lamb said. “It’s not always the case now, but he’s one of those kids. He stuck to his commitment and I think that speaks to his character.”
When a coach like Nick Saban picked up the phone to personally pitch Alabama, the 6-foot-5 tight end never waivered. Offers from Alabama along with Michigan, Georgia and Florida did nothing to change Rice’s mind.
“He was flattered, but at the end of the day he always would tell them my heart says ‘War Eagle,’ ” Landon’s father, Joey Rice, said.
When Landon visited Auburn for a camp before his sophomore season, it immediately became his top choice. He had travelled with his father to other SEC schools, including Vanderbilt, Florida and Georgia, but didn’t feel at home until coming to the Plains.
Rice developed a strong rapport with running backs coach Tim Horton, who was his recruiter. That only fueled his desire to find out more about the program.
“On way home from that first camp Landon said, ‘Auburn is different,’ ” Joey Rice said. “From that point on, they always rolled out the red carpet. They went above and beyond.”
The connection to Auburn made committing two-plus years before graduating an easy decision.
“Landon is a deer-hunting, bass-fishing, four-wheel, BBQ-loving kind of kid who wanted to play SEC football,” Joey Rice said. “Auburn is more like who he is.”
Coach Gus Malzahn’s surprising candor about Auburn’s offense was a contributing factor in Landon Rice’s decision.
Rice noticed his position on Auburn’s offense had become a novelty in recent years. Malzahn’s tight ends saw very few snaps and when they did get on the field were used as glorified tackles.
“Malzahn told Landon if they had players they were confident in to do the job they would be out there,” Joey Rice said.
Malzahn’s plan for Landon is similar to the one he used with Philip Lutzenkirchen to much success.
“They need a guy that can play next to the tackle, split out wide and motion out of the backfield in that H-back role,” Joey Rice said. “Malzahn said not having a guy like that was hamstringing their offense.”
Now former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp had the same message for Rice’s before he left for South Carolina.
“If he knew an offense had a player like that, he would always identify that kid right away,” Joey Rice said. “It was a wrinkle that defenses had to account for. Auburn was missing that piece of the equation.”
Malzahn’s eagerness to get Rice on campus was what spurred the then-junior’s decision to pursue early enrollment.
“He asked us if we had thought about it, and we didn’t even really know what it was,” Joey Rice said.
Landon Rice had to double up classes on the same subject taking junior and senior English and history courses in the same semester to get on the accelerated path.
“There weren’t a lot of nights out bowling or going to the movies,” Joey Rice said. “He was kind of like a pre-med student. It was tough and even overwhelming at times, but he knew he wanted to be an Auburn Tiger.”
A turning point in Landon Rice’s career was his decision to transfer from Darlington to Calhoun for his junior year of high school.
“When Landon committed, coach Malzahn told him he wanted him ready to hit the field when he got on campus and not think about redshirting,” Joey Rice said.
Darlington School, a small private school, wouldn’t have put the youngest member of the Rice family on track to compete for a job his first day on campus.
Landon Rice turned to a coach and program that had a reputation of molding FBS-level talent.
Calhoun hasn’t lost a region game since 2001 (110-plus games) while sending a number of high-profile recruits including kicker Adam Griffith (Alabama), wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers (Tennessee), defensive tackle Eric McDaniel (Purdue) and wide receiver Kris Durham (Georgia) off to power five schools.
Coach Hal Lamb made Calhoun into a perennial contender by modeling his approach after schools in the SEC with high speed, detailed practices.
“This is a program that’s been to the Georgia Dome six of the last eight years,” Joey Rice said. “It was a game-changer. They helped Landon become a higher octane player — a better, faster and stronger athlete.”
Landon had no issues with the intense practices or workouts, but needed to work on the technical aspects of being more of a receiving tight end. The biggest adjustment for Rice was an increased role in the passing game.
“He was already a very versatile player, but he came from a team that didn’t throw the ball much to a spread team,” Lamb said. “He needed to work on his route running and on catching the ball.”
As a defensive-minded football team, Lamb also used Rice as a defensive end.
“We just like putting our best players on that side of the ball,” Lamb said.
During Rice’s two seasons with Calhoun, the team lost one game — the Class AAA semifinal game in early December. The Yellowjackets won the championship with an undefeated 15-0 record in 2014 beating Washington County 27-20 in the finals.
Calhoun was 3 yards away from getting back to the title game, but Blessed Trinity made a goal line stand with 10 seconds left to close out a 12-7 win.
As a senior, Rice had 20 catches for 309 yards with three touchdowns and 68 tackles with four tackles for a loss and three sacks.
“He played a lot of snaps for us on Friday nights and always seemed like he could play all night long if he had too,” Lamb said.
A lost art
Landon Rice’s father spent the last two seasons as Calhoun’s co-offensive line coach.
His career coaching the “hogs,” as he affectionately calls them, goes back a lot longer than that.
Despite spending his playing days as a linebacker, the Jacksonville State alum gravitated toward coaching the other side of the ball.
“I guess I always understood what offensive lineman were always trying to do to me,” Joey Rice said. “It’s just always been my area. I feel in love with it.”
With Landon’s size setting him on a path to be a tackle or tight end from a young age, his father’s coaching background came in handy.
“He was always the biggest kid on the field, but he was also the fastest,” Joey Rice said. “If he kept that speed, we knew he would be a skill player, but until we knew what path I made sure he knew how to block. It’s a cornerstone whether you are a tight end or a tackle.”
When Landon Rice made it to Calhoun, blocking wasn’t an area concern for the coaching staff with coach Lamb giving him high marks for his consistency and technique.
The praise isn’t too surprising considering blocking was Rice’s first skill set.
“Before he could ever catch a ball I made sure he knew how to block,” Joey Rice said. “I think kids have lost that vision. They don’t want to mix it up with a linebacker.”
Arm in arm
Landon Rice has a plan for the first time he walks out of the tunnel at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It doesn’t involve playing to the crowd or dabbing. It’s a nod to his roots as a small-town kid from northwest Georgia with a close-knit family.
He’s going to walk on the field when Auburn hosts Clemson in September arm in arm with his brother Logan Rice.
The preferred walk-on wide receiver, who is only 18 months older than his brother, just finished his second year with the Tigers.
“They are more like twins,” Joey Rice said. “Landon’s always said his motto is faith, family and football in that order. It’s a blessing to have them reunited.”
The brothers grew up playing football together and were teammates through high school. Logan Rice was a quarterback and outside linebacker at Darlington his junior and senior season with Landon on varsity as a tight end and defensive lineman.
“It was amazing when the PA would say it’s a pass from Rice to Rice or the brothers Rice team up for the tackle,” Joey Rice said. “We are pumped to have them back on the sidelines like have been most of their life.”