Midway Mansfield

Baylor commit Jackson Gleeson of Mansfield (right) pulls down a touchdown over Midway cornerback Grant Parnell in the first half of their playoff game on Dec. 1.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte

The first Wednesday in February has always been like Christmas to college football coaches.

That was the traditional date when players signed their national letter of intent and college coaches saw their long hours of recruiting finally come to fruition.

But that’s all changed now that the NCAA has instituted an early December signing period that will run Wednesday through Friday.

While the Feb. 7 signing date is still looming, most coaches expect the bulk of their commitments to sign in December.

Baylor is no exception as at least 15 of its 22 commitments in the 2018 class are expected to sign early. Baylor received its most recent commitment Saturday night from Miami Washington four-star receiver Tyquan Thornton who flipped from Florida.

Most of the players can’t wait to sign to get the recruiting process over with and move on to preparing to enroll in college.

“I’m very excited because it’s been a long process,” said Mansfield receiver Jackson Gleeson. “I would have chosen Baylor whether it would have been this date or February, but it’s nice to get it done now and not have to think about it. I’m happy as I can be to pick Baylor. Now I can get ready to come in during the summer and work out with the team.”

In the past, a handful of players have graduated from high school early and signed financial aid contracts with colleges in December to be eligible for college enrollment in January.

Several December signees are expected to enroll at Baylor in the spring semester, including Franklin offensive lineman Casey Phillips and Cibolo Steele defensive back J.T. Woods.

They want to get a jump on their college careers by going through spring football drills and adjusting to college classes.

“Definitely some of the reasons to leave high school early are to get on the field a lot more, learn the playbook and get acclimated to college life,” Woods said. “A lot of it is academic because I get an extra semester. I think the December signing date gives guys a lot of opportunity to officially lock into the school they wanted.”

Despite Baylor’s 1-11 season, coach Matt Rhule and his staff have kept their recruiting class intact. Baylor is bringing in a class that is ranked No. 25 nationally by Rivals.com, and includes 10 players in the Tribune-Herald’s Top 100 in Texas.

Many of the commitments see an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a rebuilding program as Rhule enters his second year at Baylor.

“They’re definitely going to rise pretty quickly from last season,” Gleeson said. “Every team has a bad year, and it just happened to be the year I committed there. But I have full faith we’ll come back and regain the winning standard they’re used to there.”

Phillips believes Baylor will rise quickly much like Rhule’s program at Temple. After a 2-10 2013 season, Temple finished 6-6 the next year before reeling off a pair of 10-win seasons.

“When Coach Rhule got to Temple he had to start from scratch like at Baylor,” Phillips said. “But in two years he won the conference championship. I have no doubt we’ll rise very fast.”

Since most of the recruits verbally committed prior to the 2017 season, they closely watched the Baylor games each week. Though the Bears struggled to win, they could see the team improve as the season progressed.

“You could see in November that the players were starting to understand the process,” Woods said. “I know it’s there and they have potential. It will be very exciting to be a part of what turns Baylor around.”

Among the 22 verbal commitments, Pasadena Rayburn running back Stanley Hackett, Houston Lamar defensive end Joshua Landry and Thornton are rated four-star recruits by Rivals.com while 16 other Baylor commitments are three-star recruits.

A major emphasis is building the offensive line, an obvious weakness during Baylor’s one-win season.

For the second straight year, Baylor has commitments from five high school offensive line recruits, including Phillips, Katy’s Connor Galvin, Bryan’s Ylijaah Hall, Southlake Carroll’s Jackson Kimble and Princeton Pines from Baton Rouge Tara (La.) High School. Pines became Baylor’s 21st commitment on Friday night.

Phillips is looking forward to working under the Baylor coaches, who have vast experience at the college and NFL levels.

“They obviously know what they’re talking about because they’ve got so much experience at the college and pro level,” Phillips said. “They care about you as a player and want to see you get better. But they also want you to succeed off the field more than any coaches I been around that looked at me.”

Baylor is also focusing heavily on its receiving corps with commitments from four wide receivers and three tight ends.

Thornton and Gleeson will be joined by speedy Silsbee receiver Kalon Barnes and Friendswood Clear Brook’s Mark Milton. Cuero’s Bralen Taylor is one of the top tight end prospects in Texas, and San Antonio Clark’s Ben Sims and Christoph Henle of the Oakridge School in Arlington are also tight ends with solid potential.

Gleeson got a taste of playing at McLane Stadium when he made a pair of touchdown catches in Mansfield’s 48-17 regional playoff loss to Midway two weeks ago.

“The stadium is beautiful, and anyone would love to play college ball there,” Gleeson said. “It was a great experience. I got my first time jitters in the stadium out.”

In addition to Hackett, Baylor is also bringing in a pair of other talented running backs in Joshua Fleeks from Cedar Hill and Craig Williams from Crosby.

With sophomore Zach Smith planning to transfer, freshman Charlie Brewer is Baylor’s only scholarship quarterback. The Bears hope to sign dual-threat quarterback Gerry Bohanon from Earle, Ark., who will announce his college choice on Tuesday.

Defensively, Landry will be joined on the line by Marshall end Marje Smith. Alief Taylor linebacker Joseph Ogunbanjo is the only linebacker in the class while the defensive backs include DeSoto’s Byron Hanspard, Humble Porter’s Christian Morgan and Woods.

Kicker Isaac Power from Ponderosa High School in Parker, Colo., is the lone specialist committed to Baylor.

Many of Baylor’s commitments have stayed in contact with each other and are looking forward to getting on the field together.

“We have a group that talks every day,” Phillips said. “We’re all ready to get there and do our part in the rebuilding process.”

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