Grayland Arnold is only a sophomore but he’s already got a commanding voice on the Baylor football team.
If he sees a teammate who is not going all out to make a play, he’ll make it clear that he’s not happy about it. Arnold’s teammates aren’t offended by his tough words. They know he just wants everybody to play his best to give the Bears a chance to break through for a win.
“He’s always talking, he’s never down,” said Baylor defensive lineman Ira Lewis. “He gets me fired up when he gets going. He’s always got a lot of energy, so he brings a lot of energy to the defense. He loves competing at anything whether it’s ping pong, video games, it doesn’t matter. He wants to win and he’s going to pump you up.”
Arnold is the Bears’ best cornerback, a position that’s arguably the toughest to play in the Big 12 with its plethora of great quarterbacks and receivers.
Never afraid of a challenge, Arnold looks forward to playing against the league’s best receivers whether it’s Oklahoma State’s James Washington, West Virginia’s David Sills or Texas Tech’s Keke Coutee.
“Every week you’re going against a great receiver whether he has a height advantage, jumping ability, speed or great hands,” Arnold said. “You’ve got to be a real competitor. Each time it’s like do or die. It’s me against you. Who’s the best athlete out here right now? Every play you’ve got a chance to prove you’re better than the receiver. If I lose on one play, give up a catch, I’m angry.”
After starting four games as a true freshman last season, Arnold was eager to get off to a tremendous start this season. But he broke his left arm during practice a week before the season opener against Liberty, and was forced to miss the first three games.
Sitting and watching his teammates lose all three non-conference games was frustrating for a guy who wants to be in the middle of the action on every play. So he got back on the field as quickly as he could no matter how much pain he’s had to endure.
“I’m left-handed, it’s my dominant arm, and it was discouraging,” Arnold said. “I wear padding around it. I’ve gotten used to the fact that it’s going to hurt. Sometimes I feel like it’s broken again because it hurts so bad, but five minutes later, it goes away. Now it’s to the point where it might hurt again if I bump it, but I just keep playing.”
Arnold got the first interception of his college career when he picked off Shane Buechele’s pass at the goal line and returned it 20 yards in the third quarter of last week’s 38-7 loss to Texas. It was just the second interception for Baylor’s defense, and Arnold wants more.
“It was a great feeling, something I’ve been waiting on all my career,” Arnold said. “Last year I played and started four games, and it was like man, when am I going to get one? It was a big moment for me.”
The Baylor coaches love Arnold’s tenacity and aggressiveness, and the leadership he brings to the defense.
“Grayland has done a good job and I’m proud of how he’s learning how to be a leader as a young guy,” said Baylor defensive backs coach Fran Brown. “He’s tough. He’s not afraid to go out and compete. He’s a kid you love to coach. He’s going to get better every week. I think we’ll see a lot of good football out of him over the next three years.”
Kountze High School coach Duane Joubert saw those same qualities when Arnold was growing up in the southeast Texas town. He made both the football and basketball varsity teams as a freshman, and eventually became one of the best players in Class 3A in both sports.
Joubert put Arnold wherever they needed him on the football field as he played quarterback, wide receiver, running back, safety, cornerback and kick returner.
“He was a multi-faceted kid,” Joubert said. “Since we’re a small Class 3A school, he got to play everywhere and he could do it. After his junior year, he knew he wanted to play defensive back at Baylor. But I wanted him to touch the ball whenever he could. As a quarterback, I compared him to Michael Vick because he’s left handed and he had that speed to make people miss. I wanted him to touch the ball on every play because he could make something happen.”
Arnold was just as good on the basketball court as he became a two-time all-state selection who led Kountze to the Class 3A final four as a junior in 2015 and a trip to regionals in 2016.
“He could handle the ball and made everyone else around him better,” Joubert said. “He was a good assist guy but when we needed him to score more he could do that. He averaged 22 to 25 points a game as a senior and everybody feared him.”
Arnold said he thought about trying to play both football and basketball in college, but decided it would be too hard to juggle both sports. Though he stands just 5-9, he believes he’s a better basketball player than any other Baylor football player, including tight end Ish Wainright, who started for Baylor’s Sweet 16 basketball team last season before coming out for football.
“I feel like I can take anybody on this team in hoops,” Arnold said. “Even Ish.”
Arnold was recruited for football by recruiters at major schools across the country, and many thought he could play defensive back or receiver.
“I was recruited on offense mostly by schools like Nebraska,” Arnold said. “Most of them wanted me to play both. That’s what (former Baylor coach) Art Briles wanted. He could see me playing receiver or in the wildcat. I feel like I’m confident at any position. I feel like I can be dominant.”
After Baylor fired Briles in May 2016 in the school’s sexual assault scandal, Arnold didn’t begin looking for other schools to play football. He felt committed to Baylor regardless of who was coaching the team.
“It was more me being committed to Baylor than just being committed to a person or a program,” Arnold said. “I like the whole atmosphere out here, it reminded me of home. I could adapt to it quickly rather than some other schools. I knew even though we were going to get a new head coach I knew we would get a good one.”
Playing under interim coach Jim Grobe last season, Arnold was pressed into duty immediately instead of redshirting. That’s exactly what Arnold wanted as he played in 11 games, collecting 20 tackles and four pass breakups.
In Baylor’s 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl, Arnold collected a career-high eight tackles including two for losses.
“I came in here not wanting to redshirt,” Arnold said. “Coming from a small town like Kountze, Texas, that’s rare. I knew there was a senior ahead of me, a redshirt sophomore, a redshirt freshman, guys who had been here learning the system. But I’m a competitor.”
Baylor coach Matt Rhule sees Arnold as a leader on the team for years to come. In August, he was rewarded with a coveted single-digit jersey No. 4 because of his work ethic and toughness. Arnold has already proven his leadership ability, and Rhule likes the way he responds when bad things happen.
After Arnold and the rest of the defensive backs were burned repeatedly in a 59-16 loss to Oklahoma State three weeks ago, he couldn’t wait to get back on the field to improve his skills.
“When you look at him, you see a future captain,” Rhule said. “He’s one of those guys that has an edge to him. I like the fact that he had a game he didn’t like, and it made him better and tougher. He didn’t get broken from it, but he got more mentally tough because of it. I think he’s a voice on our football team. Grayland is a guy that people listen to and respect, and he’ll continue to become one of the better corners in the league.”