Watching his team take the field at McLane Stadium for the first time this summer, Baylor coach Matt Rhule looked like a man who was going to clearly enjoy the August grind.
The Bears’ Sept. 2 season opener against Liberty is still a month away. That means Rhule and his coaching staff have plenty of time to focus on developing players and watching the team bond before getting into weekly game preparation mode.
“This is my favorite time of year, this and the offseason,” said Rhule before Tuesday night’s practice. “I love this daily grind. You hope you can build some closeness which turns into camaraderie which turns into collaboration. This is my time to get to know the kids and build some lasting bonds that will take us through the season.”
Of course, college football is serious business. Coaches have to win to keep their jobs and players have to produce to stay in the lineup. College football teams are often the face of the university for better or worse.
But that doesn’t mean the coaches and players can’t have fun as they prepare for the season. Players who enjoy being around each other often equate to more successful teams. In his first preseason camp with the Bears, Rhule already sees players starting to bond and develop trust in each other.
“I like walking from the coaches office into the players lounge and seeing 50 guys sleeping on the floor in between classes and practice,” Rhule said. “There’s guys playing ping pong. I just like that camaraderie that’s built here.”
Rhule will have five weeks to prepare his team for the season opener after the NCAA disallowed two-a-day workouts this season. The new legislation gave college football teams an extra week to practice, and Rhule took full advantage of it by starting July 27.
The extended practice window couldn’t have come at a better time for Rhule and his staff since this is their first season at Baylor and they’re still trying to get a handle on the players’ abilities and how they best fit into the team scheme.
The players will do much more film work between practices than during the Art Briles era, and they will have to learn a playbook for the first time. The offensive and defensive playbooks are Moby Dick-style deep and bulky. Like Baylor offensive lineman Blake Blackmar said, “It’s almost like taking two more classes.”
One of the many things Rhule is looking for during August workouts is for leaders to emerge. He already knows who some of his leaders are after going through spring drills. He brought several of them to the Big 12 football media days two weeks ago, including Blackmar, linebacker Taylor Young and defensive ends K.J. Smith and Brian Nance.
But he said senior offensive tackle Mo Porter is also emerging as one of the team’s top leaders.
“There’s a lot of great leaders but Maurice is a guy who is really starting to ascend as both a player and a leader on this team,” Rhule said. “He’s really come on since the middle of the summer. Mo has become a voice in the locker room. He’s in it with us.”
Rhule wants to see one of his three scholarship quarterbacks establish himself as the leader of the offense. He likes what all three bring to the table: sophomore Zach Smith with his big arm, graduate transfer Anu Solomon with his mobility and experience, and freshman Charlie Brewer with his accuracy.
But Rhule would like one quarterback to rise to the top well before the season opener. He wants the whole package on display in his quarterback, a great playmaker who makes good decisions.
“I certainly don’t want somebody who just manages the game,’ Rhule said. “I want to be aggressive and have someone who is pushing the ball. I would rather find the best fit for us and try to coach him to make good decisions.”
During August, Rhule hopes to set the tone for the season with physical, demanding practices. He wants the offense to be more disciplined than in previous seasons and cut down on penalties.
Above all, he plans to establish a work ethic that will carry through the season.
“I believe in deliberate practice,” Rhule said. “I believe in attention to detail and complete and total attention to what you’re doing. I believe you have to prepare yourself like crazy to give yourself a chance. But you also have to just go play. You have to execute when the lights are on. So I don’t believe you can have one without the other.”