With Saturday’s spring game approaching at McLane Stadium, Baylor coach Matt Rhule likes the progress his quarterbacks are making and sees their thirst for learning a new offense.
While sophomore Zach Smith, graduate transfer Anu Solomon and freshman Charlie Brewer have all shown good signs, no one has yet put his stake in the starting job.
Rhule doesn’t expect to name a starter until the middle of preseason drills in August. But for now he would like all of his quarterbacks to be more assertive.
“We’re very much a nice group of kids right now at quarterback,” Rhule said. “At some point, somebody’s going to step up and say, ‘Hey, run the right route,’ with a little bit of assertiveness about them. One of the things I’m looking forward to at some point is which guy starts demanding that guys do things right.”
All three Baylor scholarship quarterbacks will get their share of snaps at Saturday’s scrimmage, which will begin at noon and is free and open to the public. Rhule likes the variety he’s got at quarterback and believes they have all shown a strong work ethic.
Sophomore Zach Smith started the last four games as a freshman last season after senior Seth Russell went down with an ankle injury. Blessed with a powerful arm, Smith passed for 1,526 yards and 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Despite playing with a shaky ankle, Smith notched his first win as a starter in the Cactus Bowl as he hit 28 of 39 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns in Baylor’s 31-12 blowout of Boise State.
After graduating from Arizona, Solomon transferred to Baylor this spring. Possessing both a good arm and mobility, he put up some impressive numbers in three seasons with the Wildcats as he passed for 6,922 yards, 49 touchdowns and 16 interceptions even though his 2016 season was derailed by a knee injury.
Brewer delivered a remarkable high school career as he led Lake Travis to the Class 6A Division I championship last year by completing a national record 77.4 percent of his passes for 3,908 yards and 54 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He also rushed for 746 yards and nine touchdowns to earn Associated Press Texas player of the year.
While Rhule has seen positive signs from all three quarterbacks, he’s far from making a decision on the starter.
“Zach’s a little bit limited with his ankle, but he’s got an elite arm,” Rhule said. “Anu has some escapability, some mobility, some niftiness. Charlie, you can see that 78 percent completion percentage in high school carries over to college. All the guys are kind of learning. That, to me, will be a long-term deal. I think all those guys are adjusting to what we’re asking them to do.”
Like everyone else on the Baylor squad, the quarterbacks have had to learn a new offense that combines elements of both the pro style and the spread. They’ve had to learn new terminology and adjust to a new coaching staff.
“You have to know what you’re doing before you worry about everyone else, so they’re working,” Rhule said. “As a group, it’s a really hard working, diligent group. They’re way further ahead in terms of protections than I thought they would be. And it’s because they come in and they do extra work. Those guys are probably sitting up there right now looking at the tape.”
The new coaching staff includes co-offensive coordinators Glenn Thomas and Jeff Nixon who both have NFL experience. Thomas, Baylor’s quarterbacks coach, was Rhule’s offensive coordinator at Temple last season but he had spent seven years as an offensive assistant with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Nixon, Baylor’s running backs coach, was the San Francisco 49ers tight ends coach last season, and had previously been an offensive assistant for the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins.
The Baylor players not only have to learn a playbook for the first time in 10 years after going without one in the Art Briles era, they also put in a lot of film work.
“After school, Coach Thomas tells us to come in 45 minutes before practice and get in film work, and that’s going to benefit us in the future,” Solomon said. “It (the playbook) is very hard. You see some of the young guys while they’re getting treatment they have their playbook in their hands and they’re studying. It’s all about memorizing what routes you have on certain plays and where you need to be and staying on the same page as the quarterback.”
Rhule knows the players have a lot to grasp since they have to learn two styles of offense. But he thinks that kind of versatility will give the Bears some options depending on the flow of the game.
If the Bears can take the lead with a no-huddle spread attack, he believes they can stay on top and run time off the clock with power football.
“We start practice, it’s all no-huddle spread,” Rhule said. “There’s a dropback period. At the end of the day, all that big stuff (power football) is great when you have the lead. And usually you get the lead by throwing the football and spreading people out. If we’re behind, I’d like to be no-huddle going as fast as possible. I’d prefer to be ahead and keep the defense off the field and run the football and control the clock.”
Though spring drills will end with Saturday’s scrimmage, the Baylor quarterbacks understand it’s important to continue to polish their skills during the summer when the coaches aren’t around.
“The spring is good but you start to strengthen the team with bonding during the summer,” Solomon said. “The coaches aren’t around telling the players what to do. The quarterbacks are getting on the receivers where to be and when to watch film. We’ve done a great job in the offseason, but we have to do a better job if we want to achieve our goals.”