The veteran Baylor football players are accustomed to going to bowl games every season and strengthening the team’s bond by practicing throughout December.
But after a 1-11 season, the Bears’ school-record bowl streak has ended after seven years.
While Baylor coach Matt Rhule would have loved to keep the streak alive in his debut season, he hopes his squad can use the offseason to heal numerous injuries, hit the weights hard, and become a more experienced and mentally tougher football team that can pull out close games.
This season was a learning experience for everybody, including Rhule and his coaching staff.
“I think you can never underestimate as a coach how much you really don’t know about your team until after the first year,” Rhule said. “You think you know, but you really don’t know. It’s filled sometimes with pleasant surprises. You just kind of have to go to battle with guys, and go through highs and lows.”
One of Rhule’s biggest tasks was to rebuild the image of the program off the field after the fallout of the sexual assault scandal that cost highly successful coach Art Briles his job in May 2016. Rhule believes his players have shown strong character and have become responsible teammates and good citizens.
“I see players’ lives changing off the field,” Rhule said. “I have guys make mistakes and get into trouble and have problems, there’s no doubt about that. But I also have some guys who are growing and maturing and doing things they haven’t done before in their lives. I’m just so confident as we move forward.”
Rhule certainly learned a great deal about his players’ strengths and weaknesses on the field, largely because he was forced to play so many of them.
The Bears were hammered by injuries all season, forcing Rhule to constantly change lineups. The Bears played 17 true freshmen and 11 of them started games. Baylor started 28 different players throughout the season.
Many key players suffered season-ending injuries, including preseason all-Big 12 defensive lineman K.J. Smith, all-Big 12 linebacker Taylor Young, speedy wide receiver Chris Platt, starting middle linebacker Clay Johnston and punter Drew Galitz.
While a bowl would have provided extra practices, a larger number of Baylor players saw significant practice time because of all the injuries.
“Usually you want your bowl practice so you can practice all the guys you’re redshirting,” Rhule said. “But all of our two’s have been one’s, all of our three’s have become starters. So we’ve had a lot of guys play a lot of football. So I think what they need to do is rest and then jump into the offseason. We need to get strong, we need to get powerful, we need to grow into big, strong, physical men.”
All three quarterbacks suffered injuries. Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon started the first two games before going out with a concussion and eventually withdrawing from school. Sophomore Zach Smith suffered a shoulder injury against Texas and missed three games before playing in the fourth quarter of Friday’s season-ending 45-22 loss to No. 10 TCU when freshman quarterback Charlie Brewer went out with a dislocated shoulder.
Though Brewer didn’t play in the first four games, he started the last four and finished the season hitting 68.1 percent of his passes for 1,562 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Smith started six games and completed 52.2 percent for 1,471 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Rhule expects both quarterbacks to be healthy for spring football and be highly competitive.
“Both guys, and whoever we bring in, are going to be in a battle,” Rhule said. “Every position on this team will be up for grabs. Everyone’s going to have to work. But those two guys have proven that they’re good enough. They just have to get healthy. They’re both such young puppies, you’re talking about a freshman and a sophomore. So this offseason, this spring, I think will be great for their development.”
While Smith could have some opportunities to transfer, Rhule believes he’ll stick with Baylor and compete for the starting quarterback job. Rhule thinks the quarterbacks will benefit from another year working under Baylor quarterbacks coach Glenn Thomas.
“I think Zach Smith is too much of a competitor to have a bad turn of events challenge him,” Rhule said. “I think Zach is a tremendous young quarterback. I think he has a chance to be a really, really special player. I think Glenn’s coaching is going to help him have a chance to maybe be a pro someday.”
Rhule believes his team can make a bowl next season and that his young players will benefit from all the tough practices and game time they’ve seen.
“When we first got here, I think they thought some of the things we did were punishment,” Rhule said. “I think now they recognize this is so we don’t have to sit out there and watch someone else celebrate. This is so we can go out there and be the team that celebrates. So we’ll get a lot better pretty quickly.”
After a pair of dismal nonconference losses to Liberty and UTSA at McLane Stadium, Rhule saw his squad gradually improve. Though the Bears’ only win was a 38-9 blowout of cellar dwelling Kansas on Nov. 4, they were competitive in most games but didn’t have enough experience and depth to finish them off.
“As a football team, I feel like we’re way better,” Rhule said. “We may have had some better personnel at times early on, but I think this team has learned how to fight, they learned how to be tough. I think they’ve really grown and I think they’ve made tremendous strides. It’s obviously not good enough where we are. But we’ve come a long way. And I think that will allow us to maybe feel like we’ve built enough of a foundation to move forward.”
Rhule experienced a similar debut season as Temple’s head coach in 2013 when his team finished 2-10. But the Owls improved to 6-6 the next year before reeling off a pair of 10-win seasons before Rhule took the Baylor job.
While this season has been difficult for Rhule to endure, he believes it’s been harder on people close to him.
“It’s probably harder on my wife and my kids than it is on me,” Rhule said. “There’s no doubt I know how this is going to end. There’s no doubt we’ll be sitting here in a couple of years and I’ll be telling the coaching staff’s best coaching job was this year.”