When the scholarship offer came from USC, James Lynch’s imagination jumped into overdrive.
Growing up as a college football fan and studying the history of the sport, he knew this was one of the traditionally elite programs on par with Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama.
It’s the home of 11 national champions and seven Heisman Trophy winners. So after Lynch took his official visit to Los Angeles as a senior at Round Rock, he switched his commitment from TCU to USC.
“They’re just kind of a blue blood powerhouse and they have this tradition,” Lynch said. “I’ve watched college football my whole life, so I know what it meant to play for USC. It’s a good school. All the famous people they have on the walls – there are tons of names because they’ve had so many people go through there.”
Then Matt Rhule came into the picture and everything changed.
Within days of becoming Baylor’s head coach in December 2016, Rhule made the short drive down I-35 to Round Rock to try to persuade the talented defensive lineman to switch to Baylor.
Lynch was impressed that Rhule and then-Baylor defensive line coach Elijah Robinson had made him a recruiting priority. He was even more impressed that he could call Rhule on his cell phone and he’d pick up immediately.
Baylor was already on Lynch’s radar since former coach Art Briles’ staff had previously shown interest in him. The more Lynch thought about it, the better Baylor sounded.
“Baylor was one of the first schools I wanted to go to,” Lynch said. “They recruited me but never offered me. So when Coach Rhule offered me, it was a chance to be close to home and get a good education and stay near my family because I’m a big family person. Whenever you have someone who shows that much interest and cares for you, you want them to be your coach.”
Lynch made his commitment to Baylor in January 2017 and signed his national letter of intent a few weeks later. As soon as Lynch started playing as a true freshman last season, it was easy to see why Rhule was so eager to sign him.
Lynch was named an ESPN freshman All-American after leading Big 12 freshmen with three sacks. Though Lynch only played sparingly at the start of the season, he became a bigger force as the year progressed. After making his first career sack in the seventh game against West Virginia, he picked up another one the following week against Texas and notched his third against Texas Tech.
His best all-around game might have been in the season finale against TCU when he made seven tackles including one for loss.
Lynch has picked up where he left off as a sophomore this season as he leads the Bears with two sacks and has recorded 3½ tackles for loss in the first two games.
“He’s playing at an extremely high level,” Rhule said. “I think the biggest thing is he’s a big, athletic man. He uses his athleticism along with technique, and is extremely coachable and plays hard. Because of some of our issues, he’s had to play outside and he doesn’t make excuses, just gets it done. He’s really a special, special player and a great teammate.”
Due to injuries and suspensions on the defensive line, Lynch has played both tackle and defensive end, and has shown equal aptitude at both spots. No matter where the Baylor coaches put him, his strength and quickness always show.
On the opening play of Baylor’s 37-20 win over UTSA last weekend, Lynch got into the backfield and dragged down quarterback Cordale Grundy for a 9-yard loss. For a defensive lineman, few moments are more elating than getting a sack.
“You really can’t explain that feeling,” Lynch said. “That’s a feeling of a lifetime when you get the whole team cheering for you when you make a play and you’re celebrating with your teammates. You can’t really beat that at all.”
Lynch expected to redshirt last year, but he’s glad he was pressed into duty because it gave him invaluable experience coming into his sophomore year. The big 6-4 redhead came back 20 pounds heavier at 285 pounds and much stronger after a year in the weight room.
“I feel like I was strong enough to play but obviously I was nowhere near where I needed to be,” Lynch said. “Having a full offseason this year has helped me become a lot stronger and bigger to take on the double team in college football, which is a serious matter to deal with. I feel like playing last year gave me a lot of confidence. When I go out there it’s not as much thinking, it’s just playing and knowing my teammates have my back, and I play for them.”
The Baylor defensive line’s goal is to amass 40 sacks and Lynch has set a personal goal of 10. After picking up just one sack in a season-opening 55-27 win over Abilene Christian, the Bears collected four last week against UTSA.
“As a unit we’re trying to affect the quarterback more, just to try to help the rest of the defense because it will help us get off the field on third downs,” Lynch said. “We’re working on getting our technique down, so as a D-line we’re getting there but we still have a long ways to go.”
When Lynch arrived at Baylor in the summer of 2017, he found himself surrounded by linemen who were as big or bigger than him. That usually wasn’t the case when he was growing up in Round Rock.
When he was a Little League baseball player, he was an imposing sight as a pitcher and hitter since he was so much bigger than the other kids. In Pee Wee football, he wasn’t just bigger than his peers, he was also faster than most of them.
“In Pee Wee football, I was a running back,” Lynch said. “Everybody used to get freaked out because I was faster than their fastest player but also bigger. I just liked to score touchdowns.”
Toward the end of middle school, Lynch began playing defensive line and became a starter for the Round Rock varsity as sophomore. During his last two high school seasons, he was named District 13-6A defensive lineman of the year as he collected 14 sacks. He also saw some time at tight end where his blocking and occasional pass catching skills came in handy.
Instead of scoring touchdowns, his goal as a defensive lineman is to disrupt every play. With his strength and quickness, he’s often become an unwelcome guest in opposing teams’ backfield.
“Obviously as a running back you try to score as many touchdowns as you can, but on the offensive and defensive lines and tight end you just want to affect the game any way possible,” Lynch said. “Especially for a defensive lineman, it’s just being disruptive and making things happen. You just want to be a force. Whenever they turn on the tape, it’s like who is 93? This guy is making things happen.”
Though Lynch was just a kid out of high school last summer, Baylor veteran defensive lineman Ira Lewis could see his potential immediately. The senior has taken Lynch under his wing and believes he’s developing into a dominating force.
“James Lynch just keeps improving,” Lewis said. “He can be the next force on the defensive line. He’s worked hard and I’ve tried to make sure I’m a good role model for him and make sure he keeps pushing forward and doing the right thing. Probably the game is slowing down for him a little bit. He’s understanding what he needs to do. It’s much more natural for him out there now.”
Lynch hopes to play in the NFL someday, and believes Baylor is a good training ground because Rhule and several staff members have NFL coaching experience. Though Baylor defensive line coach Frank Okam hasn’t coached in the NFL, he played in the league for four teams after he was picked in the fifth round of the 2008 draft by the Houston Texans.
“Another reason I came here is they have this culture of getting people to the NFL and making sure everything in their program is like the NFL,” Lynch said. “So when you go through here and get to the NFL, nothing surprises you and you’re ready for everything. It’s nice to have the same format of the way things are done in college as it would be in the NFL.”
Though Lynch has already made freshman All-American, his goal isn’t to accumulate a lot of postseason honors. He just wants to be a terror on the defensive line and become a great teammate.
“I’m not really too worried about getting All-American or all-Big 12,” Lynch said. “That’s just icing on the cake. I just want to be known by my teammates as a tough player they can count on or somebody who can make a play. I’m more worried about things like that than being on leader boards and things like that.”