When Matt Rhule arrived at Baylor in December 2016, he brought along a resume featuring a blueprint for success.
Taking over the head coaching reins at Temple University in 2013, his first team finished 2-10. But the Owls improved to 6-6 the next season followed by a pair of 10-win seasons that included an American Athletic Conference championship in 2016 before he got the call to Baylor.
Through his first two years at Baylor, Rhule is making a similar trajectory as he followed a 1-11 debut season with an impressive 7-6 second-year finish, capped by a thrilling 45-38 win over Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl.
Now the Bears are hoping to make the next step to double-digit wins and competing for the Big 12 championship.
There’s no reason why Baylor can’t think big since most of the 2018 starters will be back along with some key younger players from his first three recruiting classes which have all ranked in the nation’s top 35.
Additionally, Baylor’s 2019 schedule will be more favorable with a nonconference slate that includes SFA, UTSA and Rice. With Baylor and Texas Tech not playing at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, the Bears will play five of their nine Big 12 games at home for the first time with the Red Raiders, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, and Iowa State coming to McLane Stadium.
After last week’s Texas Bowl win over Vanderbilt, Rhule looked like a coach who could see his blueprint working in his second head coaching job.
“I feel like our senior class last year, the senior class this year, and then the guys that are sitting next to me and many more like them, they are building the program on the right things in terms of the right lessons and toughness and resiliency and battling back and celebrating together,” Rhule said. “It will hopefully just continue from here.”
Here’s a breakdown of the Bears position-by-position as they look toward the 2019 season.
Accuracy, toughness, instincts.
All the elements Charlie Brewer exhibited in leading Lake Travis to the Class 6A Division I championship in 2016 are showing up at Baylor.
After passing for 1,562 yards and 11 touchdowns and four interceptions as a freshman in 2016, Brewer threw for 3,019 yards and 19 touchdowns with nine interceptions as a sophomore. He was named the MVP of the Texas Bowl after passing for 384 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for a career-high 109 yards and a score.
But Brewer’s impact can’t be measured by mere numbers. He’s shown the ability to make plays out of nothing, which he had to do often behind an offensive line that allowed a Big 12-high 39 sacks.
“It really comes down to when things break down, when things go wrong, bad quarterbacks make a bad play worse,” Rhule said. “Great quarterbacks do special things in those ‘oh-no’ moments. I think that’s been what Charlie’s done. Besides being extremely accurate, he gets outside the pocket and extends drives with his feet. He doesn’t say a lot but he loves to compete. He’s got a toughness about him that makes everyone else a little bit better.”
The Bears will need Brewer to stay healthy again since there isn’t much experience behind him. Highly-touted Gerry Bohanon redshirted this year while both incoming freshman quarterbacks Jacob Zeno from San Antonio Jay and Peyton Powell from Odessa Permian are planning to enroll at Baylor in January to get a jump start on their careers by going through spring drills.
Baylor’s backfield will be loaded again with John Lovett, JaMycal Hasty, Trestan Ebner, Craig Williams and Abram Smith all returning.
The Bears’ running game was solid in 2018 by ranking fourth in the Big 12 with 169.1 yards per game. All of Baylor’s backs bring different elements to the table: Lovett’s maneuverability, Hasty’s toughness, and Ebner’s pass-catching ability.
Maybe the fastest running back on the roster, Williams showed flashes of his ability by playing in two games as a freshman this season. He was able to keep his redshirt under the new NCAA rule that allows players to participate in up to four games without losing their redshirt.
Qualan Jones, a 2019 signee from Cedar Hill Trinity Christian, will add to Baylor’s backfield depth after rushing for 1,251 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior and adding 19 receptions for 456 yards and six scores for a TAPPS Division II state championship team.
Baylor will suffer some key losses at receiver, including Jalen Hurd who made a team-high 69 catches for 946 yards and four touchdowns and Chris Platt who made 35 catches for 504 yards and a score.
But Denzel Mims will be back for his senior year after making 55 catches for 794 yards and eight scores. Former walk-on Marques Jones made 21 catches for 242 yards, and saved his best for last as he scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt on a 52-yard catch and run.
The Bears will be looking for Pooh Stricklin to deliver a strong senior year while freshmen Tyquan Thornton and Josh Fleeks are both fast receivers who look like future stars. Jared Atkinson and R.J. Sneed will also be back after redshirting this season.
Incoming freshman Jaylen Ellis from Round Rock Cedar Ridge is a big-time talent who made 46 catches for 1,153 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.
“First of all, he’s fast and dynamic,” Rhule said. “His loyalty was huge and it’s great to keep a Central Texas player in the state. We like to have fast receivers and he falls into that mold. He has great body control and hands. He is super humble and fun to be around.”
Since the Bears incorporate pro-style elements in their offense, tight ends play an important role.
Freshman Christoph Henle enjoyed a good freshman year while Tyler Henderson, Ben Sims and Bralen Taylor are young players with potential.
Sam Snyder from Fleming Island, Fla., is a highly-rated incoming recruit who will add strength to an already deep position.
The Bears will suffer some of their biggest losses on the offensive line as senior guard Blake Blackmar and senior tackle Patrick Lawrence will be gone after starting 38 games apiece during their careers.
But center Sam Tecklenburg, guard Johncarlo Valentin and tackle Connor Galvin will be returning starters.
Eleasah Anderson and Jake Fruhmorgen got two starts apiece this season while Jackson Kimble, Henry Klinge, Ryan Miller, Casey Phillips, Prince Pines, Ty Smith, Jim Threet are young players who could contribute more in the future.
Incoming offensive linemen who could make an immediate impact next season are Blake Bedier from Snow (Utah) College and Davis DiVall from Bridgton (Maine) Academy.
“To get two offensive linemen who are coming in mid-year, that’s going to do wonders for our offensive line depth next year,” Rhule said. “It’s really what we needed.”
Baylor’s offensive line continues to be a work in progress. The Bears need to protect Brewer better and open holes for a more consistent running game.
With seniors Ira Lewis and Greg Roberts gone, Baylor has some rebuilding to do on the defensive line.
But James Lynch is a great player to build around. Playing both tackle and end, Lynch delivered an all-Big 12 sophomore season by recording 40 tackles with nine for loss and 5½ sacks.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s a big, athletic man,” Rhule said. “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.”
Defensive end B.J. Thompson ranked second on the squad with four sacks while tackle Bravvion Roy can be a force in the middle. End James Lockhart and tackle Tyrone Hunt should make bigger contributions next year.
Baylor’s biggest priority in the 2019 class was adding defensive line depth. The Bears signed seven defensive linemen, including Temple’s T.J. Franklin, Tomball’s Logan Compton, Monroe (N.Y.) College’s Niadre Zouzoua, Houston Klein’s Harrison White, Waller’s Gabe Hall, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson’s Isaiah Howard and Odessa Permian’s Matt Jones.
With all three starters returning, Baylor’s linebacking corps should be one of the strongest areas of the team.
This experienced crew is led by Clay Johnston, who made second-team all-Big 12 by collecting a team-high 99 tackles with 5½ for loss.
“Clay is smart, he’s fast and explosive,” Rhule said. “He wears that knee brace, but he can really run. He also has a little bit of an edge to him. He wants to be right and wants to be a good player and he’s tough.”
Switching from safety to linebacker, Blake Lynch made 47 tackles with four for loss and an interception. Jordan Williams was Baylor’s fourth-leading tackler with 52 stops while Terrel Bernard contributed 47 tackles with three for loss. Jalen Pitre, Lenoy Jones, Bryson Jackson and Ashton Logan should also contribute.
The Bears will lose two key starters in the secondary in cornerback Derrek Thomas and safety Verkedric Vaughns.
But starting cornerback Harrison Hand and safety Chris Miller will be back, and veteran cornerback Grayland Arnold will return after redshirting due to injuries. Safeties Henry Black, Christian Morgan and JT Woods and cornerbacks Jameson Houston, Raleigh Texada and Kalon Barnes will bring experience.
Cornerback Byron Hanspard Jr. should provide depth after redshirting as a freshman. Baylor stocked up its defensive backfield in the 2019 signing class with Beaumont United’s Tyrone Brown, Amarillo Tascosa’s Brandon White, Plano Prestonwood Academy’s Solomon Turner and Hakeem Vance from Hattiesburg, Miss.
Connor Martin will be back after providing consistent kicking for the Bears for the last two seasons.
All-Big 12 senior punter Drew Galitz will be gone, but the Bears will have a strong replacement in redshirt freshman Isaac Power, who boomed his first college punt for 47 yards out of the end zone in the Texas Bowl after replacing the injured Galitz.
“On his first play, he has to kick it an inch from the goal line and he crushes it,” Rhule said.
Looking back at the decimated roster Rhule inherited upon his Baylor arrival, the 2019 squad will easily be his deepest and most experienced. Now the Bears want to keep moving upward and continue to build on their 2018 success.
The Baylor players are sensing that they’re creating something special.
“Obviously, I believe we made the right choice to play for Coach Rhule and playing with the brotherhood that we have,” Ebner said. “It’s just amazing to do this together, because we all had to come together.”