When Matt Rhule became Baylor’s head coach in early December, the 2017 signing class had nosedived to one commitment after the fallout of the university’s sexual assault scandal.
Rhule had a ton of scholarships to fill but also had to put together a coaching staff and get to know the lay of the land around Texas and the Big 12.
He had to learn where towns like La Porte, Henderson and Kyle were after spending his coaching career on the East Coast, including the last four years as Temple University’s head coach.
But Rhule and his staff worked around the clock to piece together an impressive 27-player class that features talent across every position. His excitement was evident Wednesday afternoon after they had signed their national letters of intent.
Despite the issues the new coaching staff had to overcome, Rhule could see a lot of players still wanted to come to Baylor.
“There are a lot of great football players in the state of Texas,” Rhule said. “It’s easy when you have just everywhere you turn, there is a great, well-coached football player. But at the end of the day, it’s really not about us as coaches. It’s about Baylor. As we said, Baylor hasn’t changed. It’s a new coaching staff. There is change, there is transition. But it’s still an elite education. It’s still an elite experience.”
Following the five-week recruiting flurry, Baylor has risen to 34th nationally in Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings, behind only No. 8 Oklahoma and No. 31 Texas among Big 12 schools.
The Bears landed 20 Texas high school players, including highly-touted Texas recruits like Cypress Ranch receiver R.J. Sneed, Henderson receiver Trestan Ebner and DeSoto offensive lineman Xavier Newman. They also pulled in seven recruits outside of Texas, including Cherry Hill (N.J.) West cornerback Harrison Hand and defensive end Justin Harris from East Ascension High School in Gonzales, La.
Baylor’s class is well balanced with one quarterback, two running backs, four receivers, six offensive linemen, six defensive linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs. Temple linebacker Ashton Logan, who is projected to play safety, is the only local player in the class.
“We’re going to try to sign the best players in Texas, and then we’ll always supplement it with kids in the surrounding states,” Rhule said. “If we don’t sign 20 kids a year out of Texas we’re not doing our job. It’s just been exciting for me. People asked me why I took this job? One of the reasons is because we’re smack dab in the middle of an unbelievable recruiting base.”
Stafford defensive back Jalen Pitre was the only recruit remaining from the Briles era, and he’s already enrolled at Baylor for the spring semester along with Austin Lake Travis quarterback Charlie Brewer, Abilene running back Abram Smith and Sneed.
“Jalen’s decision to stay committed to Baylor, I don’t know that he even understands how important that is to the people that have gone to school here, the people that love the university,” Rhule said. “And just his belief, his family’s belief, when I met them, it was very clear he was going to be a special young man in this program.”
Rhule spent most of December putting together his coaching staff and evaluating recruits. He quickly saw the need to hire Texas high school coaches on his staff. He got former Baylor quarterback Shawn Bell from Round Rock Cedar Ridge, Joey McGuire from Cedar Hill and David Wetzel from San Antonio Reagan.
“Obviously they were a great conduit for me into Texas,” Rhule said. “But to say that is their value would severely understate who they are. Joey McGuire has an unbelievable infectious personality. And Shawn Bell is an amazing young recruiter, builds tremendous relationships. David Wetzel is a detail-oriented guy with unbelievable relationships.”
Making the move
Rhule brought in several coaches from his Temple staff, including defensive coordinator Phil Snow, defensive backs coach Francis Brown, offensive line coach George DeLeone, defensive line coach Elijah Robinson and linebackers coach Mike Siravo. He also hired former Oregon offensive coordinator Matt Lubick and San Francisco 49ers tight ends coach Jeff Nixon.
Lubick didn’t know Rhule well but could see he was a tireless worker who was passionate about his opportunity to lead the Baylor football program.
“I had always been a fan, but I didn’t really know him personally until I got a phone call,” Lubick said. “I got to know him fast, our first interview was about seven hours. He’s very smart and his energy is as good as I’ve been around. It’s contagious with the staff and with the players. I don’t think he sleeps.”
Members of Rhule’s old coaching staff at Temple had to quickly bond with the new staff members and pull together a game plan for recruiting.
“You’ve got a lot of guys who came from Temple and another who came from the NFL, and you’ve got three Texas high school football coaches with some relationships,” Bell said. “We made sure we did a good job with all our recruits of getting recruited by our entire staff. I may have been the lead on this kid or another coach was the lead on that kid, but it’s a team effort. It starts with Coach Rhule and trickles down.”
Though Rhule extended scholarship offers to some kids who had been recruited by Briles’ staff, many recruits were new. But once the recruits got on campus and met each other and the coaching staff, Baylor wasn’t a hard sell.
Some recruits had questions about the events that had transpired at Baylor before Rhule’s arrival, but his overriding message to them was this is a new era and they could be part of something special.
“This was a challenge, and it was a good challenge,” Rhule said. “One of the unique things about this, these kids that are coming in now, we’ve had really strong relationships. We’ve had to talk about a lot of things with them. We’re not talking about just the helmets and the uniforms, and you know what I mean? We’ve had to have real conversations. We’ve had to build real relationships in two weeks.”
Getting things rolling
Houston Lamar safety Trevon Lewis became Rhule’s first commitment on Dec. 28, a day after the Bears beat Boise State, 31-12, in the Cactus Bowl.
Three days later, the Bears picked up two more commitments from Brewer and College Station defensive back Timarcus Davis. Landing Brewer was big since he flipped his commitment from SMU and is a well-known recruit from one of the state’s top program.
The Bears kept the momentum rolling when they nailed down a commitment from Round Rock defensive end James Lynch on Jan. 4 and Abilene running back Abram Smith on Jan. 5.
“Once the train started rolling, it moved pretty fast,” Wetzel said. “A month and a half is a short amount of time to put together a recruiting class like this with as many good players as we got. But anybody who has met Coach Rhule and has had a chance to be around him knows how much passion he has and what he brings and why people would be interested in Baylor.”
Baylor landed six recruits after the Jan. 15 recruiting weekend and six more following the Jan. 22 recruiting weekend. Baylor nailed down its final commitment from Harris on Wednesday morning.
The Temple coaching staff’s East Coast connections paid off by getting commitments from Hand, Burlington (N.J.) Cherokee running back Johnathan Lovett and Pennsville (N.J.) Memorial defensive lineman Rob Saulin.
“It was a hard sell at first to come that far,” said Brown, who coached at Temple for six years. “But they’ve watched RG3 and Corey Coleman, and it wasn’t that hard to sell Baylor. Once they got here on campus it was pretty easy. The stadium is amazing, and they see all the architecture around campus. Why not get these kids to come here where people love football the way they love football.”