HOUSTON — Baylor linebacker Clay Johnston will see a familiar face when he looks across the line of scrimmage at the Texas Bowl.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur isn’t just a guy Johnston has seen on film as the Bears prepare for the Commodores at 8 p.m. Thursday at NRG Stadium in Houston.
They go back a long way to when they were freshman teammates seven years ago at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio.
Kyle’s father, Pat Shurmur, was the head coach of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 2011-12 and is now the first-year head coach for the New York Giants. Clay’s father, Kent Johnston, was a strength coach for the Browns, and now works with the Baylor football team.
Clay isn’t surprised that Kyle has enjoyed a tremendous career as Vanderbilt’s quarterback after their high school experience together.
“Oh my gosh, he’s a stud,” Clay said. “I’ll give that to him. It was an all-boys Catholic school, and he was our quarterback and I played Sam linebacker. He did what he did in college in high school. He’s a great quarterback and it was fun. I’m just thankful I get to play with ‘ol Kyle.”
Clay and Kyle have stayed in contact, and were excited to see each other when Baylor and Vanderbilt participated in the Rodeo Bowl on Sunday night. The Rodeo Bowl is one of the pre-game activities for Texas Bowl teams with events like the hay-bale toss and calf roping.
“It’s funny, I was in Cleveland at St. Ed’s for two years and he was there for one year and we played together,” Kyle said. “He’s a great player and his stats speak for themselves, that’s who he is. He’s a great guy too. It’s been great to see him and it’s going to be fun playing my last college game against an old friend.”
After breaking into Vanderbilt’s starting lineup as a freshman in 2015, Kyle has passed for 8,579 yards and 63 touchdowns. As a senior this season, Shurmur has completed 64 percent for 2,844 yards and 23 touchdowns with six interceptions.
“His dad is the head coach of the Giants, so he’s got a lot of football in his blood,” Clay said. “He had that mindset in high school, too, that I’m going to go play in college. And if the Lord opens up the door, go play at the next level in the NFL. He’s had great success and he’s been a heck of a player for Vandy. It’s been awesome.”
Clay has started the last two seasons for the Bears, and made second-team all-Big 12 this year after amassing a team-high 95 tackles with 5½ for losses. Kyle could see Clay had the ideal mentality for a linebacker when they played together.
“Playing linebacker, the screw’s got to be loose a little bit to run around and bang your head against other people,” Kyle said. “As a quarterback, you’ve got to be a little more calm and poised. But Clay is great at what he did and he is great at what he does. When you first see him, he doesn’t look like he’s the biggest guy. But he hits hard and he’s fast and he makes a lot of tackles and he’s a great player.”
Both Johnston and Shurmur will play vital roles as Baylor and Vanderbilt, both 6-6, need to win the Texas Bowl to finish off a winning season.
The Commodores had to win their last two games against Mississippi and Tennessee to become bowl eligible, while Baylor knocked off Texas Tech in the regular season finale to earn a bowl berth.
“I think the way you end one chapter is the way you start another,” said Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. “So yeah, we were able to garner some momentum toward the end of the season. Now in this 13th game, we try to maximize every practice opportunity, every meeting and everything that’s been in front of these guys. I think these guys have really attacked it.”
Matt Rhule has liked the focus the Bears have shown since learning on Dec. 2 that they would stay in state for the Texas Bowl.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, I think we’ve gotten way better in a short amount of time,” Rhule said. “I see all these guys making huge steps because of the extra practice, and also the extra meetings and the extra time together just as a team. They are just all really growing up and maturing, and that’s what this bowl week has done. It’s really important that we go out and show that we know how to win vs. an SEC team, and I hope we make that jump.”
Unlike the spread offenses that populate the Big 12, Shurmur will often line up under center for the Commodores. While Shurmur’s passing skills are certainly a concern, Baylor will also have to contain running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who has rushed for 1,001 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging seven yards per carry.
“They run pro-style offense,” Rhule said. “I know Clay (Johnston) has worked really hard because it falls on the linebackers and the D-line to really be in sync to defend this running game. They are going to pound you and pound you and try to wear you down, and that’s not really the way it’s done in the Big 12 quite as much. They have a good scheme and they have a great back, and most importantly the quarterback always has them in the right play.”
It’s a good thing I don’t bet on college football games because I’d be selling off my house …
After missing the last two games with injuries, JaMycal Hasty is expected to return to Baylor’s offensive backfield. Creating a strong running game will be a key for Baylor to take some of the heat off sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer. He’s passed for 2,635 yards and 17 touchdowns, but has often been under heavy pressure as the Bears rank last in the Big 12 by allowing 37 sacks.
Brewer will be without top receiver Jalen Hurd, who will miss the bowl game after undergoing knee surgery. Hurd leads the Bears with 69 catches for 946 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 209 yards and three scores.
“Jalen is an outstanding player,” Rhule said. “He’s going to get drafted and go play in the NFL, so it’s hard to replace that. I think in the last game when he was banged up against Texas Tech, Chris Platt stepped up. Denzel Mims has had an amazing month. I’ve seen him grow as a receiver.”
Rhule is counting on several young receivers to step up in Hurd’s absence.
“I think what we’re looking for is Josh Fleeks, Tyquan Thornton. R.J. Sneed,” Rhule said. “Because of the new redshirt rule, (Sneed) is probably going to play in the bowl game and still have this count as a redshirt year, which is awesome.’
Baylor offensive lineman Blake Blackmar and his fellow seniors would love to cap their careers with a bowl win after a tumultuous ride under three head coaches, including Art Briles, Jim Grobe and Rhule.
“As a fifth-year senior and being through everything that’s happened and everything that’s changed, I think being able to get this team back to winning the last game of the year at the bowl game and having that extra month together, and being able to come out on top one last time is huge,” Blackmar said. “It would definitely be a good capstone to my career.”
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