Prior to last Saturday’s homecoming win over Oklahoma State, Baylor engaged in what head coach Matt Rhule called “the hardest week of practice” of the season.
Early mornings, multiple days of pads, a lot of hitting – the workouts were a grind.
Hours after the win, Rhule received an assortment of text messages from some of the players, and the theme followed the same line of thinking. “They were all like, ‘Coach, we’ve got to do that again this week,” Rhule said.
Think these Bears may be growing tougher?
Injuries happen. They’re part of football. But in Rhule’s debut season at Baylor in 2017, the Bears experienced a rash of injuries like the coach had never witnessed before, partially because many players weren’t strong enough yet to withstand the week-to-week pounding of a college football season.
Fast forward to present day. Against Oklahoma State, a half-dozen Baylor players hit the turf after getting hurt on a particular play. Several, though, ended up returning to the game.
“I think we are getting mentally tougher,” Rhule said. “They’re allowing themselves, they have given into the process. They are letting themselves practice that way. Once something becomes a habit it can become a way of life. But also, they’re stronger.”
Rhule credited his strength and conditioning staff, led by Jeremy Scott, and the training staff, including Dave Snyder and others, with helping to build a more physically fit, sturdier roster.
It also doesn’t hurt that Kent Johnston is hanging around, too. Johnston – the father of Baylor junior linebacker Clay Johnston – spent nearly a quarter-century as an NFL strength coach for Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Seattle, Cleveland and San Diego. Now he’s filling a slightly different role at Baylor, as what Rhule has termed the team’s “return-to-play specialist.”
What, pray tell, does a return-to-play specialist do? Well, it’s a lot more than just telling a player, “Rub some dirt on it, walk it off, get back on the field.”
“Used to be when I played, once the trainer said you were good, you were good, and you went back out there,” Rhule said. “Now there is another level to it. Once they’re medically ready but not yet ready to go into the game, he helps transition them to getting game ready. I think it’s maturity, I think it’s a lot of different things.”
Rhule borrowed the idea from the Miami Hurricanes. When Rhule was a player at Penn State, he had two strength coaches – Scott, now Baylor’s head strength coach, and John Thomas, who he labeled “one of the meanest coaches I ever played for, but mean in a good way.” Thomas now works at Miami as an associate strength coach, primarily getting guys physically and mentally to return to the field following injuries.
So when Rhule was having a conversation with Kent Johnston one day last spring, the Baylor coach knew that he wanted to tap into Kent’s vast experience. Thus, the return-to-play specialist position was born.
“We talked to Kent and he’s done being a strength coach, he really wanted to move more into the medical side,” Rhule said. “A lot of times injuries happen not from playing football, but from imbalances, right? This leg is dominant, or whatever. He does a lot of things to do prehab, to keep guys from getting injured. He brought a lot of things for our whole team. … A lot of guys have, in my opinion, come back quicker. We’re able to keep a lot of guys on the field as a result of their work with Kent.”
One of those players is Kent’s own son. Clay Johnston has been saddled with a nagging knee injury this season, and took a blow on Saturday that didn’t feel good, to say the least. After a respite on the turf and an initial examination from the training staff, Johnston limped to the sideline.
Yet he didn’t miss much time, and was able to return and close out a career day, finishing with 17 tackles.
Asked about the injury after the game, Johnston said, “Just a little banged up. My knee gets banged up a couple of times (a game). Got to let it loosen up on the sideline, and it comes back. … I’m good.”
No team is bulletproof, and Baylor’s training room figures to continue to be a busy place. But as the Bears hit the home stretch of year two under Rhule, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they’re continually getting more mature, stronger, and tougher.
If nothing else, the fact that the players are asking for grueling practices should say something.
“That wasn’t because of the coaches, it was because of the players,” Rhule said. “They practiced and prepared at such a high level, and then played probably our best football game. If we do that again, hopefully we’ll have a chance.”
BEAR FACTS – Rhule said he’ll likely redshirt junior cornerback Grayland Arnold, who has played in four games this year after suffering an ankle injury. Sophomore receiver Gavin Holmes will also redshirt after tearing his ACL in Monday’s practice after recently returning from an injury in the same knee. “He jumped up and caught a ball and just landed the wrong way. I’m heartbroken for him and his family. But he’ll be back. He’s tough.”