When Matt Rhule arrived at Baylor in December of 2016, the Bears’ list of committed recruits had dwindled to one.
Rhule and his staff scrambled to put together a 27-member group of recruits by the February 2017 signing day. But Baylor’s roster still was loaded with more youth and inexperience than Rhule had ever encountered previously. So, in a bit of twist, he instituted more of an open immigration policy.
Baylor’s 2018 team features nine transfers from other schools, including a couple of junior college signees. Those newcomers bring their own collection of college football battle scars, and their impact on this season stretches even beyond their statistical output, Rhule said.
“Those guys have been great for us,” Rhule said. “It’s a unique roster situation. People always ask me all these things about what we’ve done roster-wise. It’s been different. You don’t see that very often. So, those guys really helped us make sure that we had enough older guys to go along with all the young kids we brought in.”
Two-fifths of Baylor’s starting offensive line is comprised of transfers in their first year of eligibility with the Bears — left tackle Jake Fruhmorgen, who came from Clemson, and left guard Johncarlo Valentin, a juco signee from ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y. Another transfer, Midway product Christian Beard, provides depth as a backup offensive lineman after previous stops at Central Florida, Trinity Valley and Arkansas State.
Even for a guy with some college football skins on his dorm room or apartment wall, it can take time to get adjusted to a new team. Fruhmorgen, for one, had to overcome some nagging issues with his rehabilitated knee at the start of this season, but has since started the last three games.
“I feel pretty good, almost 100 percent, just getting the reps now,” said Fruhmorgen, who started nine games over two seasons at Clemson. “I thought I was more ready than I was when I got back (from the knee injury) but you’ve just got to practice and get back into it. All you can do is get reps, and I feel good right now.”
Like Fruhmorgen, Valentin didn’t open the season as a starter. But he took over at left guard in the Oklahoma game following an injury to Xavier Newman, and says that he’s growing more comfortable with each snap.
“Just being a juco guy, just to see how much of a difference it is. It’s a lot faster,” said Valentin, who was the No. 1-ranked juco guard in the nation at ASA College. “But it helped me a lot to realize how much of a better player I’ve become. And then going against the guys I go against every day in practice just helps me tremendously to be able to go out there and physically do what I do best, which is play at a very high level and open up holes and stuff.
“For me, every rep is important, because nobody’s perfect.”
Of course, every transfer begins in the waiting room. Only graduate transfers who already have obtained their degrees may play immediately — everyone else must sit out a season to comply with NCAA transfer guidelines.
So, when that year finally passes and the itching-to-go transfer gets his chance to play an actual football game again, you’d better believe it’s a sweet release.
Just ask James Lockhart. The Baylor junior defensive end signed with the Bears in January 2017 after transferring from Texas A&M. So when he lined up for the season opener against Abilene Christian, he was like a kid cut loose to run free at Disneyland.
“It was exciting. My parents, or other people, they were asking, ‘Are you nervous? How do you feel?’ ” said Lockhart, who picked up Baylor’s first sack of the season in that win over ACU. “Before the game, I was a little anxious more than anything. I was never nervous, I never really had butterflies in my stomach. But now that I got my first game under my belt, I feel more confident.”
Jalen Hurd wanted a fresh start, a change of pace. After three seasons as a running back at Tennessee, where he ranked sixth all-time in Volunteers history with 2,638 yards, Hurd wanted to try his hand at a new position. He enrolled at Baylor in May 2017 with designs of switching positions to wide receiver.
So far, so good. Hurd tops the Bears in both receiving yards (550) and all-purpose yardage (662), and has topped 100 yards receiving in each of his past two outings. He’s also rekindled his old life in the backfield, as an occasional short-yardage specialist.
“I love (the way I’m being used),” Hurd said following the Bears’ 37-34 victory over Kansas State last Saturday. “Anything I can do to help and just get a win, and we got it, so I’m happy.”
When Rhule coached at Temple University, he said he didn’t accept an abundance of transfers. But the situation at Baylor prompted him to scour the country far and wide for veteran players who could help immediately.
“It had to be somebody I had a relationship with,” Rhule said. “When we got here, because of the scholarship situation that we were in, I thought taking a couple guys made a lot of sense. So, I think it’s just a little bit different.
“When you come out of high school, guys are thinking about a lot of different things, like what I want to study. Some guys want to know the helmet combinations. There’s a lot of different things that go into high school recruiting. When you’ve gone somewhere and it didn’t work out, and you’re looking for a second place, it’s usually a little different conversation. It’s, how do I fit, where do I belong.”
The transfers should continue to make an impact as Baylor’s season unfolds. Hurd has quickly established himself as one of the Bears’ top offensive threats. Fruhmorgen, Valentin and Beard figure to be integral pieces on the O-line, while players like Lockhart and cornerback Derrek Thomas, a transfer from Temple, offer depth on the defensive side.
And then there’s grad transfer Jalan McClendon at quarterback, a former North Carolina State letterman who started the year in a platoon system with Charlie Brewer and has shown flashes of what Rhule has called “NFL talent.”
Rhule said that Baylor’s coaching staff always wants to do its due diligence when it comes to accepting transfers. But if the fit feels right — and he believes this year’s batch of transfers have filled in the cracks of Baylor’s roster nicely — he’ll welcome a player with open arms.
“We have to feel good about what your reasons were for leaving,” Rhule said. “It’s always a unique situation. But, those guys have helped us a ton.”
Bear Facts: Matt Rhule said on Wednesday that sophomore running back John Lovett is healthy and is progressing well in practice, and should be ready to play for Saturday’s game against Texas. … Cornerback Grayland Arnold remains out with an ankle injury. … Rhule said that he wasn’t sure if freshmen Kalon Barnes (cornerback) and Christian Morgan (safety) would start again in the secondary, adding that the decision will made as the week progresses. Defensive backs Harrison Hand and Derrek Thomas should be available to play against Texas after seeing limited action against Kansas State.