Matt Rhule knew exactly what he was walking into when he left a successful Temple job for a Baylor program that was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
When Baylor hired Rhule in December 2016, the roster was decimated and the 2017 recruiting class was down to one commitment amid a sweeping sexual assault scandal.
Everybody’s worst fears were realized when the Bears finished 1-11 in Rhule’s debut season. But even amid such a dismal season, Rhule began reforming the program off the field and saw some promising signs on the field.
Rhule might have seemed out of his mind when he boldly said Baylor would make a bowl in 2018 following last year’s season-ending loss to TCU. But it showed his faith in his players and coaching staff, and the vision he had for the program.
“I saw the guys getting better as the year went on,” Rhule said. “I saw them block out the noise and hanging in there. I saw them all off season. We’ll go back at the end of the year and look back on some missed opportunities and say, ‘Dang, we think we could have done better.’”
Well, the Bears did get better in 2018. A whole lot better.
Rhule is the Tribune-Herald’s choice for Big 12 coach of the year after the Bears improved from one win last season to 6-6 this year, capped by Sunday’s announcement that the Bears will face Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 27.
Thanks to their five-game improvement, the Bears matched Florida and Syracuse for the biggest turnaround among Power 5 conference schools this season.
The Bears reached a bowl for the eighth time in the last nine years, but this one is especially gratifying for the seniors who played for three coaches and saw the program dragged through some unfathomable lows.
Rhule made them believe in themselves and set a positive tone the program needed.
“Well, you know, we’re led by a great man,” said Baylor senior offensive lineman Blake Blackmar. “We were all able to see the things we did last year and see how close we were to winning some games and doing a lot of good things, and we just never quite sealed the deal.
“We’ve made a ton of progress and big strides. To be able to seal the deal and go to a bowl game now is really a turning point for the team and hopefully for how we’re going to lead Baylor going forward.”
Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray is the Trib’s choice for Big 12 offensive player of the year while West Virginia linebacker David Long is the defensive player of the year.
Following 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield wasn’t easy, but Murray has arguably delivered a better season while leading the Sooners to their fourth straight Big 12 championship and a return trip to the College Football Playoff against Alabama on Dec. 29.
Displaying dynamic athleticism, Murray made himself into a Heisman finalist by leading the nation in passing efficiency as he’s completed 70.9 percent for 4,053 yards and 40 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
“He’s played explosive and handled it well like I expected he would,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. “He’s done a great job of handling the different situations we’ve been in. The fun thing is he’s still getting better.”
Not only has Murray burned teams with his arm, he’s a dangerous quarterback with his feet. With his incredible quickness and escapability, Murray ranks seventh in the Big 12 with 892 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
“His speed is pretty remarkable,” Riley said. “He’s pretty selective but when he decides to go, he puts fear into people. He’s got great quickness and he’s elusive. When he kicks into an extra gear, he’s tough to handle and tough to catch.”
West Virginia’s defense showed considerable improvement this season, and a big reason was the play of Long. The fourth-year junior linebacker leads the Big 12 with 18.5 tackles for loss while ranking third in the league with eight sacks and fourth with 97 tackles.
WVU coach Dana Holgorsen wasn’t surprised by Long’s superb season after he made 76 tackles with 16.5 for loss as a sophomore last season.
“David Long is the leader of our defense and as good of a linebacker as I’ve seen in college football,” Holgorsen said. “People are well aware of where he’s at because they have to account for him on every single play. I’ve never coached a guy who has his ability to get off a block and get around a block and make plays, especially in the backfield. For him to have that many tackles in the backfield is impressive. He’s an intelligent linebacker.”
Kansas brought up the bottom of the Big 12 again, leading to fourth-year coach David Beaty’s firing. But running back Pooka Williams did all he could to improve the Jayhawks’ fortunes, earning the Trib’s offensive freshman of the year.
Fresh out of Hahnville High School in New Orleans, Williams ranked second in the Big 12 with 1,125 yards rushing while averaging an impressive seven yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns.
The 5-10, 170-pound Williams showed his versatility by making 33 catches for 289 and two touchdowns while also returning 11 kickoffs for 246 yards.
“We obviously knew Pooka Williams was a really good football player, but he’s exceeded expectations,” Beaty said. “For a freshman coming in, he’s had electrifying runs, and I was fortunate to witness it and be with him. He has versatility and the best hands on the team. His hands belong on a 6-5 guy, and he’s not tall at all. He’s also a better person than a player, which speaks volumes about the type of kid he is.”
The offensive newcomer of the year is Baylor receiver Jalen Hurd, who showed his versatility on the field by leading the Bears with 69 catches for 946 yards and four scores while rushing for 209 yards on 48 carries and scoring three touchdowns.
Hurd transferred from Tennessee to Baylor for his senior year to develop his wide receiver skills after playing running back for three years for the Volunteers. But he ended up seeing time at both positions because he wanted to help the Bears any way he could.
Hurd showed how much he valued the team when he insisted on playing after a first-quarter knee injury against Texas Tech. Hurd will miss the Texas Bowl after undergoing knee surgery.
“He got banged up and I told him that he probably shouldn’t play because he has a big NFL future ahead of him,” Rhule said. “He hurt his knee, but he wouldn’t come out. He was going to play a lot of tailback, but he couldn’t. He went out there and caught three balls and made some great blocks. It was one of the more selfless acts for this team.”
Texas Tech cornerback Adrian Frye is the defensive freshman of the year after leading the Big 12 with five interceptions and 18 passes defended.
Iowa State sophomore safety Greg Eisworth is the defensive newcomer of the year upon transferring from Trinity Valley Community College. Eisworth leads the Cyclones with 84 tackles while intercepting a pass and breaking up three others.
2018 TRIBUNE-HERALD ALL-BIG 12 FOOTBALL TEAM
|Offensive player of the year: Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray|
Defensive player of the year: West Virginia LB David Long
Coach of the year: Matt Rhule, Baylor
Offensive newcomer of the year: Baylor WR Jalen Hurd
Defensive newcomer of the year: Iowa State safety Greg Eisworth
Offensive freshman of the year: Kansas RB Pooka Williams
Defensive freshman of the year: Texas Tech CB Adrian Frye
|QB||Kyler Murray||Oklahoma||Jr||5-10||195||Heisman Trophy finalist|
|RB||Alex Barnes||Kansas State||Jr||6-1||225||Big 12-high 1,355 yards rushing|
|RB||Kennedy Brooks||Oklahoma||Fr||5-11||205||942 yards, 11 TDs in conference|
|T||Dalton Risner||Kansas State||Sr||6-5||309||Returning all-Big 12 lineman|
|G||Ben Powers||Oklahoma||Sr||6-4||313||Three-time all-Big 12|
|C||Zach Shackelford||Texas||Jr||6-4||305||Led improved UT O-line|
|G||Dru Samia||Oklahoma||Sr||6-5||303||Repeat all-conference lineman|
|T||Yodney Cajuste||West Virginia||Sr||6-5||321||Tremendous pass protector|
|TE||Grant Calcaterra||Oklahoma||So||6-4||221||Receiving, blocking threat|
|WR||Antoine Wesley||Texas Tech||Jr||6-5||200||Big 12-best 88 catches, 1410 yards|
|WR||Tylan Wallace||Oklahoma State||So||6-0||185||Biletnikoff Award finalist|
|AP||Pooka Williams||Kansas||Fr||5-10||170||League-high 1,660 all-purpose yards|
|K||Austin Seibert||Oklahoma||Sr||5-9||214||15 of 17 field goals|
|DE||Charles Omenihu||Texas||Sr||6-6||276||League-high 9.5 sacks|
|DE||Ben Banogu||TCU||Sr||6-4||249||17 tackles for loss|
|DT||James Lynch||Baylor||So||6-4||285||5.5 sacks, 9 TFL|
|DT||Daniel Wise||Kansas||Sr||6-3||290||12.5 tackles for loss|
|LB||David Long||West Virginia||Jr||5-11||221||League-high 18.5 TFL|
|LB||Joe Dineen||Kansas||Sr||6-2||230||Big 12-high 147 tackles|
|LB||Kenneth Murray||Oklahoma||So||6-2||238||2nd in Big 12 with 140 tackles|
|CB||Adrian Frye||Texas Tech||Fr||6-1||175||Big 12-high 18 passes defended|
|CB||Kris Boyd||Texas||Sr||6-0||195||17 passes defended|
|S||Caden Sterns||Texas||Fr||6-0||205||4 picks second in league|
|S||Kenny Robinson||West Virginia||6-2||198||So||75 tackles, 3 interceptions|
|P||Kyle Thompson||Kansas||So||6-4||210||League-best 43.3 yards|
|QB||Will Grier||West Virginia||Sr||6-2||212||3,864 yards, 37 TDs|
|RB||Justice Hill||Oklahoma State||Jr||5-10||190||930 yards, 9 TDs|
|RB||David Montgomery||Iowa State||Jr||5-11||216||1,092 yards, 12 TDs|
|T||Cody Ford||Oklahoma||Jr||6-4||338||Outstanding pass protector|
|G||Jack Anderson||Texas Tech||So||6-5||320||Paved way for explosive offense|
|C||Johnny Wilson||Oklahoma State||Jr||6-3||304||Came into own in 2018|
|G||Josh Sills||West Virginia||So||6-6||320||Complemented OT Yodny Cajuste|
|T||Lucas Niang||TCU||Jr||6-7||328||TCU’s best O-lineman|
|TE||Trevon Wesco||West Virginia||Sr||6-4||274||Unheralded WVU weapon|
|WR||Marquise Brown||Oklahoma||Jr||5-10||168||75 catches, 1,318 yards|
|WR||Lil’ Jordan Humphrey||Texas||Jr||6-4||225||79 catches, 1,109 yards|
|AP||Jalen Reagor||TCU||So||5-11||194||1,342 all-purpose yards|
|K||Clayton Hatfield||Texas Tech||So||5-10||171||17 of 19 field goals|
|DE||Jordan Brailford||Oklahoma State||Jr||6-3||250||9 sacks, 16 TFL|
|DE||Reggie Walker||Kansas State||Jr||6-0||244||12.5 tackles for loss|
|DT||Corey Bethley||TCU||So||6-2||291||Force on defensive line|
|DL||Jaquan Bailey||Iowa State||Jr||6-2||251||7 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss|
|LB||Gary Johnson||Texas||Sr||6-0||230||15.5 tackles for loss|
|LB||Curtis Bolton||Oklahoma||Sr||6-0||218||Third in league with 130 tackles|
|LB||Clay Johnston||Baylor||Jr||6-1||226||Fifth in Big 12 with 95 tackles|
|CB||Parnell Motley||Oklahoma||Jr||6-0||177||3 picks, 10 breakups|
|CB||Jeff Gladney||TCU||Jr||6-0||183||14 passes defended|
|S||Greg Eisworth||Iowa State||Jr||6-0||198||Team-high 84 tackles|
|S||Ridwan Issahaku||TCU||Sr||6-1||196||74 tackles, 2 interceptions|
|P||Drew Galitz||Baylor||Sr||6-0||221||2nd in Big 12 with 42.4-yard average|