The NFL executive came away impressed, and he said so.
At a recent Baylor practice, the visitor took notice of all the seniors running around on the Bears’ special teams unit.
“He was just talking about the commitment of our seniors to playing special teams, and how you don’t see that everywhere,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who described the executive as “a general manager-type person, not a scout.”
The prevailing thought about special teams is that it’s leftover playing time. It’s a way to get the young players or the backups on the field. Yet these 2019 Bears have adopted a different philosophy. Senior starters are stepping up and volunteering for special teams service – and it’s yielding some dynamic on-field results.
“It’s football,” senior safety Grayland Arnold said. “The guys are realizing it’s still football. Coach Rhule was like, ‘If it’s 4th-and-1, do you want to be on the field?’ Everybody was like, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘A punt return, that’s 4th-and-1.’ When he used that scenario, I was like, ‘Put me on special teams.’”
Arnold’s presence on the punt return unit resulted in arguably the most captivating play of Baylor’s young season. In the second quarter of the Bears’ win over UTSA, he hauled in a Roadrunner punt deep in BU territory, made an oncoming defender miss at the point of attack, then bounced the play to the right side on his way to a 73-yard touchdown.
Arnold flashed superb speed and vision on the score. But what wasn’t lost on either him or the BU coaches was the blocking he benefited from en route to the end zone. Denzel Mims, Blake Lynch and Chris Platt all helped pave the way by picking off would-be tacklers. All three of those players are seniors who start on either offense or defense.
“I think that’s been them,” said Rhule, when asked if he asked those seniors to join special teams or if they volunteered. “I would give complete and total credit to them. I think (special teams coach) Mike Siravo’s done a really good job since Day One, every special teams meeting he has the whole team in there. So, I bet if you took (offensive lineman) Xavier Newman and asked him how to be a frontline guy on punt – which he will never do – I bet he could go through it.
“I think what that did is it showed the whole team how important it is.”
And knowledge is power. The Bears have produced their share of powerful plays in the kicking game in just two games, having already blocked both a kick and a punt. Freshman Noah Rauschenberg is a baby boomer, having thumped 15 of his 18 kickoffs deep into the end zone for touchbacks.
But nothing can enliven a crowd – or a team, for that matter – like running back a kick or a punt for a TD. Arnold’s runback was Baylor’s first punt return for a score in six years, and his first touchdown since his high school days.
“It was fun. It brought back memories,” Arnold said. “I used to score just about every time I touched the ball (at Kountze). It was a real joy, a blessing. I just thank God to put me in position to make plays.”
The blockers loved it, too. After Arnold passed the goal line, they chased him around, slapping him on the helmet in jubilation.
“That felt so good,” safety JT Woods said. “You can see, I’m running with my hands up before he’s even on the 20-yard line because I just knew he was going to finish it. I was sprinting to go celebrate with him, because that’s just big. Especially for Baylor, because we haven’t had a punt return (for a score) in a few years. So, it was nice. Yeah, six (points).”
Rhule acknowledges that Baylor has been far from perfect on special teams. “We’ve missed some (plays) as well,” he said. But his framing of the kicking unit as nothing more than a 4th-and-1 play has fostered a burgeoning enthusiasm from Baylor’s older players. They’re dialed in, and each ready to contribute their own special deliveries.
“We’ll continue to get (big plays),” Rhule said. “I think if you’re a senior and you’re in great shape, because our team’s in really good shape, you’re saying, ‘Why would I not go out there and play?’ I mean, it’s just playing football. So, that to me, has been a great job by Mike, but it’s also been a really, really impressive job by our seniors.”