By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
As soon as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Friday’s 45-22 loss to 10th-ranked TCU in the season finale, Matt Rhule’s thoughts and attention quickly flipped the calendar to 2018.
“While other people are thinking about bowl games and championships and all that, we’ll begin the process of building,” said Rhule, who was 1-11 overall and 1-8 in the Big 12 in his debut season at Baylor. “We’ll begin the process of pulling the redshirt off the guys who redshirted and get in the weight room and get bigger, faster, strong and tougher.
“When we’re sitting here next year, we can’t give up six sacks and hope to win a game. We can’t not force a turnover and hope to win the game. So, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. This is one of the hardest things many of those players have been through. But, it’s over now and it’s time to begin the climb and come back next year.”
The record belies the progress and improvement that Rhule has seen over the last few months.
“As a football team, I feel like we’re way better,” he said. “We may have some better personnel at times early on, but I think this team has learned how to fight, they’ve learned how to be tough. . . . It’s obviously not good enough, where we are. But, we’ve come a long way. And I think that will allow us to maybe feel like we’ve built enough of a foundation to move forward from.”
While Rhule hates to lose, he enjoyed this season because of the “interactions and relationships I’ve built with the players.”
“I don’t think there’s a guy in that building that doesn’t feel like we’re setting the stage to become a really good football team,” he said. “The seniors, if you were to ask them, I think a lot of them would say, ‘Boy, I wish I could come back and play another year,’ because I think they see the improvement. It’s not tangible in the results, but I think there’s been a lot of building of a foundation. That’s the part I’ve enjoyed.
“There’s been some hard moments, some really tough moments, just like there are in any season. But, I’ve enjoyed the way our players have been courageous and tough in coming back to work every week.”
One of the seniors that wants to come back is defensive end K.J. Smith, who suffered with shin splints all year and didn’t play again after recording four tackles in the season opener against Liberty. Baylor has filed for a waiver with the NCAA to grant a sixth year of eligibility for the senior from Frisco, Texas.
“Much like (linebacker Taylor Young) deciding to come back, having another guy say, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of this for another year,’ that’s a significant statement by him,” Rhule said. “That means another year of waking up at 5:30 in the morning and rolling around and doing mat drills and another year of running all summer. I hope it works out for him, because he’s a great, great young man. It will help him in his chance of going and playing in the NFL someday, and it will certainly help our football team having that production back.”
There are certainly pieces in place to make a big jump next season. Of 264 starters (in 12 games) nearly a half (121) were freshmen or sophomores. The Bears had 27 first-time starters this year, including 11 true freshmen, and played 17 true freshmen in all.
That included true freshman quarterback Charlie Brewer, who started the last four games after sophomore Zach Smith suffered a dislocated shoulder. Brewer completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 1,562 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions.
With both Brewer and Smith returning, they will go into the spring competing for the starting job. “Every position on this team will be up for grabs,” Rhule said.
“I think Zach Smith is a tremendous young quarterback,” he said. “He has a chance to be a really special player. I think (co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Glenn Thomas) is going help him have a chance to be a pro someday. I think he will be a pro someday.”
Led by freshman John Lovett (445 yards, five touchdowns) and sophomore JaMycal Hasty (314 yards rushing, 105 receiving), underclassmen accounted for 71 percent of the rushing yards this season. By the number of catches, the top six receivers were all freshmen or sophomores, led by sophomore Denzel Mims (61-1,087-8 TDs).
“We’re sitting over there before the game the other day, look at the sidelines, and there’s Gavin (Holmes), there’s (Chris) Platt, there’s RJ (Sneed) – there’s a lot of production standing over there,’ Rhule said. “And then there’s (Tennessee transfer) Jalen Hurd. That’s four receivers standing there. Take those guys, and them with what Mims has done and the way (Jared Atkinson) has stepped up, you feel good about where we could possibly head.”
Later this week, we’ll take a closer look at what the roster will look like in 2018, the potential impact from the redshirted Division I transfers and the importance of this year’s signing class. The early signing period for recruits is Dec. 20-22.