By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
At this time a year ago, Baylor coach Matt Rhule had been on the job for about two weeks and was sitting with just one commitment for the 2017 recruiting class.
What a difference a year makes.
In the first year of the new early signing period, Rhule introduced a class of 20 recruits on Wednesday, a blue-chip group that is currently ranked 15th nationally by ESPN, 22nd by 247Sports.com and 23rd by Rivals.
"They will always be a special class to us in that so many of them committed before the season," Rhule said, "and to go through the year, to not have any de-commit, to have them stay with us, is truly something special. . . . In the end, these guys are going to do something special. They're going to be a part of this remarkable turnaround."
Crosby running back Craig Williams (5-9, 170) gave Baylor its 21st signee on Thursday and added to an offense-loaded class that includes one quarterback, four receivers, five offensive linemen and three tight ends.
Evan Cooper, Director of Player Personnel, said the class "should go down in history. . . This class is unbelievable."
Not only did the Bears hold on to their commitments - while going through a disappointing, sometimes frustrating 1-11 season - they closed strong by getting late pledges from Arkansas quarterback Gerry Bohanon, Florida receiver Tyquan Thornton and Louisiana offensive lineman Princeton Pines.
"Where other people might see adversity," Rhule said, "these guys see opportunity."
The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Bohanon was the cherry on top of the class, picking the Bears over the likes of Arkansas, Alabama, Louisville, LSU, Georgia and Auburn when he announced his commitment on Tuesday at his high school gym in Earle, Ark.
Bohanon gives the Bears a second scholarship quarterback to compete with returning freshman Charlie Brewer. An Elite 11 selection and two-time all-state pick, Bohanon passed for 11,362 yards and 142 touchdowns in his career and added 5,925 yards and 70 TDs on the ground.
"What I want is unbelievably competitive quarterbacks," Rhule said. "It's not about, `How easy is it for me to get on the field?' It's about `How good of a player do I become?' And you don't become a great player unless you have competition, you don't become a great player unless you're pushed and you have to be at your best every day. And you don't become a great player unless you're around other good players."
Rhule and his staff were able to add some key pieces to what's developing into an impressive corps of wide receivers. Joining Thornton are Josh Fleeks from Cedar Hill, Jackson Gleeson from Mansfield and Kalon Barnes from Silsbee, who swept the 4A state titles in the 100 and 200 meters in the spring.
A finalist for Houston Touchdown Club Offensive Player of the Year, "Sqwirl" Williams rushed for 1,990 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior and earned District 21-5A MVP honors. He's ranked the sixth-best high school sprinter in the nation with personal bests of 10.23 in the 100 and 21.33 in the 200 and a laser time of 4.36 in the 40-yard dash.
Williams plans to run for the Baylor track team as well, along with Barnes, Thornton and Gleeson. Thornton has bests of 10.5 in the 100 meters and 21.07 in the 200, Barnes set a 4A state record with a 10.22 in the 100 and Gleeson has been timed in 21.14 in the 200.
"We might go over there and try to compete with the track team," cornerbacks coach Fran Brown said, "maybe run a little 4x1 or 4x2 against them."
Rhule said he is "certainly open to them running and playing football."
"I really believe that there is nothing better than getting out there and competing," he said.
The Bears also restocked a tight end position that was depleted by graduation, adding Christoph Henle from Austria, Ben Sims from San Antonio Clark and Bralen Taylor from Cuero, Texas.
Ranked the 22nd-best tight end in the nation by 247Sports, Henle played high school football at The Oakridge School in Arlington, catching 65 passes for 927 yards and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Taylor, the nephew of former Baylor defensive back Trooper Taylor, played multiple positions for Cuero and was rated the 12th-best tight end by ESPN.
"Nothing against the guys we lost, because I would take them back in a second, but I think we're going to be a little more athletic," tight ends coach Joey McGuire said. "What I think you'll see with these guys is we'll use the tight end a lot more in the passing game. You're going to see guys that can stretch the field."
Adding to last year's class of six offensive line recruits, including two that made starts as true freshmen, Rhule added Connor Galvin from Katy, Ylijaah Hall from Bryan, Jackson Kimble from Southlake Carroll, Casey Phillips from Franklin and Pines.
Phillips (6-6, 280) is one of six early enrollees, joining Bohanon, Henle, Thornton and safeties JT Woods from San Antonio and Christian Morgan from Houston Porter.
"I think it's a tremendous help for them," Rhule said of the January enrollees. "They have a chance to come in and learn the system and learn the football when it's not quite as fast. . . . They're all positions of need, so I think it will really help them to have that time. It's just a chance to get bigger, faster, stronger, and be around the guys. That way, when the rest of the freshmen show up in June, you're sort of the elder statesmen of the freshmen."
In addition to Woods and Morgan, defensive help comes from cornerbacks Byron Hanspard Jr. from DeSoto and Mark Milton from Houston Clear Brook and defensive linemen Josh Landry from Houston Lamar and Marje Smith from Marshall.
"Josh is a guy we really liked off of the tape," Rhule said. "I really like his motor. He comes from a great program being at Lamar with Coach (Tom) Nolen. And while he's highly rated, I think he's still underrated. He's one of the guys early on we said we had to get him in the program."
Hanspard Jr., the son of former Texas Tech All-American running back Byron Hanspard, comes from the "I-20 corridor" that also includes Fleeks from Cedar Hill and Gleeson from Mansfield.
"I've said this for many years, and I'm trying to prove it," said McGuire, who coached at Cedar Hill, "that if you get the best of the best out of that area, then you can win a national championship. And the guys we have coming out of that area are really special. Hanspard, Gleeson and Fleeks, you're talking about just pure speed, athleticism, explosive athletes that are going to be able to make an impact for us."
Rounding out the class, at least for now, is punter Issac Power from Parker, Colo., a U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection who had a 41.3-yard punting average and booted 9-of-13 field goals with a long of 58 yards.
Rhule said he hopes to fill the remaining spots with a "couple difference-makers."
"We hope to just sign the best players available, because we're probably whole at a lot of positions," he said. "Maybe not exactly where we'd like to be. But, if you start going for need, you don't always end up with the best players. We'll try to find the best available, the best fits for us."