When Baylor officially signed its 23-member recruiting class on Wednesday, it hauled in what has been ranked anywhere from the low 20s to the 30s nationally, a far cry (in a good way) from the classes Bears fans were used to seeing last decade. Compare 2013, a class containing six different players ranked 4* or better by the various recruiting classes and only one non-JUCO (a kicker) receiving a 2* ranking, with 2004, a class of 20 with 1 3* as the highest-ranked recruit.* Nine years of progress separate those two along with a fundamental shift in basically everything associated with Baylor's football program, from the success on the field to the commitment from the University off of it. Back then we were treading water coming off the Stolen Years with absolutely no hope in sight. Now we're watching a $260 million stadium go up across the river from a state-of-the-art athletic complex and practice facility with a conspicuous bronze man adorning the foyer. We've come a long way.
Offense: Near Impact
These are the offensive recruits that look capable of making an immediate impact on the field for Baylor as true freshman or that have such high eventual potential that leaving them off doesn't make sense. Part of this group is going to be motivated solely by the recruits themselves, part of it by our own need.
WR Robbie Rhodes -- 5* by 247, 4* by Scout, Rivals, ESPN.
You knew he was going to be here. I knew he was going to be here. My dog knew he was going to be here. The consensus highest-ranked recruit in Baylor's class, Rhodes is a playmaker in every sense of the word that will likely get a chance this coming season to make an impact on the field for the Bears given our relative lack of established options on the outside.
Following his commitment in May, Rhodes had every opportunity to be swayed by established, blue-blood programs from across the country. He wasn't. He signed on the dotted line as (according to some subscription services) the highest-rated recruit Art Briles has ever gotten. He's going to be good, and it could be as soon as this coming year.
WR Quan Jones -- 3* by 247, Scout, Rivals
Quan makes the list off the glowing recommendation of Art Briles himself and the fact that we apparently shut down WR recruiting entirely after landing the Rhodes/Jones pair. According to Briles, we had the opportunity to recruit several more 4* receivers had we wished, but we were content taking these two to the goal line as our only two receivers in this class. That says something to me.
Jones is the prototypical outside receiver with ideal height and speed. His production probably suffered a bit in high school as a result of playing with 4* recruit Marcell Ateman, who we also recruited initially but ended up signing with Oklahoma State. Quan, like Rhodes, committed relatively early to Baylor's class and his commitment withstood determined assault by, among others, TCU. Our needs on the outside give him a chance to play this coming season, though I suspect a redshirt year will be in the offing for the loquacious WR from Wylie. I love his potential as a playmaker in Briles' offense, and I think we're going to see a lot of him in a year or two, if not immediately.
QB Chris Johnson -- 3* by 247, Rivals, 4* by Scout, ESPN
CJ is the one where most recruiting observers will probably find fault with my list because his inclusion here is almost entirely based on what could be years down the road. Though he is certainly talented enough now to run our offense as RGIII did his freshman year (lots of designed running plays, very few passing options, etc.), Johnson will almost certainly redshirt in 2013 and probably sit another year after that unless he progresses extremely quickly under Briles' tutelage. The good news for him is that he followed the RGIII plan of enrolling early and is already on campus. He will participate in spring drills as the likely #3 QB behind Bryce Petty and Seth Russell, meaning he'll get reps in our system a semester ahead of normal and then have the entire summer to get stronger/faster/smarter.
Johnson intrigues me not only because of Briles' characterization-- he said CJ had the potential to be a "dominant" QB in college-- but because of his pure athleticism. As a sophomore, he was All-State as a kick returner. The guy is 6'5" tall. As a junior, he not only started at QB for Bryan but also at safety. How many 6'5" guys are there athletic enough to play safety? Try not to hold the fact that his team was horrible this season against him; when I say that he was often running for his life, I mean it. Their offensive line was basically a sieve.
Aside from all that, I like Chris Johnson for one simple fact: he was our first commit for 2013, never wavered on that commitment, did everything he had to do in the classroom to enroll early, and is already a Baylor Bear. I have mad respect for that kind of dedication and loyalty.
Offense: Further Away
These guys are probably talented enough to warrant inclusion in the first group but don't make it for different reasons, some academic and some related to potential in college.
OT Maurice Porter -- 4* by 247Sports, 3* by Scout, 3* by Rivals -- Most of the work Porter has to do is in the classroom. We're still waiting on his latest ACT score (I think he took the test this past weekend) to find out if he will make it to Baylor this summer or have to go to a JUCO. If he gets here, he's an obvious redshirt candidate and will eventually play tackle for Baylor.
RB Johnny Jefferson -- high 3* across the board -- I have high hopes for Jefferson, so I hope nobody thinks that by putting him in Tier 2 I am saying anything negative about him. Far from it. He is a complete back who will likely see a ton of playing time as soon as his redshirt freshman year considering that we definitely lose Glasco Martin after this season and may lose Lache Seastrunk if things go as well as he (Lache) hopes. Even if Lache stays as the primary back for 2014, Jefferson could see significant time behind him. He's in Tier 2 only because he'll definitely redshirt this coming season.
TE Gus Penning -- 3* by all -- Penning struck me as an interesting take because we offered and he committed during a time when we were still working on several HS TE recruits. We probably wanted him because Jordan Navjar and Jerod Monk are both seniors this year, so we'll have a bit of a whole in 2014 after they both leave. Penning has 3 years to play 3.
OL Darius Moore -- 3* by all -- Needs to get stronger but could see time quicker than we might think with our depth issues on the interior line.
Defense: Near Impact
DT Andrew Billings -- 4* by 247, Scout, Rivals, ESPN
I've already written at length about what keeping elite Central Texas talent in Central Texas means for Baylor's program. In case you don't want to read again: it's a very, very good thing. Billings was a player we targeted early in this class as one we had to have, and though the ride was somewhat bumpy in that he took until last Monday to make his call (as is his right, to be clear), we got him. He should come in and challenge for playing time immediately as a result of our relatively inexperienced remaining options at DT (we lost both end-of-season starters to graduation in Nick Johnson and Gary Mason, Jr.). A redshirt is possible but unlikely. Billings is just too strong and too full of potential for me to see him sitting an entire year on the sideline. Much like his predecessor-in-BAMFness Javonte Magee in 2012, Billings probably won't start the first game of the season and may not get as much playing time as we armchair HCs think he should, but he'll get his. And he'll be better for it in 2014 and beyond. He should be a special player on the defensive line.
LB Brian Nance -- 4* by 247, Rivals, 3* by Scout
Nance's is a story of perseverance, loyalty, and (hopefully) the eventual success those things bring. Signed by Baylor out of Euless Trinity HS in 2012, Nance didn't make it to Baylor the first time around because of academic issues, so he went the prep school route to Hargrave Military Academy for a semester. He's now made it to Waco, enrolling this past month, after keeping his original commitment (he didn't have to).
We thought last year around this time that Nance might challenge for playing time as a true freshman, and given that all he's done in the past year is play extremely well, earning top marks from two of the three major sub services, and continue to grow, I don't see any reason why he can't do that this year. The problem from his perspective is the play at OLB of Eddie Lackey, who may well have been our best defensive player down the stretch last season. How the two of them work out together will be interesting to watch. Nance has all the physical tools you could hope for, the only question I've seen raised is whether he will be able to keep his size under control in a collegiate strength training/nutrition program or have to move down to DE before his time at Baylor is up. We'll see.
DT Terell Brooks -- 3* by 247, Scout, ESPN
Brooks was a huge need for this class because he will almost definitely see a lot of playing time next season, but almost didn't make the first group because of overall ceiling. In baseball teams, he has a low ceiling but high floor. He should be a solid contributor sooner than later on our defensive line, he just won't be a stud. Probably.
Defense: Further Away
CB Kyle Fulks -- 4* by 247, 3* by Scout, 3* by Rivals -- May well be the fastest player in HS football this season, but like Porter he needs a passing score on the ACT to get into Baylor. He took his test last week, so we're just waiting to find out. He has great size and speed (seriously, he's fast) and will be a stud at CB sooner than later.
OLBs Raquaan Davis and Xavier Phillips -- Both were 3*s across the board and both look destined for redshirts this season with the talent we have available at OLB. I prefer Davis slightly because of his speed, but both should be contributors by 2015 for Baylor's defense. Davis turned down overtures from OU and A&M to remain a Bear.
DE Kevin Smith -- 3* across the board -- I may be underrating Smith a bit based on his HS stats (he had something like a dozen sacks last time I checked). He's pure speed off the edge and in another time might have been a candidate for early playing time a la Jamal Palmer this year. Our depth at DE has improved tremendously with both starters coming back and Magee and Shawn Oakman behind them, though, along with the aforementioned Palmer, so that's probably not in the cards for Smith. When he plays, he'll remind many of those DEs for TCU that always get a boatload of sacks and nobody knows who they are.
NB Travon Blanchard -- 3* by all-- One of our best recruit recruiters in this class and a potential impact player down the line at the Bear position, Blanchard is one of my favorite overall recruits. He committed early and stayed with the Bears throughout. He'll redshirt in 2013 and be in the mix for playing time after that.
CB Austin Jupe and S Alfred Pullom -- 3*s by all but Scout (has Jupe as 4*)-- These two are inextricably linked in my mind because they're about the same size (6'1" - 6"2"), play in the secondary, and are ranked about the same by the recruiting services. I think they even committed one right after the other. Jupe is the higher-ranked of the two, but I think that might be a result of Pullom being slightly underrated. Check out his portion of the highlight film Baylor put out and tell me if you agree.
CB Taion Sells-Warner -- 3* by all-- A fast, smaller CB in the Phil Bennett mold, Sells' biggest problem is that we've taken a baker's dozen DB recruits in the last two classes, so it may be a while before he sees the field in a meaningful way.
Defense: The Projects
The guys in this tier either have a huge weakness that will have to be overcome or need a lot of work before they can be contributors for Baylor.
DT Byron Bonds -- 3* by all -- Some may disagree with me about the standout from Allen, but I think we took Bonds in a time when we weren't sure how DT recruiting would shake out and need to make sure we got somebody. That doesn't mean he's not talented, he just doesn't have the potential of Billings or the ready now-ness (I made that up) of Brooks. He could be a solid player down the line, it's just going to take a lot of work on his part to get stronger.
DE Tanner Thrift -- 3* by 247, 2* by Scout, Rivals -- Ok, Thrift is actually the one guy I thought of when I decided to put a "projects" tier. I've been mystified by his recruitment almost since the beginning for a couple of reasons, chief among which is that I don't know where he plays. His film was private for basically the entire recruiting season, so we never got to see much of him at all, and there are rumors he may switch over to OL at some point. Nobody knows where Thrift will land, but don't expect it to happen any time soon.
MLB Tyler Young -- 2* by all -- It's not hard to figure out why he's down here: size. It's something that will plague him throughout his college career in whatever form that takes. He may be a special teams star or may actually play on defense, I don't know. But that's why he's here. The stats are eye-popping, though.
ATH Wesley Harris -- 2* by all -- Harris is the latest in Art Briles master plan to take athletic QBs from all over and turn them into other things in college. First there was Monk, then there was Terrence Singleton, and now we have Harris. His athleticism may warrant him a spot one tier higher up, but I'm always hesitant to assume position changes will go well until they do. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Harris, obviously.
A Group All His Own: The Kicker
K Chris Callahan -- kickers are rarely ranked by recruiting services for whatever reason -- He's a kicker, so he's in the kicker tier. That's not a bad thing, obviously, and I've already written about how excited I am to have him. It's just impossible to rank him against other players because he's a kicker. I think I mentioned he's a kicker.
Just a reminder, everything above is purely my own opinion, so disagreement is completely fine. Expected, actually. My word is not law and I'm no scout, these are just my thoughts on how things shake up right now. I'm very excited about the overall potential of this recruiting class and every single player within it. Each of them was offered a scholarship to Baylor University for a reason, even if I don't know exactly what that reason was for every player. Our coaches, people that do this for a living and have done so successfully, saw enough in them to offer, and that says something.