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The Talent Rhule

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Rhule’s mission is to get players into the NFL, and that's good news for Baylor.

NCAA Football: Temple at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Some of you may be familiar with David Thorpe, formerly of ESPN and the now defunct TrueHoop Network. On his podcast with Henry Abbott, also a victim of ESPN’s latest cuts, Thorpe gave his perspective on recruiting rankings and evaluation. His comments were specifically about basketball, but we’ll apply them to football with equal validity.

Thorpe’s theory is that there are only two levels of recruits: ones and twos. The five-star system, he thinks, is informative without being useful. What’s the difference, really, between a four-star wide receiver and a three star, or between a three and a two? The distinction becomes particularly difficult to make on the margins. Is the difference between a two-star linebacker and a three-star 10 pounds or one inch? A quarter second in the three cone drill? Two more career interceptions in high school? Some differences like those can be helpful in projecting players forward, but when you start splitting hairs, you’re really just running a barber shop.

The substantive question Thorpe wants answered is this: is the player a star level difference maker around whom a coaching staff will build its team? If he is, then he’s labelled a two. If he caps out at a high-level role player, then call him a one. That doesn’t mean a one can’t become a two through coaching and hard work, but it does mean he’s not a player a coaching staff will build their team around. If a one does make himself into a two, then the coaches adapt their schemes and strategies accordingly.

Terrance Williams (the original) is an excellent example from Baylor football past of a one becoming a two. Most readers will remember Williams came to Baylor as a two-star recruit (a one under Thorpe’s labelling system). Evenwhen Williams was catching touchdowns like the one linked above in the 2011 season, he was a one. By the time he graduated and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he was a Biletnikoff Award finalist who dominated the Big XII to the tune of 97 reception, 1,832 yards, and 12 touchdowns (a two, at least at the college level). A player like Glasco Martin, a fan favorite running back, was a one who remained a one, even if he was important to the team. No game plan was ever developed with him in mind beyond short yardage packages, however valuable that one skill was. Robert Griffin III or Andrew Billings are examples of twos who lived up to or exceeded their expected impact. From the moment they committed to Baylor, the coaching staff was furiously crafting schemes, plays, and entire strategies around their talents.

Which brings me to Matt Rhule and my speculation about the hope he brings for this season and beyond.

Rhule’s message to players and recruits on day one was this: he wants to prepare players for the NFL. That simple message entails a lot of things, but it suggests something profoundly new to Baylor football. This coaching staff will be dedicated to making every player better in every aspect of the game. To be a bit simplistic, the Briles era had a different focus. He and his staff wanted to make every player better in every aspect of the scheme. See the difference? Where Briles tried to construct a scheme and recruiting system founded on the idea of plug and play, Rhule, as I understand him, is more interested in critical skill acquisition, which is to say, teaching players to be life long learners (of football).

If Briles was a technical school, Rhule is a liberal arts college. Technical schools are excellent at instructing students in and developing them for a single trade or field. Liberal arts colleges are designed to instill skills and characteristics in students that will translate across disciplines. Briles’ players were experts in their scheme, but questions always surrounded them when draft time came around about their ability to “adapt” to the pro game. If Rhule executes what I imagine his vision to be, his players will be “fundamentally sound,” equipped to take on any new scheme or assignment given to them.

Now let’s go back to those ones and twos. Frequently in the Briles era, ones became twos because they were underdeveloped freak athletes. Once Briles and his conditioning staff could hone that athleticism to fit the scheme, they could wield them like weapons all across (and often down) the field. Much rarer under Briles was an average athlete who became a star through mastery of skills and fundamentals, offensive line being, perhaps, the only consistent exception. Before Briles brought in regular waves of athletic outliers, we saw a lot of bubble screens and other schemes designed to mitigate a lack of talent. Rhule’s system of development seems much more about creating warriors than weapons. Players after spring practice have already commented on the differences in approach, a few seniors even bemoaning the fact that they only get one year with Rhule and his staff.

Rhule’s plan for player development seems, at this point, to be philosophically different than his predecessor’s. At the end of the day, Rhule will always prefer to have a fast player instead of a slow player, just like Briles. What Rhule might do that Briles almost never did, though, is build an entire program around developing ones into twos, even if they never run a sub-4.4 40. Through discipline, attention to detail, and instruction in the complexities of the sport, Rhule’s program should elevate a player beyond his physical capabilities. Under Rhule, ones might be able to transition to the NFL and continue to be ones, and his twos might be able to move to the next level and continue to be twos, another weakness of players under Briles.

Let’s go back to Terrance Williams. As I noted, Williams was a two in college, but he never had any prospect of being a leading receiver in the NFL. Why? In the Briles scheme, Williams’ abilities were accentuated to an incredible degree. In any other context? Williams seems to top out as a one. He’s an excellent, useful football player, but he’ll never be a player to build around. That’s partly because, beyond his size and speed, he has never really developed advanced receiving skills. Even after NFL coaching, Williams has trouble catching balls away from his body, although his route running has improved. In college, Williams could stand out with his size and speed as a two. Not so much in the NFL where every player is a high caliber athlete. His understanding and mastery of the game just isn’t high enough to make him a star.

As the 2018 recruiting class stands now, only one ESPN top 300 player has signed with the Bears, plus a load of three-star recruits, and even Joshua Fleeks doesn’t look to be a game changing two. But what Rhule seems poised to do is take a bunch of ones, build a competent, disciplined team filled with players who know and understand their roles to a degree rarely seen under Briles, and transform a handful of ones into twos. And I bet once twos start walking in the door, Baylor football will be back on the national stage with as much substance as shine.