Every expert, analyst, commentator, and fan seem to be asking the same question about the 2019 Baylor Bears. How did they get here? How did this program go from 1-11 to 11-1 and playing for a conference championship in just three seasons? This is the first installment of two-part series examining the reasons for success. Today’s focus is on the players.
I’ve never agreed with the notion that Baylor would lose all of its players or would not be able to attract anybody to come play in Waco after the shakeup. I always thought all the banter about a mass exodus was overblown. Yes, Baylor was going through a complicated transition in the summer of 2016, but after the dust started to settle, there was tremendous opportunity. At Baylor, there would be chances to see the field early, get a fresh start, and build something special.
The Loyal Leftovers
Enough good things cannot be said about the seniors that stuck around the past 4 years, but there are two things that really stand out to me. First, none of the seniors regressed in their time at Baylor. Each one of them developed and became increasingly more valuable players. All you have to do is flip on an old game from 2016 & 2017 and then compare it to the Kansas State or Oklahoma State to see how far these players progressed. Second, most of these upperclassmen, the last few seasons ultimately embraced the changes. Guys like Verkedric Vaughns, Taylor Young, Ira Lewis, Chris Miller, Henry Black and JaMycal Hasty all worked hard and earned single digit numbers. While Sam Tecklenburg, Jordan Williams, Greg Roberts, and Clay Johnston all represented the Baylor football team as captains.
The seniors of last year and this year all could have transferred or decided to opt out of their commitment, but would they have been better off for it? Denzel Mims stepped right up and became a “go-to” receiver as a true sophomore. Bravvion Roy and Clay Johnston became starters early on in their career and later received all-conference honors. There are too many plays to count that show the impact that these players had on their games. Certainly, Baylor would not have been as successful as early without these upperclassmen.
I also believe that Baylor would not have just played for a conference championship without the help of players who found a fresh start at Baylor. Now, I’m someone who believes that program momentum is a real thing, and therefore believe that the 2019 season does not happen without the momentum of 2018. And who was a big part of the 2018 season? None other than two transfers, Jalen Hurd and Derreck Thomas, who provided stability on both sides of the ball. Both also proved themselves in different ways. Jalen Hurd showed he was a durable player who had the athleticism to play multiple positions, while Thomas showcased the ability to play with elite P5 receivers. Fortunately, for the Bears, transfers also played a big role in 2019. Both James Lockhart and Jake Fruhmorgen had starting spots on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. A lot like the leftover upperclassmen players, most of these transfers seemed to really buy in to the program. Jalen Hurd scratched and clawed his way for every inch last year, and you could see the passion that James Lockhart had when making big plays for the Bears.
With a depleted roster, head coach Matt Rhule knew that his first couple of recruiting classes would be paramount in building back the depth as quickly as possible. Several freshmen were thrust into the primetime right out of the gate. But Coach Rhule was able to do two things that went a long way to providing quality depth. First, he won recruiting battles against out of state competition; keeping Texas players in the state. The Bears won out with Xavier Newman against Colorado, James Lynch against USC, and R.J Snead against Ole Miss. All who would become major contributors for Baylor’s 2019 season. Second, Coach Rhule was also able to sell his message to out-of-state recruits as well. I was pleasantly shocked when Baylor picked up commitments from players from New Jersey (John Lovett) and Florida (Tyquan Thornton). And these weren’t just players that were recruited to fill out the roster, but instead have become a huge part of Baylor’s success.
This 2019 successful Baylor season isn’t only attributed to transfers, Briles’ recruits, or Rhule’s recruits. Those labels wore off a long time ago. Instead, they came together as a team that was willing to put aside their individual egos in order to build something special. Because in the end, they all needed each other to be successful. Perhaps, nothing encapsulates this idea more than the Baylor starting defensive line. Together they were made up of one Briles’ leftover, a Rhule recruit, and a transfer, all coming to Baylor under different circumstances and journeys. Yet, when they were putting pressure on all the Big-12 quarterback all season long, what mattered was the front of their jersey.