When a few hundred of the Baylor faithful gathered in North Dallas to hear Matt Rhule speak at the annual DFW-area Baylor Football Kickoff dinner in mid-July, the tone of the evening was certainly different from years prior. The evening, which always precedes Baylor’s appearance at Big 12 Media Days, has been marked by uncertainty and discontent among the fanbase for the past few years. In 2017, fans came to hear what a relatively-unknown quantity had to say about football in Texas. In 2018, Baylor fans were disgruntled and skeptical on the heels of a 1-11 season. On each of those occasions, Matt Rhule was selling a vision and, in a sense, pleading with fans for patience.
In 2019, however, Matt Rhule could have played the “I told you so” game. The Bears, he said, were the most improved team in all of college football in 2018. But Rhule knows his job isn’t over, and he’s not satisfied with a seven-win season.
As fun as 2018 was at times, there were also games that made fans shake their heads. A loss at home to Duke in Baylor’s premier non-conference matchup was enough to make some fans question the direction of the program.
For as low of a moment as that game was, there were plenty of games to help bolster Baylor fans’ spirits. Ending the season on a high note after a thrilling bowl game against Vanderbilt certainly set the right tone for the offseason, too. In 2019, Rhule noted, Baylor is no longer going to be able to utilize the element of surprise. This year, Coach Rhule knows that his team has to pay attention to every single detail of play in order to improve upon their 7-6 record for the 2018 season.
One of the greatest attributes of this 2019 Baylor team is going to be its age and experience level. For the first two years of his tenure, Rhule’s teams have been marked by talented upstarts who showed flashes of brilliance but lacked the physical and emotional maturity needed at times to really finish a game. This should be the year when the necessity of playing young guys in his first two years begins to pay dividends for Matt Rhule.
“The maturity and experience across the board is very strong,” says Colt Barber, Editor-in-Chief of SicEm365.com. “This starts with Charlie Brewer at quarterback and the guys around him on Offense. On Defense, there is a group of veteran guys at every level.”
From a position group perspective, Barber says there is a lot to be excited about with the stable of running backs Baylor is fielding this year.
“We can talk about the receivers and Brewer, but the depth and talent at running back is unlike anything I’ve seen in a while. If the offensive line can improve, Baylor’s running game can be deadly.”
While Baylor’s offensive line showed improvement in the 2018 season, it was still a noticeably young and undersized unit. This year, the hope is that physical maturity will be evident alongside the experience that the unit has gained under Rhule’s first two seasons. Still, that improvement can never be taken for granted.
“Until proven otherwise, I have concerns about the offensive line’s ability to run against physical and strong defensive fronts,” Barber responded when asked about the biggest question marks going into the season.
“It really stepped up in 2018 after an abysmal 2017 season, but they still couldn’t run the ball as well as Rhule wanted to against the best of the best. In even matchups, they will have success, but to take the next jump as a team, running the football when everyone knows its going to run is crucial.”
Much to the fans’ chagrin, Baylor’s defense last season lacked consistency. The Bears could frequently be found in third-and-long situations, only to give up a big play for a touchdown. Barber says this is an area that needs to improve if the Bears hope to continue their improvement in 2019.
“On defense, explosive plays have to be limited and if there is one thing that can stop the bleeding sooner rather than later it is scheme.
Barber believes that schematic tweaks in the offseason will prove beneficial in making the defense a more consistent unit this season.
“I believe that Phil Snow’s original plan was one that could work, but only with the right personnel. I don’t think the personnel is ready yet, which is why the odd fronts and dime and nickel defenses that Iowa State has had success with is now the base scheme. Getting speed at sure tacklers on the field at safety has to happen and this scheme will allow it to.”
Players To Watch
Quarterback Charlie Brewer is entering his third season with the Bears with a ton of in-game experience, and Baylor fans should be excited about an even more mature, poised Brewer-run offense.
“I don’t think its any secret that Charlie Brewer will be the spoon on offense. Baylor was a top-25 offense with him playing only a portion of the early season snaps a year ago, and should be an even better offense with him being the guy this year. If the offense can find consistency running the football with him managing the game, his skill set can really flourish and put defenses in a tough situation.”
The defense is loaded with talent and experience, and has the potential to be really special if things really begin to click. Blake Lynch and James Lockhart are both in their final year of eligibility, and Barber anticipates that they will be crucial to making sure this unit lives up to its potential in the 2019 season.
“Blake Lynch and James Lockhart are my two x-factors. At linebacker, Lynch has the ability to make big plays like we saw from him the final eight quarters of the season. If he can do that consistently, not only is he playing himself into an NFL draft pick, he’s also making the defense much better.”
Last season, Jalen Hurd made his Big 12 debut in impressive fashion, and Barber sees redshirt Sophomore Abram Smith playing a similar role in the 2019 season.
“I’ll tell anyone who listens that Abram Smith is the one to watch at running back. Jalen Hurd was the one to get tough between the tackles a year ago and Smith should be the one to do it this Fall.”
Smith, a 2017 signee who missed the 2017 season due to injury, is ready to take on a bigger role after limited action in 2018.
“He’s a physical downhill runner and the only thing that will keep him from being in there on 3rd-and-2 is his performance in practices leading up to the game. Baylor’s running back group is crowded, but he has a definite role.”
On the other side of the ball, look for James Lockhart to make big leaps. Lockhart transferred to Baylor from Texas A&M in 2017 after his Sophomore season. After sitting out the 2017 season due to transfer restrictions, he took the field in 2018 and played in every game. According to Barber, Phil Snow’s defensive scheme this season will be successful if Lockhart is able to make his final year of eligibility a big one.
“James Lockhart is my guy on defense specifically of how he fits the scheme that Baylor will base out of now with the three-man front,” explains Barber. “He is incredibly strong to hold his own against the physical run-blocking offensive linemen, but will flash some pass-rushing skills when needed. As a Senior, his time is running short to have a big season, and I think you will see him come to life this Fall.”
Best Case/Worst Case
In the Spring, Barber predicted nine regular season wins for the Bears, with a three-game slide toward the end of the season against TCU, Oklahoma, and Texas. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, though, for the Bears to pick up an upset win in Waco against Oklahoma or a resurgent Texas team. A realistic best case scenario, according to Barber, has Baylor winning ten regular season games.
“Looking at the schedule as if all games were on neutral sites, it’s easy to see where ten wins could come from,” says Barber. “The scheme change on defense is enough to make a difference, and the offense feeds off of the energy from the unit that creates turnovers and important stops.”
Of course, one can’t consider the best case scenario without entertaining the inverse. A doomsday scenario would be similar to the 2017 season, but Barber sees this team as having progressed enough that the floor is a much more palatable six-win season.
“Two of Baylor’s six regular season wins a year ago came at home against Oklahoma State and Kansas State in thrilling fashion. Without those two comeback wins, Baylor probably finishes the season 4-8 and the progress isn’t nearly as apparent. Now, Baylor gets those teams on the road and replaces them with Texas and Oklahoma at home. Baylor is a better team in 2019 than in 2018, but drop two important swing games to the Cowboys and Wildcats endlong with two to the Sooners and Longhorns, and eventually finish the season at 6-6 with losses to a top 25 Iowa State team in Waco and a stingy TCU team on the road in Fort Worth.”
Twenty-five players signed National Letters of Intent with Baylor in the 2019 recruiting class, and nine of those arrived on campus in January as early enrollees. In 2017, Round Rock wide receiver Jaylen Ellis became the first player to jump on board with Baylor when he made his verbal pledge following one of the Summer football camps. Ellis remained true to his pledge despite attention from several other big schools, but Barber says three late additions to the 2019 class might be some of the most important pieces..
“Three of the most important signees of the 2019 recruiting class came very late in the process. Junior college offensive lineman Blake Bedier, junior college defensive end Niadre Zouzou, and high school defensive end Garmon Randolph,” explains Barber.
While relying heavily on junior college prospects can be detrimental to building longterm depth in a program, being selective prospects enables coaches to fill holes and help in transition periods.
“A lot can be made of listing junior college prospects as that important, but the duo of Bedier and Zouzoua is massive for the short-term potential of the team in 2019 and 2020. Bedier is a future early-round NFL pick on the offensive line, while Zouzoua has the athletic ability that is needed to rush the passer at an elite level by the time he leaves campus.”
Additionally, the addition of Randolph at the end of the recruiting period provides Baylor with a recruiting win over LSU and Baylor gets a player with unlimited potential.
“Randolp, a high school tight end, signed with Baylor over LSU and will eventually be a 6-foot-7, 260-pound pass rusher with elite athletic ability. It will take him a little time to be ready to contribute at a high level, but he is one of the most promising in the class.”
It’s not secret that Matt Rhule and his staff have viewed talented, under-developed prospects as their bread and butter in their first three recruiting classes. Barber doesn’t expect much deviation from this recruiting mindset going forward, though Baylor will certainly be able to be more picky if the wins on the field pile up.
“Baylor needs to continue to emphasize athletic ability on defense specifically. The depth is really building, but the key to Rhule’s system on defense is to gamble and develop. Offensively, Baylor will likely drop into the junior college ranks again to help ease the loss of several offensive linemen from 2020 while also focusing in on replacing three senior receivers.”
Baylor will kick off its 2019 season in front of a home crowd on Saturday, August 31st in Waco against the Stephen F Austin Lumberjacks. The Big 12 juggernaut will begin on September 21st when Iowa State comes to town. The Bears will take center stage nationally on Halloween night against the West Virginia Mountaineers on ESPN. This game, on a Thursday night, is a guaranteed prime time opportunity for Matt Rhule and company. Following a quick trip up I-35 to play TCU in Fort Worth, Baylor will return home to face Oklahoma and Texas in consecutive weeks. The final regular-season game will be played in Lawrence, Kansas against the Lew Miles-coached Jayhawks.
Stephen F Austin at Baylor, August 31st at 6:00 PM
UTSA at Baylor, September 7th at 3:00 PM
Baylor at Rice, September 21st at 6:00 PM
Iowa State at Baylor, September 28th TBA
Baylor at Kansas State, October 5th TBA
Texas Tech at Baylor, October 12th TBA
Baylor at Oklahoma State, October 19th TBA
West Virginia at Baylor, October 31st at 7:00 PM
Baylor at TCU, November 9th TBA
Oklahoma at Baylor, November 16th TBA
Texas at Baylor, November 23rd TBA
Baylor at Kansas, November 30th TBA