Baylor made a lot of progress in coach Matt Rhule’s first season despite that 1-11 record.
“We’re tackling issues and tackling character development. We’re mentoring, developing, educating and I’m proud of the things we’re doing as a college football program,” Rhule said. “I know we’re trying to move away from the past and learn from the past, but part of that is being really proud about what you’re doing in the present.”
Rhule took over in the aftermath of a sexual assault scandal that happened at the school before he got to the Waco campus. So much of his time in the first year was away from the game. Now the coach can put some more focus on football.
The Bears have 52 returning lettermen, including nine starters on each side of the ball. But there is a different level of experience in that group.
“We have youthful experience,” Rhule said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have played in a lot of ball games but they’re still young.”
That includes sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer, who after not playing the first four games started the last four. Zach Smith decided after the season to transfer to Tulsa. Brewer was among 33 different freshmen or sophomores to start a game last season. Only two FBS teams had more first-time starters than the 27 for the Bears. They played 17 true freshmen.
Even with all of that youth, the Bears were within one score in the fourth quarter of eight of their losses. They led after halftime against Big 12 champion Oklahoma before falling 49-41.
“We’re at a point where we have to learn how to win,” said Rhule, who had back-to-back 10-win seasons at Temple before getting to Baylor. “We found a way to lose a bunch of close ball games down the stretch. We’re a year older, a year more mature and really our challenge is not to worry about anybody else but to find a way to learn how to win.”
The season opener is at home Sept. 1 against Abilene Christian.
Speedy receiver Chris Platt led all FBS players with four catches of at least 70 yards or more last season — and that was in only four games. Platt already had 16 catches for 401 yards and five TDs when he suffered a season-ending left knee injury against Oklahoma in the Big 12 opener. Platt got hurt only minutes after he had a 72-yard TD. The senior has 62 catches for 1,123 yards (18.1 per catch) and 10 TDs in 30 games at Baylor.
OTHER PASS CATCHERS
With Platt healthy and joining returning standout Denzel Mims and Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd, the Bears could have one of the Big 12’s top receiver groups. Mims had 61 catches for 1,087 yards and eight TDs, three of them against Oklahoma. Hurd was closing in on Tennessee’s career rushing record when he left midway through his junior season in 2016. Hurd made the switch to receiver during a redshirt season. He ran for 2,660 yards and 20 TDs in 2 1/2 seasons with the Vols, but also had 67 catches with six more scores.
The Bears play the opener of their round-robin Big 12 schedule at home Sept. 22 against Kansas, the only team they beat last season. That is a week before going to three-time defending conference championship Oklahoma. Baylor’s first road game is Sept. 8 in the Alamodome against UTSA, which beat a Power Five team for the first time when it won last year at Waco, a week after Liberty pulled off the same feat against the Bears in the season opener. Duke visits Sept. 15.
When Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016, linebacker Jalen Pitre was the only recruit still committed to sign with the Bears. Pitre played in all 12 games as a true freshman, starting eight of them and finishing with 37 tackles last season.
GIVING IT UP
Baylor ranked 123rd out of 129 FBS teams last year with a minus-11 turnover margin. The Bears recovered eight fumbles and had only three interceptions, while giving the ball away 25 times (11 lost fumbles, 14 interceptions.)