Football preview: Rhule focused on long term success

Baylor football had one of its last practices of the summer Wednesday. Senior tight end Ishmail Wainright tackles senior linebacker Eric Ogor during practice as senior safety Chance Waz swoops in to help. Photo credit: Jessica Hubble

Nathan Keil | Sports Editor

Head coach Matt Rhule hopes that a change in culture will breed success on and off the football field.

Head football coach Matt Rhule was introduced on Dec. 7 as the long-term solution for Baylor football following a tumultuous eight months for not only the program, but also for the university.

In that time, Rhule has been doing everything in his power not to run from the past, but to acknowledge it and try to steer the program and university towards a brighter future.

“We’re not running from the past, we’re learning from it,” Rhule said at Big 12 Media Day on July 19. “Whether it’s [President] Dr. Livingstone or [Athletic Director] Mack Rhodes, we are truly committed to getting the wrongs of the past corrected into a bright new future.”

As Rhule and the Bears are in the middle of camp and practices leading up to their Sept. 2 opener against Liberty University, Rhule still faces a number of important questions about the season that acting head coach Jim Grobe didn’t have to deal with in 2016.

In 2016, Grobe had senior quarterback Seth Russell taking all the snaps under center and from the shotgun position. Rule has three players fighting for the spot: sophomore Zach Smith, who started the final four games for the Bears last season, senior Arizona transfer Anu Solomon and freshman Charlie Brewer, an Austin product that Rhule recruited himself once he arrived in Waco.

But for Rhule and the coaching staff, especially co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Glenn Thomas, competition is good for the team and it forces everyone involved to be at their best each day.

“It keeps everybody on their toes,” Thomas said. “You can’t have a day where you’re not your sharpest, where you’re not studying, where you’re not out early preparing.”

Regardless of who earns the starting spot, the offense is going to look different than it has in the past, with some games favoring the running game and others looking to exploit matchups through the passing game.

Smith, who is hoping that his four-game audition last season and his work during spring practice and camp will get him the nod, says that even though the offensive attack will be more balanced than in past seasons, it is still dynamic and capable of lighting up the scoreboard.

“We’re a balanced team and we can do a lot of stuff,” Smith said. “We have athleticism to do a lot of things. We can spread it out, we can pound the ball and I’m just excited to see where we go.”

Rhule will need to surround his quarterback with playmakers both in the backfield and on the perimeter. Offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon said that it might not be one guy getting all the carries, but it’ll be running back by committee. Sophomore JaMychal Hasty will be the starter after Rhule confirmed a shoulder injury to junior Terence Williams that could keep him on the sidelines until Big 12 play. Williams led the team in rushing a year ago with 1,048 yards and 11 touchdowns. Even with Williams out, Hasty is certainly capable of carrying the load, rushing for 623 yards and three touchdowns in 2016.

On the outside at the receiver position, Rhule has to replace the top two targets from last season: KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora who both bolted early for the NFL. Junior Chris Platt and sophomores Blake Lynch and Pooh Stricklin all return after combining for nine touchdowns in 2016, but Rhule will look to sophomores Tony Nicholson, who saw most of his playing time returning kicks and Denzel Mims to contribute to the receiving corps as well.

Not only is the offensive scheme changing under Rhule, but so is the defense. However, Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have some of the cornerstone pieces returning in senior defensive end K.J. Smith, as well as fellow seniors outside linebacker Taylor Young and strong safety Davion Hall.

The scheme is new but Young is embracing every detail of it.

“It’s a more detailed scheme,” Young said. “Every check has five different checks. Other offenses are going to have to scheme on us instead of us scheming on them because we have so many different defenses.”

Changes in scheme are to be expected when an entirely new coaching staff is in place. With change comes a learning curve, and that change can sometimes come at the expense of wins on Saturdays.

However, Rhule is not going light on his expectations of the program. He expects to win but he also expects the men who suit up in the green and gold each Saturday to leave with more than just championships.

“In terms of the football program, we’re trying to build a program, not a team. We’re building a culture, not an attitude. We’re building young men of character,” Rhule said. “Success is winning football games and winning championships. It’s also graduating our young men and making sure they know what it means to be a man when they leave.”

The culture may be changing and the atmosphere slightly different, but it is still football and that has Hasty and the Bears ready to get back to work.

“Everyone is excited. You can feel the atmosphere,” Hasty said. “It’s going to be an exciting season. I’m looking forward to it.”

Baylor will open at 6 p.m. Sept. 2 against Liberty University at McLane Stadium.