College Sports

Briles’ skills as creative talent scout benefit Baylor’s BCS bid

Baylor football coach Art Briles has a starting cornerback who once dreamed of taking Gonzaga to the Final Four as the Zags’ primary point guard.

Briles’ second-leading tackler, linebacker Eddie Lackey, began his college career as a safety at a Division II school. Receiver Clay Fuller, 26, spent six seasons as a minor-league outfielder in the Los Angeles Angels’ organization before walking on at Baylor and working his way into the lineup for a team battling for this year’s BCS national championship.

And the biggest, baddest Bear of them all — offensive guard Cyril Richardson, an All-American and postseason honors candidate — needed little time Monday to recite the entire list of suitors he dealt with on the recruiting trail while playing at North Crowley High School.

“Baylor was my only offer,” Richardson said, smiling. “You see what happens when you sleep on some people. That just shows you there’s a lot of players out there and coach Briles is great at finding them. There’s a lot of people that just want that one shot. That one little chance to show what they have. And they’re going to take it to new places.”

Richardson and several other under-recruited gems have helped take No. 4 Baylor (9-0, 6-0 in Big 12) to unprecedented places this season. A victory over No. 10 Oklahoma State (9-1, 6-1) in Saturday’s showdown in Stillwater, Okla. would give the Bears control of the league title race while keeping them on track to pass No. 3 Ohio State (10-0) in next week’s updated BCS standings.

But the Bears’ point-per-minute offense, for a second consecutive week, probably will be forced to operate on the road without three primary playmakers who have scored 24 touchdowns and accounted for 259.6 yards per game this season. Receiver Tevin Reese (dislocated wrist) won’t play and neither of the top two running backs, Lache Seastrunk (groin) and Glasco Martin (knee), have been cleared to practice after sitting out last week’s 63-34 victory over Texas Tech.

None of this causes the slightest hint of a concern from Briles, who unleashed a pair of 100-yard freshmen rushers against Tech (Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin). Both flew as far under-the-radar as high school prospects as Richardson (6-foot-5, 340 pounds), a fifth-year senior in the mix for both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. Reese’s replacement, Levi Norwood, had career highs for catches (7), receiving yards (152) and touchdowns (2) in his first start of the season.

On multiple occasions, Briles has said the biggest difference between the 2013 Bears and the first five teams he coached in Waco is that this squad has “Big 12 quality depth” across the board.

“I just wish we weren’t having to prove it,” Briles said.

But they have been. And they’ll get another opportunity Saturday, led by quarterback Bryce Petty, one of Briles’ three-star prospects (along with Richardson) in a 2009 signing class that drew few kudos from recruiting analysts. Asked about his faith in backups elevated into starring roles, Petty said: “Anyone that goes out there, I have full confidence in. Preparation-wise and game-plan wise, those guys all practice like they’re starters. That’s why their results don’t surprise me.”

What is surprising, and what separates Briles from many of his peers, is how he manages to consistently uncover enough productive players from unique backgrounds to fill his depth chart. Some even morph into stars.

Briles turned a Canadian firefighter/youth hockey standout into a first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft (offensive lineman Danny Watkins). He’s got Demetri Goodson, who made 68 career starts as Gonzaga’s point guard (2008-2011), leading his team in interceptions (2). Briles said he learned of Goodson’s availability through the player’s former AAU basketball coach in Houston and quickly offered him a shot at an NFL future when Goodson decided to switch sports.

“If he’s a good enough athlete to be the point guard at Gonzaga, he can certainly play somewhere on the football field,” Briles said. “He has not unfulfilled. He’s done a great job for us.”

So has Lackey (6-foot, 220 pounds), who has made 66 tackles this season but had to track the location of Baylor on his cell phone when his junior-college coach alerted him to Briles’ interest in 2011.

“I didn’t know where Baylor was at, to be honest,” said Lackey, a California native who played one season in Division II before opting for the JC route and a chance at an FBS offer. “A lot of people didn’t take me seriously because I didn’t fit that cookie cutter in terms of size.”

Briles did. Just like he landed his two freshman tailbacks, Linwood (812 yards, 8 TDs) and Chafin (257 yards, 4 TDs), out of Class 2A and 3A high schools, respectively. Just like he rolled the dice on Richardson, who wound up at North Crowley after Hurricane Katrina forced the family out of its native New Orleans.

“Coach Briles doesn’t necessarily have to find the five-star guys. When he sees a guy, he knows if the talent’s there or not,” said Martin, who hopes to play Saturday at OSU. “That’s showing right now because we have a lot of depth on our football team.”

The Bears must lean heavily on that commodity again this week if they are to extend the best start to any football season in school history.

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