University of Texas

New coaches at Baylor, Texas take Signing Day in surprising directions

Baylor coach Matt Rhule exceeded expectations with his first signing class in Waco, and at the very least, Rhule made the Bears relevant during a recruiting campaign that could have been a lost cause.
Baylor coach Matt Rhule exceeded expectations with his first signing class in Waco, and at the very least, Rhule made the Bears relevant during a recruiting campaign that could have been a lost cause. AP

They came. They saw. They fooled the prognosticators with their initial recruiting hauls.

To be more specific, Baylor’s Matt Rhule exceeded expectations and Texas’ Tom Herman failed to deliver on the bell-ringing class many Orangebloods envisioned when he took over the program in November as the replacement for Charlie Strong.

To say much more about Wednesday’s recruiting hauls by the Big 12’s newest college football coaches would be premature and would border on stretching the truth. Accurate assessments of recruiting classes take years, not minutes, to judge.

But on National Signing Day, everyone is about knee-jerk conclusions and alternative facts as fans rush to embrace “winners” and “losers” in the annual race to land FBS football talent.

So here’s the deal: If we’re grading on the curve, and we must with Rhule’s class given Baylor’s unprecedented situation during this recruiting season, lots of high-fives should be exchanged today between Bears fans.

Rhule, the former Temple coach with zero ties to Texas’ high school coaches when he took the job in December, landed two signees with four-star credentials (per among 27 newcomers headed to Waco to rebuild a program decimated by a sexual-assault scandal that included multiple football players under former coach Art Briles.

As of Dec. 27, Rhule and his staffers had one commitment in the 2017 class: Stafford defensive back Jalen Pitre. Five weeks later, Baylor unveiled Wednesday’s list of signees that most analysts rank among the nation’s top 40 classes and multiple outlets place among the Big 12’s top three hauls, trailing only Oklahoma and Texas.

That scenario, if laid out two months ago, would have seemed like pure fiction. But because of widespread player attrition after Briles’ departure, Baylor finished last season with fewer than 70 scholarship players. That allowed Rhule and his staffers to offer the sport’s most compelling commodity to incoming recruits: a chance for immediate playing time.

Rhule said the key to overcoming “an extremely challenging situation” has been 20-hour work days by Baylor staffers, coupled with the openness of Texas’ high school coaches in efforts to build relationships with them.

Herman’s initial Texas class, by comparison, includes far more four-star prospects (8) than Baylor but only 18 total players. So Texas placed No. 33 in ESPN’s rankings, the school’s lowest finish in more than a decade, and No. 31 with Rivals — three spots ahead of Baylor.

Herman has called this a “transitional class” geared toward filling gaps on a roster flush with young talent secured by Strong, who was fired after posting a 16-21 record over three seasons. Problem is, Herman’s haul landed in the same ZIP code as Rhule’s despite working with more resources, zero off-field distractions (comparatively speaking) and a much deeper knowledge of the Texas talent landscape.

So his initial group, which did not measure up to Strong’s national top-10 hauls from the last two years or Wednesday’s top-10 haul by rival Oklahoma, is a disappointment by Texas standards. Even Herman does not dispute that. He said it would be “silly” to consider an 18-member class worthy of a top-10 national ranking but vowed to improve.

“Are we going to be there next year?” Herman said, reflecting on a top-10 class in 2018. “Absolutely, we will.”

For this year, Herman said the Longhorns learned they must “scratch, claw and battle” with rivals for top recruits rather than merely “go pick guys” as Texas did during his tenure as a graduate assistant under former coach Mack Brown (1999-2000). Quick reminder: Even with Wednesday’s warts, Herman’s class ranked behind only Oklahoma’s among Big 12 rivals.

So I’d hold off on buying in to the Herman-is-overmatched storylines, at least until the guy is no longer undefeated as the Longhorns’ coach (ETA: Sept. 16 game at Southern California).

And for those prematurely touting the Baylor-is-back mantra because of Rhule’s strong initial class, let me offer this reminder: A year ago at this time, Briles signed eight players with four-star pedigrees in what he touted as “arguably the best signing class in Baylor history.” Rhule’s group, by comparison, had two. It also featured four two-star prospects added to boost the depth of a class that needed it, a step Briles did not take in recent years.

But that does not diminish the fact that, during crunch time in the recruiting calendar, Rhule flipped one commitment from TCU (WR R.J. Sneed), another from SMU (QB Charlie Brewer) and won a Wednesday tug-of-war with LSU for defensive lineman Justin Harris of Gonzales, La. Clearly, the man has what it takes to be a recruiting force in Texas.

Like Herman, he thinks he can do better this year.

“If we don’t sign 20 kids a year out of Texas, we’re not doing our job,” said Rhule, who hit that mark Wednesday despite working against a backdrop of negative headlines created by others.

At the very least, Rhule made Baylor relevant during a recruiting campaign that could have been a lost cause. It will be fascinating to see what he can accomplish next February with a full year to learn the Texas landscape.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram