Baylor has made their big move and pulled in Temple’s Matt Rhule to approach the task of replacing a disgraced legend. As a Penn State grad and longtime coach at Temple, Rhule probably saw himself replacing a different disgraced legend a few miles over in State College rather than down south in Waco, but James Franklin put together a fantastic 2016 season and here we are.
Now he’s going to be looking to bring a distinctly Midwestern style of football to a school that saw their big break come from installing a distinctive up-tempo, explosive, spread-option offense.
The situation that Rhule is walking into couldn’t be much more different than what he found waiting for him at Temple when he took over for Steve Addazio and Al Golden and the Baylor football program will unquestionably be a fascinating story to watch over the next few years.
The Baylor context
The Baylor Bears are in a bad way right now as a football program. They have 55 scholarship players (including seniors) and just lost six consecutive conference games when their coaching staff and team seemed to mail things in at midseason. Their 2016 recruiting class lost eight of its most prized members in a post-Briles exodus and their 2017 class currently has just one commit.
Defensively things are in better shape than on offense with virtually the entire DL returning, two of the better players in the defensive backfield in nickel Travon Blanchard and linebacker Taylor Young, and several DBs that saw extensive playing time in 2017. Rhule’s first recruiting pitch is going to need to be to this team to convince them to stick on rather than transferring out, on defense that should be feasible.
On offense the Bears had to end up playing true freshman QB Zach Smith and he flashed some potential but also threw six picks in two games. They’re returning most of their OL and both of their bludgeoning TEs along with most of the RBs. Wide receivers K.D. Cannon, Ishmael Zamora, Quan Jones, Chris Platt, and Blake Lynch all have remaining eligibility if they can be convinced to stay. That’ll be one of the harder pitches Rhule has to make but not the hardest.
Overall the roster lacks depth, particularly in the underclassmen ranks, and will need to be filled out in a major way in Rhule’s first few recruiting classes.
Within the state, Texas is starting over again with new head coach Tom Herman, TCU is chugging along with a ton of returning players next year under Gary Patterson, and Texas Tech is heading into a “do or die” season for Kliff Kingsbury. The Big 12 will probably be filled with solid but fatally flawed teams in 2017, just as it was the previous half-decade. It’s not an easy environment to rebuild a team in but it’s not the SEC West either.
The new Rhule of Law
Here’s a glimpse of what Rhule did at Temple over the last four years:
As a former Penn State linebacker and longtime defensive coach, Rhule’s philosophy is the classic “run the ball, play field position, and win with defense” stratagem. His Temple teams have been doing exactly that and winning in the American Athletic conference with top 20 defense and slow, plodding, inefficient offense.
Essentially an exact reversal of the plan in Waco over the last 10 years.
Rhule’s Temple was pretty multiple with their formations on offense, like most teams these days, but their bread and butter was lining up with fullbacks and tight ends and running power. Like many teams that try do a lot of different things on offense, they weren’t particularly good at any of it. If not for dynamic senior QB Phillip Walker they’d have been in a world of hurt this season on offense.
Rhule’s personal specialty is on defense, where he’s been coaching for a long time and where he’s inheriting some solid pieces in Waco. The Temple defense was based out of a 4-3 construct but was very multiple. They’d bring a lot of different pressures and mix zone and man coverage afforded by a well coached and veteran secondary.
Disguised looks, press coverage on passing downs, and very deep safeties are calling cards for Rhule.
Culturally Rhule was all about forming a physical, tough team that would win with defense and field position. Single-digit jersey numbers are reserved for the toughest players and much of the team was recruited either from in-state Pennsylvania or from New Jersey. There are zero Texans on the Temple football roster and many of the players were not considered great talents even for the AAC, but Rhule’s culture and eye for talent seemed to put Temple in great shape within their league.
How will this translate to Baylor?
The advantages that Art Briles brought to Baylor that allowed the Bears to crawl out of the Brazos river and adapt to life on land were his unique spread offense, his connections across the state of Texas, and the investment he was able to encourage into the program.
Matt Rhule’s calling cards are recruiting tough kids out of the Midwest or Northeast and building good pass defense, so it’s not terribly clear if that will translate at Baylor.
Defensively Rhule should find some success with a roster that has several good athletes in the defensive backfield with experience in man and match-quarters coverage (if virtually nothing else) provided he can find some JUCOs to come in 2017 to buy time. Long term he needs to build connections across the state and try to pick up on Briles’ strategy for recruiting tough athletes out of East Texas and overlooked or second tier kids from DFW, central Texas, and Houston.
Trying to build recruiting classes in Waco out of players from other regions is a longshot but he might be able to get by in 2017 convincing players to follow him down to Texas.
Under Briles and his DC Phil Bennett the Bears always struggled to find and develop really good DL to make their 4-3 defense thrive, often leading them to take chances on troubled transfers from other programs, but Rhule has a nice track record of getting a lot from second and third tier Midwestern talents up front. He may find an issue in looking for kids that have been groomed to blow up lead blocks all their life like he regularly found in Pennsylvania amidst the Texas HS football landscape where that’s just not the name of the game.
If there’s a growing period on D it will occur from Rhule working to get the defensive front up to the standards that will allow his conservative pass defenses to work without seeing the defense get smashed by opposing run games.
Assuming that Rhule manages to maintain a defensive program and physical culture in Waco akin to what he oversaw in Philly, the biggest question will be how he adapts to Big 12 offenses. Even a strong pass defense like Rhule has regularly developed at Temple is not enough to win in the Big 12 where even good defenses get lit up from time to time. While pounding the ball and running clock isn’t a terrible idea in the Big 12, Rhule’s Baylor will need to be good at it or else they’ll just be creating scenarios where they regularly get behind and aren’t able to catch up.
It’s doubtful that Rhule would hire an explosive, up-tempo offensive coach to join him at Baylor since his process has always been about protecting the defense with extended drives. He’ll likely either bring Glenn Thomas with him from Temple or else hire another OC with a run-centric style.
They will have the advantage of Baylor having used a run-centric offense in the past and a roster that will include three different RBs with quality experience, two big, blocking TEs, and most of the starting OL back and schooled in the art of Power run blocking.
This hire will be the most important and most telling for how the Rhule-era will go at Baylor. Rhule would be wise to learn from what Franklin did this year at Penn State, hiring Joe Moorhead to install an up-tempo spread offense in State College.
You can’t win in the Big 12 just playing defense without also scoring lots of points. Gary Patterson tried it and gave it up, hiring an Air Raid offensive staff to revitalize the program. Charlie Strong tried it, couldn’t break .500, and hired a Veer and Shoot offensive staff to bring the Baylor offense to Texas. It almost saved his job but then his own defense went sour trying to stop the explosive Big 12 offenses and away he went.
If Matt Rhule can learn this lesson quickly and early while still in the grace period he should get to rebuild the roster, perhaps his tenure in Waco can look more like Patterson’s at TCU than Strong’s at Texas. If he can get that side of the ball settled and carry over his success on D then Baylor could thrive as one of the few programs in the Big 12 that knows how to play great defense.
Perhaps a more likely outcome is that Baylor fans will struggle to be patient with a long-term overhaul of the program and strategy, a head coach who’s a stranger in a strange land recruiting Texas and competing in the Big 12, and a roster that has been emotionally and numerically devastated by the last year.
Bear fans will likely recoil from this comparison but hiring Rhule in some ways makes Baylor the “Penn State of the South,” a program trying to build around toughness and physicality, adapting to the changes in the game, and hoping to put a horrible scandal behind them. They hired a coach that might have been expected to do this in State College but will now do so in Waco instead.