WACO, Texas – As the story goes, and Phil Bennett likes telling this one, Baylor’s coaching staff held a meeting in the fall of 2011 to discuss bringing in a junior college linebacker.
They pulled up the film from Riverside City College in California. This juco squad had three studs at linebacker.
But Bennett, Baylor's defensive coordinator, had his eyes on the other guy. When he asked the staff to raise their hands for which one they’d take, the vote was unanimous. They wanted No. 10.
That was Eddie Lackey, a former Division II player whose only offers were Hawaii and New Mexico State. So, naturally, he’d verbally committed to Hawaii. Bennett made him a Bear that December.
“I told him, ‘You better be 6-foot or we’re gonna send your ass home,’” Bennett joked last week. “And how good a player was Eddie Lackey?”
A first-team All-Big 12 player, in fact. Nine other Baylor players earned that honor in 2013, including a former Hurricane Katrina refugee whose only offer was BU (Cyril Richardson), a receiver who weighed 138 pounds in high school (Tevin Reese) and a quarterback who’d been dumped by Tennessee (Bryce Petty).
If that’s not enough proof of Baylor’s impressive knack for evaluating talent, Bennett can tell plenty more stories. Like the time his brother tipped him off to go after running back Shock Linwood, the No. 176-rated athlete from a Class 2A school in Linden, Texas, who eventually flipped from TCU and will likely start for Baylor this fall.
Coach Art Briles says he isn’t one for telling these recruiting tales, but he’s proud of plenty of these finds. When he arrived in Waco in 2008, there was no doubt the job of building the doormat Bears back up would require taking chances on kids in recruiting.
“Those guys are out there,” Briles said last week. “This is a big state with a lot of great football players.”
In those early years of rebuilding, Briles leaned on the relationships built from 20-plus years of coaching Texas high school ball. He has now been a college coach in this state for 15 years. Those bonds can pay off big when he and his coaches go hunting for undiscovered talent.
“We know the state of Texas and the state of Texas knows us,” he said. “They know we’re not going anywhere. I’m not trying to cross the border and not come back. I’m home.”
And while Texas, Texas A&M and the state’s recruiting powers cherry-picked from the best of the best, scooping up the big-name kids on the top-100 lists before the summer had even begun, Baylor was forced to take a different approach. You’ve got to be willing to turn over a lot of rocks, in locales near and far, if the blue-chippers aren’t returning your calls.
In seeking kids who fit their high-speed scheme, Briles and his assistants did lots of projecting. They found the quarterbacks (example: Kendall Wright) who could move to receiver or defensive back, the linebackers who could grow into defensive end, the linemen with developing bodies. They had to take gambles.
“The farther you get away from the center and nose tackle, the harder the prediction gets,” Briles said. “Once you get to the skill people on both sides, it’s tough. We just try to find the guys that fit what we’re looking for. If they have an interest in us and vice versa, we’re all in.”
But that’s not enough. Briles says he focuses closely on a kid’s commitment and passion, on the kind of stuff that makes good teammates. And he loves the chip on the shoulder.
“I like a guy that, when you look in his eyes, you can see the steely determination to him,” Briles said. “A guy who really wants to do something.”
They’ve found those kinds of kids from Amarillo to Refugio, from Midland to Texarkana. This spring, nearly 30 percent of Baylor’s players came from the always-fertile Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. A fifth of the spring roster hailed from the Central Texas territory that includes Waco and Austin. Greater Houston-area kids made up a little more than 10 percent.
As for the other 40 percent of the squad? There are more than a dozen transfers, five players from out-of-state schools and, of course, a melting pot of guys from all over Texas. A couple were four-star recruits, but more of them are the sleepers and projects that have fueled Baylor’s rise.
The game changed in 2011 thanks to Robert Griffin III. McLane Stadium and a Big 12 title have made Briles’ pitch even easier today. Petty signed in 2009 and can’t help but marvel at how the roster has transformed since then.
“I’m pretty sure I was the last class that had that problem of saying, ‘Baylor was my only offer. I had to go here,’” he joked. “It’s not that way anymore.”
Now that the big-name recruits are visiting Waco, the staff’s approach will have to change.
“It’s a whole different deal,” Briles said. “Our calls are getting answered, and we’ve got to be careful who we ask now -- 'cause there’s a good chance they might say yes. Got to make sure we’re asking the right ones.”
Still, three of Baylor’s six verbal commitments for 2015 are true athletes who could play a variety of positions next season. It’ll be a smaller-than-usual class, but one that will still feature a few three-star recruits few schools wanted. Those kind of kids made Baylor what it is today.
“Has the door opened for us, and are we getting more of the quote-unquote four- and five-stars? Absolutely,” Bennett said. “We’ll look at them. But the thing I’m proud of is, you’ve got to be a player here.
“If you come here, you’ve got to be a player.”