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How Art Briles built the Baylor Bears into a Big 12 recruiting power

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The Bears have passed a number of rivals and are setting their sights on Oklahoma and Texas for Big 12 recruiting supremacy.

After a wild weekend of college football that produced a number of big-time upsets that in turn sparked massive changes in the polls, the Baylor Bears currently sit at No. 5 in the AP Top 25 ahead of an important match up against the surprising No. 9 TCU Horned Frogs on Saturday in Waco.

A year after appearing in the school's first BCS game, the Bears are in the driver's seat of the Big 12 following Oklahoma's loss to TCU and are well positioned to make the first college football playoffs with an undefeated season.

Just a few short years ago, when the Bears were still in the conference's cellar, the program's rise to this point would have been almost inconceivable to imagine for observers. And probably even Baylor fans.

So how did a downtrodden program go from a laughingstock to a fearsome juggernaut with few built-in advantages?

A position-by-position breakdown of Baylor's recent history provides some perspective on the incredible building job head coach Art Briles has done in Waco.

Quarterback

With the exception of Robert Griffin III, an excellent athlete in high school who made incredible strides as an early enrollee to become an instant-impact contributor, the Bears have been winning recently with overlooked recruits at quarterback who have been in the system for years.

The replacement for Griffin was Nick Florence, a player who was long out of high school when he started in 2012. Rated as a Rivals low three-star prospect (5.5) out of South Garland (Texas), Florence's only other offer was from Purdue. He grayshirted his first season and by the time Griffin left and 2012 rolled around, he was ready for a record-breaking season.

The current starter, Bryce Petty, was a mid three-star prospect by Rivals (5.6) out of Midlothian in the 2009 class whose only other offers were from Nebraska, New Mexico and Virginia Tech. Like Florence, he grayshirted upon arriving in Waco.

Next year's prospective starter is Garland (Texas) product Seth Russell. The redshirt sophomore filled in admirably for an injured Petty against Northwestern State, throwing for 538 yards and five touchdowns. Ranked as a consensus mid three-star prospect out of high school, Russell's only other offers were from Central Arkansas, Kansas and Wake Forest.

In some ways, the approach for Briles at quarterback has been similar to what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech -- recruit players who fit the system and give them plenty of time to develop before putting them on the field.


Bryce Petty, Photo credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

Running back

The true difference-maker in recent years was Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk. The Temple product from just down I-35 never seriously considered Baylor during his original recruitment, but came back home after a year in the Pacific Northwest at Oregon. His explosiveness and overall ability was something that the Bears simply hadn't had at the position, but have now started to find more frequently.

The current starter, sophomore Shock Linwood, is one of those gems Briles and company have found on the recruiting trail, heading all the way out to little Linden, Texas (population 2,200) to find the overlooked three-star prospect. The other offers for the 5'9, 200-pounder? North Texas, TCU and UTSA.

In the last several classes, the Bears have started to contend for more highly-regarded prospects.

The home-run hitter may eventually be Johnny Jefferson, a high three-star prospect by 247Sports the Bears stole from the Aggies. Jefferson also had an offer from UCLA and ran a 10.6 100 m in high school. According to the school, he also ran the team's fastest 40-yard dash in the spring at 4.41 seconds.

In the 2014 class, the prize was consensus four-star Ennis running back Terence Williams, a back more in the mold of former contributor Glasco Martin than Linwood. The 6'2, 224-pounder represented another win against Texas A&M on the recruiting trial for Baylor.

And in the current cycle, Baylor out-competed schools like Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech for the services of consensus four-star prospect JaMycal Hasty, a Longview (Texas) product who is one of the fastest players in the state.

Wide receiver

No other position currently defines Baylor football and Baylor recruiting like recent success at the wide receiver position, which has justifiably led the school to term itself Wide Receiver U. Alums Kendall Wright, Josh Gordon, Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese are all in the league and most of them were under recruited prospects out of high school.

After this season, Antwan Goodley will likely add his name to that list as another Rivals three-star prospect (5.6) to grow into a star at Baylor.

Recruits have taken notice of that trend and the wide receiver-friendly offense run by Briles -- star 2013 recruit Robbie Rhodes washed out of the program quickly, but he was an elite deep threat ranked as a consensus five-star prospect and the No. 1 player in the state of Texas.

It wasn't until the 2014 class that recruiting efforts reached a nadir, however, with the massive commitments of Mount Pleasant (Texas) deep threat KD Cannon and versatile Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau prospect Davion Hall.

A consensus five-star prospect, Cannon was ranked as a top-five wide receiver nationally. He and his mother fell in love with Baylor early in the recruiting process, allowing Baylor to beat out a number of big-time programs from across the country.

Always defined by a preternatural ability to get past opposing defensive backs, Cannon added some serious speed to his arsenal before he enrolled in Waco this past summer, running a 10.32 at the Texas state track meet. That speed has been on display already, as Cannon made himself a household name by turning six catches into 223 yards and three touchdowns against Northwestern State in Week 2.

Recruited hard by Texas A&M and Alabama out of high school, Hall has the build and instincts of a future NFL safety, but wanted to play wide receiver in the Briles offense. The No. 50 prospect in the country by the 247Sports Composite rankings has a Keenan Allen-like frame and has already notched 14 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown in his young career.

But Hall and Cannon weren't the only prospects with special potential in that 2014 recruiting class -- Alief (Texas) Elsik's Ishmael Zamora is a raw 6'4, 220-pounder who won the 5A 110 m high hurdles in 2013 and Willis (Texas) speedster Chris Platt is a 5'11, 165-pounder who won the 4A 400 m the same year.

From three- to four- to five-star prospects, the Bears are now getting their pick of wide receivers, stockpiling speed that would make any head coach in the country gaze with jealousy at the Baylor skill positions.


Terrance Williams, Photo credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

Tight end

Any good running game needs strong blocking from the tight ends and while Baylor hasn't typically gotten a lot of production out of the position in the passing game, Stanford transfer Jordan Najvar provided solid production for years and had a shot at making the roster for the Dallas Cowboys this fall.

The current starter there is sophomore Tre'von Armstead, a 6'6, 265-pounder who was a high-upside offensive tackle prospect out of high school who never gained the weight necessary and was moved to tight end four games into the 2014 season.

Behind him is freshman Jordan Feuerbacher, a talented player with a modest consensus three-star ranking who is nonetheless one of the few prospects the state has produced recently at that position with experience catching and blocking.

Offensive line

Ask a college football fan around the country to name a top offensive line coach and Baylor's Randy Clements is a name that is unlikely to surface, but dating back to the 2009 draft, the Bears have had six offensive linemen drafted, starting with tackle Jason Smith going second that year to the St. Louis Rams.

Clements might be the best offensive line coach in the country no one knows about.

Conference rival Texas, on the other hand, hasn't had an offensive linemen drafted since the 2008 NFL Draft and passed on All-Big 12 left tackle Spencer Drango until late in the 2011 recruiting cycle. From just outside of Austin, Drango faced questions about his ability to play outside during the recruiting process, which contributed to a three-star ranking from 247Sports.

Under Clements, Drango has become one of the best blockers in the Big 12 and could become a high NFL draft pick if he continues his strong season coming off a back injury.

The rest of the starting line features Hawaii transfer Blake Muir, a native Australian, and a group of players who were underrated coming out of high school.

Wylie (Texas) product Kyle Fuller was considered an offensive tackle out of high school and his three-star ranking wasn't spectacular, but he had a solid offer list. Starting right tackle Troy Baker was a local, three-star prospect from Connally High School who didn't make the Rivals Texas Top 100, but was honorable mention All-Big 12 in 2012 when he was healthy for the full year. Next to him at guard is junior Desmine Hillard a Rivals two-star prospect out of Dallas (Texas) Lincoln who barely cracked the top 100 players in the Metroplex.

The Bears still aren't recruiting at an elite level along the offensive line yet, but the formula of taking recruits with modest rankings, redshirting them, then molding them in the Baylor strength and conditioning program has proven effective -- the NFL has certainly taken notice.

Defensive line

Finding quality defensive linemen is a difficult task for any school, especially one attempting to make the move from the conference cellar to the first tier and the ability of Baylor to do so has made a tremendous difference on the field.

Current star Shawn Oakman is another transfer Briles grabbed to make an impact, but there's some legitimate talent that Baylor recruited out of high school around him.

Nose tackle Andrew Billings was coveted by TCU and Texas, among other schools, and stayed in town for college after a remarkable career as a record-breaking powerlifter at local Waco High that included an 805-pound squat. Swing player Javonte Magee was a 247Sports five-star prospect who has highly coveted out of high school.

Defensive end Brian Nance isn't even on the depth chart at this time, but was a consensus four-star prospect out of high school and received a national top-100 ranking from 247Sports.

If Baylor can continue recruiting well along the defensive line. the defense will continue to see improvement.


Shawn Oakman, Photo credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers

With Briles at the helm, the development of some overlooked skill position players on offense makes sense. What has flown under the radar is how the defense has turned around with strong evaluation and development at the linebacker position -- rival TCU tends to get the most credit for that in the Big 12.

Last season's leading tackler was junior college transfer Eddie Lackey, who was rated as a consensus three-star prospect and held offers from Hawaii, Nevada and Texas Tech. This season's leading tackler is Bryce Hager, the son of the leading tackler in Texas history who somehow failed to garner much attention out of high school despite his pedigree and production.

The next surprise story may be Taylor Young, who was massively productive at state power DeSoto, but only had two stars next to his name in the recruiting rankings because he's 5'10.

It might be easy to suggest that this is a position where the next step for Baylor is to start landing elite talent. The results, though, clearly indicate that the evaluation and development at linebacker for the Bears has been as exceptional as any position on the roster.

Secondary

Until landing Rivals four-star prospect Ahmad Dixon in the 2010 recruiting class, Baylor had struggled landing difference-making talent on the defensive side of the ball. For a program that had struggled as long as the Bears, inking Dixon was extremely significant because it signaled that there was potential for Briles and company to compete with more nationally-known programs for top defenders.

Now the challenge is finding speed on the defensive side of the ball the way that Briles and his offensive staff have found speed offensively.

The junior college route worked with former cornerback KJ Morton, who was a Rivals two-star prospect out of College of the Sequoias in 2011 whose only offer was from Baylor. He eventually turned into a two-time All-Big 12 performer.

Another rising contributor who was clearly underrated as a recruit is safety Orion Stewart, a consensus two-star prospect from Waco (Texas) Midway. He's leading the team in interceptions at the moment with three, trailed by another recruiting gem Baylor found in unrated Xavien Howard.

The current class

There have been some bumps in the 2015 recruiting class for the Bears, as early recruiting has resulted in several de-commitments, which have been uncommon in the last several years for Baylor.

Losing Burton (Texas) athlete Louis Brown, a rangy prospect who is now committed to play defense at Texas, hurts the long-term future of the defensive line. And Bryce Hager's younger brother Breckyn won't be following in his brother's footsteps from Austin (Texas) Westlake to Waco, instead opting to try to break his father's alma mater. Before either of those prospects de-committed, Texas had gotten Huntsville offensive tackle Ronnie Major to flip his pledge. Major was one of the few four-star offensive line prospects the Bears have been able to land.

And League City (Texas) Clear Falls speedster John Humphrey didn't keep his pledge to the Bears, either, eventually committing to Oklahoma instead.

Still, there is some significant talent in the group despite the fact that it ranks No. 47 nationally and No. 7 in the Big 12 at the moment.

Temple quarterback Chad President isn't the highest-rated commit in the class -- that honors goes to Gilmer athlete Blake Lynch, who could contribute on either side of the ball for the Bears -- but he is arguably the most important commit since he could eventually become the face of the program.

The track record in Waco suggests that players like Plano (Texas) offensive tackle commit Sam Tecklenburg and Abilene (Texas) Wylie linbacker Clay Johnston could become the next recruits to excel at Baylor without high rankings.

Moving forward

Before the beautiful new facility on the Brazos River was set to open this fall, Briles admitted publicly that he didn't take recruits on visits to old Floyd Casey Stadium.

"It wasn't anything that was going to help us," Briles told Fox Sports in July. "I don't really think it kept us from getting somebody at the end, it might have kept us from getting guys in the start."

Perched on the banks of the river and in full view of I-35, McLane Stadium is changing all of that, providing a showcase worthy of the heights to which Briles has taken the formerly moribund program.

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Even with success on the field translating to a recruiting boost, the new stadium is going to have to pay big dividends because the recruiting still hasn't been on an elite level nationally, which is necessary to compete for a national championship, the next goal for the rising program.

The 2012-14 recruiting classes all ranked third in the Big 12 behind Texas and Oklahoma, providing a snapshot of the current Big 12 recruiting hierarchy as Baylor has passed schools like Oklahoma State and TCU. Continued success on the field should only secure that spot as the Bears take aim at the Sooners and the Longhorns.

The recent de-commitments in the 2015 class are evidence that Baylor hasn't yet reached that level, but the good news for Briles and company is that the facilities in Waco are now on par with those in Norman and Austin and strong evaluation and development should continue to help turn three-star recruits into NFL prospects.

The real question now for Briles and his Bears is just how high the program can rise.