Titles to turmoil for Baylor's fifth-year seniors
By STEPHEN HAWKINS
Baylor was coming off its first Big 12 football championship when Chris Platt signed his letter of intent in the spring of 2014, and the speedy receiver didn't play as a true freshman that fall when the Bears shared the title again.
The huge ring Platt wore at Big 12 media days this summer was instead for Baylor's victory in the Cactus Bowl when he was a sophomore in 2016, the season that followed a sexual assault scandal at the school - one that led to coach Art Briles being fired.
Platt is among 10 fifth-year seniors who first arrived on the Waco campus with the program at the peak of its on-field success. They are now in their final season after staying through tumultuous times filled with criticism of the program and the school's first 11-loss season last fall.
"Honestly, it was tough because we have a lot of great guys here that some people don't know about, all they hear is the negative stuff," said Platt, adding that he and teammates have received backlash on social media. "You can't just get away from it because, like, the image is out there, but right now we're heading toward the right direction trying to create a better image."
The Bears open their second season under coach Matt Rhule at home Saturday night against Abilene Christian.
"I think it shows No. 1, tremendous character, that they persevered and they excelled through some difficult times," Rhule said. "I think it shows also at the same time a lot of belief by them in each other that they didn't want to leave their teammates. ... They wanted to stay with their teammates and they wanted to weather the storm together, and they have done that."
Baylor has 14 graduates overall on its roster, the most in the Big 12. That includes eight of those fifth-year seniors, three players with the degrees from other schools who transferred into the Bears program this year to finish their college careers, and three 2015 Baylor signees who go into their junior seasons already with degrees.
Since Platt already has his health, kinesiology and leisure studies degree from Baylor, he could have transferred and been immediately eligible to play his final season somewhere else - he led all FBS players with four catches of at least 70 yards last year, when he played only four games before a season-ending left knee injury. So could any of the others with degrees.
"We're still a family here, and we don't let those outside factors try to affect what's going on," said defensive end Ira Lewis, who already has a political science degree. "When we're dealing with us, it's us and us only, so we try to keep the family close and not try to let outside factors tear us apart."
When Platt, Lewis and the other fifth-year seniors went through their freshman seasons, and all but one of them played in their first collegiate game, the Bears were a top 10 team for most of the season. They were No. 2 in the Top 25 poll midway through the season on the way to a 10-3 record. The scandal broke the following spring .
After a 6-0 start under interim coach Jim Grobe in 2016, the Bears won only one of their next 15 games. They lost their last six regular-season games before that 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix weeks after Rhule became their new coach, though Grobe stayed through the bowl.
Baylor, with 11 true freshmen among 27 first-time starters last season, lost its first eight games under Rhule before getting their only win at Kansas.
"It definitely was a growing process, but I really feel good, I believe in what we're doing," senior safety Verkedric Vaughns said.
The Bears were within one score in the fourth quarter of eight of their losses. They even led after halftime against Big 12 champion Oklahoma before falling 49-41.
"The record doesn't define you. It may be 1-11, but we're not losers," Lewis said.
"I expect a lot of people to take us for granted. I see a very hungry team," Platt said. "We just didn't finish (last year). So that's what we're really working on, competing and finishing."
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Updated August 29, 2018