Jalen Pitre stuck with his long-time commitment to Baylor while every other recruit bailed in the wake of a horrendous scandal.
He was in a class all by himself when coach Matt Rhule was hired in December 2016, six months after Art Briles was fired. Under an interim coach, the Bears had ended their regular season on a six-game losing streak and Pitre was the only recruit still verbally committed to Baylor.
“I feel like I was a little overlooked, but I was very thankful for Baylor giving me a shot,” Pitre said this week. “With that gratitude, I was sold on coming here and doing what I needed to do to become the man that I could be, and growing on and off the field. ... It’s crazy to look back and see how far I’ve come.”
The Big 12’s defensive player of the year, as named Thursday after being voted on by league coaches, Pitre is among several players from that spring 2017 signing class now playing key roles for the ninth-ranked Bears (10-2). They play Saturday against fifth-ranked and College Football Playoff hopeful Oklahoma State (11-1) in their second Big 12 championship game in three seasons.
“I have a lot of respect, a lot of love for them,” second-year Baylor coach Dave Aranda said. “To see the growth in them has been one of my biggest and best takeaways."
That 2017 class was the last in college football without a December signing period, so Rhule and his new staff had a little extra time to put things together.
Abram Smith is the Big 12’s second-leading rusher with 1,366 yards, do-everything back Trestan Ebner averages 133.8 all-purpose yards a game and R.J. Sneed has 43 receptions. Terrel Bernard is Baylor’s top tackler (76 with 10 of those for losses). Pitre plays a hybrid linebacker-defensive back position, with 63 tackles and the only FBS player with at least three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
“It’s been a journey, man. We’ve been through a lot together. We spend more time together than with our families, so it’s been fun,” Bernard said. “It’s been a great experience. Every single one of them have become my brothers and have become life-long friends. It’s an experience I’ll never trade for anything.”
There was the 1-11 season in Rhule’s debut, then improving to 7-6 the next season. They won 11 games and made the Big 12 title game and Sugar Bowl in 2019 before the coach left for the NFL.
Aranda was coming off a national title as LSU’s defensive coordinator when he arrived at Baylor and the pandemic wiped out spring practice. The Bears stumbled to 2-7 last year, and now have another shot at a Big 12 title.
“A roller coaster, man. Up and down. It’s just a credit to all the guys who came in with me. They stuck it out. We fought,” Ebner said. “That’s what makes it so much better. Our relationships with each other. The love we have for each other because we’ve been through good times, we’ve been through bad times. ... We always figured it out and it’s just great to go out on top.”
Pitre was all-in long before anybody else in that first signing class for Rhule.
He committed to the Bears before his junior year in high school in July 2015 after they had won or shared back-to-back Big 12 titles and were putting together more solid recruiting classes. And Baylor stuck with Pitre even after he had an ACL injury as a junior before he had six interceptions as a senior.
It was between Pitre’s junior and senior seasons in high school, in late May 2016, when a sprawling sexual assault scandal was revealed, costing Briles his job before athletic director Ian McCaw and school president Ken Starr later departed. The ensuing NCAA case against Baylor wasn't resolved until just before this season, more than five years later.
Baylor avoided significant program-crushing penalties, getting placed on four years of probation while still able to play in the postseason, along with some recruiting restrictions. The penalties could have been much worse considering the scope of the allegations, but the actual mishandling of sexual assault claims by Baylor was deemed out of the NCAA’s jurisdiction.
No players or coaches remain from Briles’ tenure, and Pitre is the only current player who committed to Baylor during it. He is working toward a master's degree in educational psychology after earning his undergraduate degree more than a year ago.
“I’m very grateful, like with all the experiences that I’ve had and how far God has brought me," Pitre said. “Because if in 2015 somebody would have told me that I would be in this spot where I am, and I would have done the things that I’ve done it, it would have been kind of hard for me to believe.”
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