Meet Baylor's 3-Star Backfield of Texas High School Legends

Carter Pirtle

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It took barely one quarter of watching Baylor bury an overmatched Long Island squad Saturday to recognize the Bears were honing their game strategy for No. 3-ranked Texas: run the damn ball and milk the clock.

Because if Baylor is to topple the state's best team, they'll have to do so on the backs of three Texas high school legends who flew under the radar on the recruiting trail. Bellville's Richard Reese, Franklin's Bryson Washington and Mineola's Dawson Pendergrass comprise Baylor's three-star RBU.

Most high school athletes can only match their high school career numbers on the Xbox 360 playing NCAA Football's 'Road to Glory' mode. One phone call to their respective head coaches does little to tamp down the mythic status they've built themselves in their hometown.

Bellville head coach Grady Rowe said Reese worked with the varsity from the moment he started high school. He would dash to the end zone every drill, no matter where the team was, then would sprint back to the huddle for another rep. His 6,678 rushing yards at Bellville High School broke a record last set during the Vietnam War. The previous athletes were Willie Zapalac, regarded as the state's best high school player in the 1930s, and Ernie Koy, a member of Texas's 1963 National Championship team. Reese returned to Bellville this summer to host a kids' camp, signing backpacks for every camper. Everyone knows Reese back home, and Rowe has to peel autograph-seeking kids off him. 

"You don’t get a lot of Richard Reese’s in the world," Rowe said. "And I don’t mean athletic ability. I just mean a good person." 

Bryson Washington won 32 straight games and back-to-back state championships as a 2,000-yard rusher and standout defensive back for Franklin High School, playing under Mark Fannin.

“Bryson’s one of a kind," Fannin said. "He’s somebody you wish you could have every year. But you might never have one come through your program like him again."  

Mineola High School head coach Luke Blackwell walked into the basketball gym after an offseason football workout and saw Dawson Pendergrass, an incoming ninth grader, throwing down between-the-legs dunks in Crocs. By senior year, Pendergrass averaged 274 yards per game.

“He’s (Dawson Pendergrass) just a stud at everything," Blackwell said. "And he’s the most likable kid. He’s 'Yes, sir.' (and) 'No, sir.' The hardest working kid we had in the program.”

So how did all three of them, with the production of five-star recruits, top out with three stars? How did they come to be relied upon as the key to victory against the Texas Longhorns, a program that didn't even extend an offer?

It's partly because they attended smaller Texas high schools (Franklin and Mineola are 3A-DI, Bellville 4A-DII). Reese had to put up gaudy stats all four years at Bellville to prove his undersized frame, at 5-foot-9-inches and 179 pounds, could translate to Divison I football. Rowe says colleges discarded size concerns once Reese racked up 2,261 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior to earn his third-consecutive District Offensive MVP.

While Washington and Pendergrass always had adequate measurements, college coaches had difficulty predicting which position they'd translate to. Washington excelled at running back for Franklin but also started at safety. He even committed to SMU as a defensive back after notching over 100 tackles in his sophomore and junior seasons. But the 6-foot, 204-pound prospect had been a Baylor fan since junior high, and when Baylor was the final school to offer him as a running back, Washington jumped at the opportunity. His unselfishness paved the way for multiple state titles but confused college programs as to what he wanted in the long run.

"He’s one of the most selfless players I’ve ever coached," Fannin said. "Whatever was good for the team. If I told him I wanted him to go play guard, he’d play guard. If I told him I wanted him to play defensive end, he’d go play defensive end."

Pendergrass first played running back at Mineola his sophomore year when starter Trevion Sneed, now a defensive end at SMU, and his backup both got injured. When Pendergrass was an incoming ninth grader playing 7-on-7 for the Yellowjackets, an assistant coach approached Blackwell and said they must move him from JV to Varsity because they were simply throwing jump balls to Pendergrass. He looked like a man playing amongst boys. So Blackwell had the 6-foot-2-inch freshman at wide receiver, serving as an emergency running back. When they threw him in the backfield after two injuries just to survive the game, he rushed for 300 yards and kept the job for the rest of his career.

But he also, like Washington, lined up at safety. Most colleges early on recruited him as an outside linebacker, but Blackwell remembers Air Force being the first to offer him at running back. Then, every other college started thinking about him on offense, too.

“When he was being recruited, everybody said, ‘Well, what do you think he is?’" Blackwell said. "And I said, ‘Golly, he’s a really good running back for us. He’s a really good receiver; he’s got ball skills.' But if you looked at his numbers on defense, how many picks he had returned for touchdowns, it was unreal.’”

Now Baylor has an embarrassment of Texas high school riches in its running back room, and the only challenge is how they'll split the carries. Contrary to their numbers, these backs have experience sharing the load. Bellville became more of a spread attack while Reese was there, splitting touches with Robert Briggs Jr., who totaled over 3,300 yards in his career before going to Utah State. Whenever he needed a slight breather from defense, Washington also shared the backfield with then-sophomore Jayden Jackson, an all-state selection.

All three can take a game over, but display the selflessness to do what's best for the team. Baylor will need each of them to pull an upset in their final matchup with Texas for the foreseeable future.

So in the dress rehearsal with LIU, even down the team's leading rusher, Oklahoma State transfer Dominic Richardson, Baylor fed its running backs. After a tepid start to the season, Reese looked like the reigning Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year again, piling up 82 yards and finding paydirt twice. Bears fans got their first extended dose of freshmen Pendergrass, who paced Baylor with 138 total yards and a score, and Washington, who produced an efficient 45 yards on 10 totes.

Head coach Dave Aranda confirmed Monday that starting quarterback Blake Shapen will miss the Longhorns bout as he recovers from his MCL injury. Sawyer Robertson, a Mississippi State transfer who's posted a 1-to-3 TD:INT ratio and a 45 percent completion rate, faces a Texas defense that's already forced opponents into five interceptions this season. On defense, Baylor's secondary lines up against a Texas receiver room boasting Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell on opposite ends, most likely without injured safety Devin Lemear.

There's only one recipe to keep a high-flying offense off the field when your team is on its backup quarterback.  

“Our ability, if the O-line gives us three or four yards, for us as running backs right now to get an extra three, is really a big difference," Aranda said after the Long Island game. "Especially as the game goes on.”

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