Braxton Bailey

Cleburne senior linebacker Braxton Bailey (15) has already reached the 100-tackle mark this season, with four more games still to go. Bailey has made plays for three seasons, but has yet to receive a college offer. If he was 2-3 inches taller, he’d be a coveted asset for many Division programs.

Cleburne linebacker Braxton Bailey has recorded 383 total tackles since his sophomore season, with four more games still remaining in his senior season. And he has zero college offers.

Through six games this season, Bailey has recorded 104 total tackles, 21 tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He’s averaging 17.3 tackles per game and 3.5 tackles for loss per game.

As a junior, Bailey battled through bumps and bruises all season long to finish with 137 total tackles, 16 tackles for loss, two sacks, three forced fumbles and three recoveries. He was a first-team defense All-Johnson County selection and a second-team defense all-district selection.

In his sophomore season, Bailey racked up 142 total tackles with 13 tackles for loss to earn All-Johnson County defensive newcomer of the year honors along with honorable mention all-district.

If you’re within earshot of Yellow Jacket Stadium on Friday nights during Cleburne’s home games, you’ll hear PA announcer Brad Mead say, “Braxton Bailey with the tackle” at least 15 times. Heck, Mr. Mead probably says it in his sleep Friday nights.

Bailey has dominated week in and week out at the Class 5A level for three years — with zero college offers, not even a Division III or JUCO offer.

While I completely understand the vast majority of Division I and many Division II programs begin their recruiting process by having certain required measurables (height, weight, 40 time, etc.), for a consistently productive player such as Bailey to have zero college offers from any level is nuts, regardless of his height.

At just under 5-foot-10, Bailey is undersized for many colleges. But he’s a football player. Playing against teams with great size such as Aledo, Burleson, and Centennial, Bailey still is able to navigate his way to the ball carrier and make stop after stop. 

“I think it happens quite a bit,” Cleburne head coach Casey Walraven said of undersized players getting overlooked by college recruiters. “I think sometimes what happens is people may not completely evaluate the football player. At the biggest schools, you know there’s a standard which they go by. But if you go down the divisions, there’s guys who are smaller and not quite as fast but they’re phenomenal football players. I feel like sometimes in that area players get overlooked a little bit.

“If I’m a Division II coach, I’m latching onto Braxton Bailey quick because he’s a football player. He’s proving that week in and week out. I think there’s something to be said for that.”

Bailey has had some interest from a couple of small programs, but Walraven said he expects Bailey to get more looks soon.

“I really think we’ll see him get some more looks towards the end of the season,” Walraven said. “At the end of the day, I think he’ll get an opportunity. It’s just with the kind of ball player he is, he needs to already be getting noticed and recruited by a lot of schools. All he can do is control what he can control and continue to be a dominant football player. Somebody’s going to take notice. He’s got to continue to work on the field and in the classroom, and that opportunity will come along.”

Walraven said if Bailey had “another two or three inches,” in all likelihood he would already have a few Division I offers.

In Grandview, junior quarterback/safety Dane Jentsch has already accomplished just about all there is for a high school player to do — multiple individual accolades, phenomenal stats, and, oh yeah, a state title — but he has zero offers because he doesn’t have the size or speed colleges want in a QB.

“People don’t seem to put much emphasis on leadership and winning and respect from players,” Grandview coach Ryan Ebner said. “It seems to be less about that and more about overall size, and they think, ‘I’ll teach them the rest.’ To me, a lot of the intangibles that don’t get much merit, it’s real tough to teach those things. There should be more of an emphasis on that than just the measurables you see on paper.

“If he continues to help us win, someone will eventually go, ‘He’s a winner.’ I know he’s not 6-foot-2. I know he’s not 215 pounds. I know he’s not a 4.4 guy. But I know he helps us win.”

Ebner said he believes he has several players in Grandview that should have opportunities to play at the next level.

“I think every one of my linebackers — Mike Lehnhardt, Elijah Golden, Antonio Arellano — and Dane, Cooper Deans, JJ Patterson, Cole Cannon and Austin Boyd deserve more looks,” Ebner said. “Brody [Smith] got an offer from Tarleton State and is committed there. But I think they don’t get some of the respect maybe they deserve.

“It’s part of ‘life’s not fair.’ I think you keep doing what you’re doing and winning games and do it with a passion until they take notice. I’ve found a lot of coaches are more interested when they know the type of person you are and how you are in the classroom, and then they’re willing to take a risk on someone who is an inch shorter.”

Walraven said while he doesn’t get to see things from the recruiters’ perspective, he knows what he would do in certain instances.

“I’ve always thought if things are somewhat in the same ballpark between two players, I’m taking the football player, no matter if his 40 time is not as good as the other guy or maybe if he’s a couple inches shorter,” Walraven said. “If he’s the football player and he’s proven it on the field making plays, that’s the guy I’m going after. 

“You want to develop kids in college, but you want kids that are football players. I know you can’t coach speed, but you can’t coach instincts. I think that’s something people have a knack for and Braxton is one of those guys.”

Walraven said he’s had several players over the years that he felt deserved more offers than they wound up receiving, including just a year ago with Cleburne offensive lineman Blake Leonard, who is at Missouri Southern State University, a Division II program.

“He got a DII look but if you add another inch or two to him, he’s at a bigger school,” Walraven said. “He dominated everybody we played, week in and week out, including Aledo. When you see that kind of stuff on film as a center, I would think you would want that player. But he was around 6-foot-2. I think just another inch — which is crazy to say —would’ve made a difference. I think he’s one that probably should’ve had a lot more attention as well.”

From Walraven’s days in Grandview, he mentioned Earnest Crownover III and Caleb Armstrong as players who were overlooked because speed or size weren’t what DI recruiters look for.

“I think Earnest was close to Division I,” Walraven said. “I know he got that look from Army, but him being a 6-foot-2, 200-pound guy coming out of high school who did everything you could possibly think of right off the field and making plays on the field — I know he wasn’t a 4.4 speed guy but he had football speed. He’s one of those guys to me that I look at as a versatile player who can play linebacker, safety, running back, h-back. If I were a college coach, I could use this kid because he’s a football player and he’s so multiple at what he can do.”

Crownover is currently playing well for Kilgore College at the JUCO level.

In Armstrong’s case, Walraven recalls an interesting conversation he had with a college coach regarding the standout linebacker.

“I had a coach from, I want to say, one of the Big 12 schools, and they said if this was 1995, Caleb Armstrong would be a Division I linebacker,” Walraven said. “But they looked at his speed at linebacker and his size at defensive line, and they couldn’t fit him in at either. Just going back that few years, people knew that was the kind of football player that would’ve been on the big stage. But now in today’s game it’s changed a little bit, and the size and speed factor didn’t work out for him.”

Armstrong went on to have a productive collegiate career at Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor, where he won a national title.

To reiterate, I completely understand many bigger college programs have to begin their recruiting process by certain guidelines, and obviously grades are a part of it, but players like Bailey should be rewarded for their consistent dominant play, even if he is 5-foot-9 and “only” runs a 4.7.

Size and speed shouldn't be the be-all, end-all for football players. Former Texas Tech and Miami Dolphins legend Zach Thomas was one of the game's most productive players at linebacker, and he was just 5-foot-11 and ran a 4.85 in the 40 at the NFL Combine.

Bailey will get an offer eventually, but to not have one at this point, it sure feels like several programs are missing out on a chance at a special player. I’m no college recruiter, but I’ve watched Bailey take down some of the state’s best playmakers every week during football season for three years. And whichever program or coach decides to overlook his size will wind up with a heckuva football player.

A.J. Crisp is in his eighth year covering sports for the Times-Review. He can be reached by email at sports@trcle.com or phone at 817-645-2441.

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