Back Omar Bayless’ Journey to Stardom

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Omar Bayless’ Journey to Stardom

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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How Omar Bayless rose from a three-star recruit to one of college football's two most productive receivers in 2019.

“I kind of sensed that my time would come. I just went to work."
~Omar Bayless

Omar Bayless wasn’t a huge recruit. He didn’t totally come out of nowhere, firmly a three-star, per the 24/7 composite rankings, but just the 37th overall prospect in the state of Mississippi in the Class of 2015, and the #212 WR in the country.

With an offer list devoid of power conference representation, but including some solid G5 programs like Memphis, Southern Miss, and ULM, he decided to sign with Arkansas State.

“When I got down here, it was just like family. You know, I just kind of felt at home. Talking with Coach Anderson -- he's a great man -- that's when I decided I wanted to come play here,” he explained.

He redshirted in 2015 and played only sparingly the next season, though he did flash some of the potential that would eventually shine through in later years, particularly in a five reception, 64-yard performance against Louisiana.

Even in 2017 and 2018, though there are plenty of touches to go around for more than a few receivers in A-State’s offense, he was always one of the guys, but never the guy: fourth among the Red Wolves’ pass catchers in receiving yards and tied for third in touchdowns in ‘17, third and fifth, respectively, in ‘18.

“I had decent games my redshirt sophomore year or whatever the case may be, but I wasn’t having great games,” Bayless commented. “I kind of sensed that my time would come though, because of the other players ahead of me. I didn't let that get to me, so I just, you know, went to work.

“I stayed the course,” he continued, “and was always patient. I just came out and went to work every day and I knew one of these days everything would make sense. Here I am today with the season I had this year and it's just, you know, it's just paid off.”

An honorable mention All-Sun Belt selection in both 2017 and 2018, there was never any doubt that Bayless was a good receiver. With the departure of Justin McInnis, and the target share that opened up, one would be hard-pressed to even find someone that didn’t think Bayless could have a really good senior year. However, one would be equally hard pressed to find someone who believed Bayless would be one of the best in the country. Well, other than Bayless, himself, that is.

“Yes I did (see it coming),” he stated, “because I went to work. I went real hard in spring, summer, even in fall camp, leading up to that first game where it all started. I just put my head down and went to work.”

In that aforementioned opener against SMU, Bayless caught ten balls for 132 yards and four touchdowns. Months later, it still stands as one of the single most impressive outings of the year; one of just nine four-receiving touchdown games in 2019.

“I had a lot going on and that first game really just set the tone for the rest of the season. I was trying to stay consistent throughout every game to be able to produce and help my team win football games like that,” he recalled.

Few teams if any faced the sort of adversity that Arkansas State did, as a program, this year. From off the field tragedy, that is so much bigger than football, to an injury report that stretched a mile long, it seemed like anything that could go wrong did. And the Red Wolves made lemonade at every turn.

“It was just all positive thought, you know, no one being negative, because nobody planned on all those things going wrong for this team. We had to face it, and we really overcame everything that was thrown at us,” Bayless relayed.

“We never flinched. This is a great group of guys that I'm around, and we all have different stories, but we came together in those tough times. We always stayed positive because we knew what Coach Anderson was going through, so we just tried to make it easier for him, like, to take all that stress off of him and do our part.”

With all of those injuries, that was easier said than done. When Jerry Jacobs, one of the best cornerbacks in the Sun Belt, went down, it was on Jeremy Smith and the rest of the secondary to step up. And they did. Without Isaiah Azubuike or Ryan Graham, Marcel Murray and Jamal Jones had to shoulder more of the rushing burden. And they did. And of course, when starting quarterback Logan Bonner got hurt, the responsibility fell to Bayless, Kirk Merritt, and the receiving corps to help Layne Hatcher fill that role. And they, especially, did just that.

Led by a backup, freshman quarterback for over half the season, Arkansas State finished 2nd in the league and 14th in the FBS in passing offense per game, 1st and 14th in pass efficiency rating, and 1st and 12th in both yards per attempt and touchdowns.

Bayless, leading the way, individually sits at #2 in the nation in receiving yards and touchdowns, setting a new conference record on both accounts, having already passed Casey Fitzgerald by over 150 yards, and boasting four more touchdowns than former record holders, Fitzgerald and Eric Thomas.

Having rewritten the school and Sun Belt record books, he also received numerous accolades and honors for his efforts -- named SBC Player of the Year, A-State's first ever Walter Camp All-American, the first consensus All-American from the program since 1987, and their first Biletnikoff semifinalist.

“It just means a lot. I thank God for it all. It's a blessing to even be at this level. It's just been great. It's been a great season all around,” Bayless said.

Now his sights are squarely set on finishing his career with a bang, against FIU in the Camellia Bowl, then impressing the scouts at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and earning his place in the professional ranks.

“It means a lot,” he began in regards to his upcoming NFLPA Bowl appearance, alongside his teammate Kirk Merrit, “because, we’re playing against people in different conferences. It's an opportunity to show what I can do against guys from around the country. It'll be a great opportunity.”

Yet, strangely, given the season he had, he still somehow failed to garner an invitation to the Senior Bowl.

“I mean, it is what it is, you know. I'm just honored to even, you know, get a bowl game invite.”

Somehow, unfathomably, he’s still underrated.

“A lot of other guys had great seasons, but some get it just because of the schools they're at. But, you know, I can't control those things. The only thing I have to do is go out there and just play hard.”

Nevertheless, a guy with his natural talent, and the numbers to match it, won’t get overlooked by the NFL.

As far as what a team is getting in Omar Bayless, in his own words: “Oh, they're gonna get everything I’ve got, no doubt. Every single day, on and off the field, I'm gonna give it everything I’ve got, because you only get one opportunity to show them what you can do. I'm gonna give them everything I've got, and that's all I'm gonna say.”

Everything he had this year was enough to be one of the two most productive receivers in the game. Everything Omar Bayless has is more than most.

He’s still got everything ahead of him, but at the core of all that’s to come, Arkansas State will always be a part of Bayless.

“It means a lot, you know, playing away from home. It made me grow up. I grew up real quick, man. It just shows, you can overcome anything, because I -- I’ve dealt with a lot of losses in my life, but that's no excuse for me. Just keep going, overcome everything, all the adversity, keep God first, and everything will take care of itself. Just go to work every day.”

From a three-star out of Laurel, Mississippi to a superstar in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Omar Bayless’ journey to national prominence has followed a long, winding road, littered with hurdles. So far, he’s cleared every single one of them.

Don’t bet on him stopping now.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP