No. 46: Baylor
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 24, 2012
Robert Griffin III is gone, off to Washington, where he has already won the hearts of the burgundy-and-gold clad faithful, to no one’s surprise. He’ll be seen again in Waco, but only in highlight montages — he has time… launches it into the end zone… touchdown! — and on the odd fall Saturday, should he be free of all N.F.L. obligations. All that’s left are records, plenty of records, along with a duplicate of the greatest individual award in amateur sports, as well as the sort of imprint that comes only with being the finest player in program history. That’s no hyperbole: There’s Griffin, followed by a solid gap, then there’s Mike Singletary, then there’s Don Trull, and then there’s everybody else. So how does Baylor recover from losing the most transcendent figure in program history, not to mention losing him one year ahead of schedule?
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 2
- Sept. 15
Sam Houston St.
- Sept. 21
- Sept. 29
at West Virginia
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
at Iowa St.
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
- Dec. 1
Last year’s prediction
Baylor will again be carried by this offense. Griffin is in the Heisman mix, though his team’s record is probably going to prevent him from being too viable a national candidate. Baylor might be even more potent offensively than it was a year ago, in fact. But the defense is a question mark: replacing Taylor will be a chore, and Baylor needs several sophomores to step up and produce in major roles. But this isn’t the Baylor of 2006 or 2007; this is the Baylor of 2011, which has the talent and coaching to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the Big 12. There are some issues to address, but I’d be very surprised if Baylor doesn’t get to at least six wins and return to bowl play.
In a nutshell This wasn’t the best team in program history. That title goes to the Singletary-led and Grant Teaff-coached team from 1980, which won the Southwest Conference and might have been in the line for the national title had it not — somehow — lost to San Jose State in early November. Last year’s Bears were the second-best team in school history, however, and certainly featured the best offense and best player since the program’s inception in 1899. How many other F.B.S. teams can say the same about their 2011 offense? I count five, including Baylor: Houston, Southern Mississippi, Louisiana-Lafayette and Oklahoma State. And no team, other than Baylor, can say that they were led by the best player in school history. Just how good was Griffin? His impact was so broad, so vast and so wide-ranging that it will be felt in Waco for generations. You know that $250 million stadium Baylor’s planning to build alongside the Bravos River? Try this: Griffin Field at Baylor Stadium.
High point Beating Oklahoma, something Baylor hadn’t done since, well, ever. Zero wins against 20 losses heading into 2011; one win against 20 losses heading into 2012. Beating Texas the way it did — with such ease and confidence — sent a pretty clear message: If you were still on the fence, the win proved that this wasn’t your older brother’s Baylor.
Low point Baylor still went 1-3 in Big 12 road games, highlighting the sort of road deficiencies that have plagued the program for a generation. The final loss on the season, a 59-24 defeat at Oklahoma State that was even worse than the final score indicated, dropped the Bears to 4-3 overall, 1-3 in conference play.
Tidbit Just how good was Baylor’s offense last fall? The Bears scored a school-record 589 points, which is only 96 fewer points than the program scored over Kevin Steele’s entire four-year tenure from 1999-2002. The offense as a whole has taken an enormous step forward under Briles’ direction. Last year’s total ranks first in the school’s record book; the 406 points scored in 2010 ranks second; and the 336 points scored in 2008, Briles’ first season with the program, ranks sixth.
Tidbit (defense edition) In a way, Griffin was able to win the Heisman because of the impotency of Baylor’s defense – to win games, the Bears needed the offense to run a full tilt for nearly 60 minutes every Saturday. Just how bad was this defense? Baylor ranked 118th nationally against the pass, 102nd against the run, 116th in total defense and 113th in scoring. As if that’s not bad enough: If you remove from the equation Baylor’s one game against an F.C.S. opponent, a 48-0 win against Stephen F. Austin, the Bears would have ranked last in the F.B.S. against the pass (305.2 yards per game), 107th against the run (206.8 yards), 119th in total defense (511.9 yards) and 117th in scoring (40.3 points per game). Actually, that’s not much worse – though Baylor couldn’t drop much lower.
Tidbit (line pipeline edition) Baylor, Wisconsin and Iowa are the only three schools in the country to have had at least one offensive lineman taken in each of the last four N.F.L. Drafts. The Bears and Badgers are the only two to have a linemen taking in one of the first four rounds in each of the last four years. Baylor’s run began with Jason Smith, who was taken second overall in the 2009 draft; center J.D. Walton was taken in the third round a year later; guard Danny Watkins in the first round in 2011; and center Philip Blake in the fourth round and guard Robert Griffin in the sixth round during this past April’s festivities. I always referred to the latter as RG336, his listed playing weight — I’m pretty sure that it never caught on.
Tidbit (recruiting edition) This past winter’s recruiting class was the program’s first under Briles without at least three JUCO prospects. The Bears signed three players off the JUCO ranks in 2008, followed by four in 2009, three in 2010 and five in 2011. But Briles inked one only JUCO recruit in February, and did so only at a position of extreme need, linebacker. This winter’s class was also the third straight to rank among the top 50 nationally, according to Rivals.com. In so many ways, this is not the Baylor of old – or even the Baylor of the very recent past.
Former players in the N.F.L.
19 S Mikail Baker (Kansas City), C Philip Blake (Denver), K Matt Bryant (Atlanta), LB Elliot Coffey (Denver), RB Terrance Ganaway (New York Jets), WR David Gettis (Carolina), WR Josh Gordon (Cleveland), OG Robert Griffin (New York Jets), QB Robert Griffin III (Washington), DT Nicolas Jean-Baptiste (Baltimore), DE Tracy Robertson (Houston), OT Jason Smith (St. Louis), TE Justin Snow (Indianapolis), DT Phillip Taylor (Cleveland), C J.D. Walton (Denver), OG Danny Watkins (Philadelphia), LS Jon Weeks (Houston), CB C.J. Wilson (Dallas), WR Kendall Wright (Tennessee).
Arbitrary top five list
Redskins’ quarterbacks saviors since 1990
1. Robert Griffin III.
2. Heath Shuler.
3. Jeff George.
4. Jason Campbell.
5. Patrick Ramsey.
Art Briles (Texas Tech ’79), 25-25 after four seasons with the Bears. After a pair of four-win seasons, Briles got the Bears back into bowl play in 2010 after a 16-year absence. Last fall, Briles led Baylor to what can safely be called the most satisfying finish in school history – though I do think that Baylor’s 1980 squad was the best in program history. Sound easy? Not quite: Baylor has so long been a Big 12 afterthought that this Briles-led transition entailed not only rehabbing an entire roster but also the psyche of an entire program. His debut season, 2008, was a good start. The Bears scored 336 points (28.0 points per game), their most since scoring 362 in 1994, and made great strides as a team despite playing a schedule that featured six ranked opponents, three of which were ranked in the top 10. The program’s overall improvement has already been felt on the recruiting trail, as Briles has hauled in five of the most impressive Baylor recruiting classes in recent memory. While at Houston, Briles inherited a program two years removed from an 0-11 campaign and went 34-28 over five seasons (2003-7), making four bowl appearances. In 2003, Briles led the team to a 7-6 finish with a trip to the Hawaii Bowl, making him only the second coach in school history to reach postseason play in his first season with the program. After going a combined 9-14 from 2004-5, Briles went 10-4 in 2006 and 8-4 in 2007, again leading the Cougars to bowl play. Prior to being hired at Houston, Briles spent three seasons as the running backs coach at Texas Tech (2000-2) under Mike Leach. Briles also spent 12 highly successful seasons as the head coach at Stephenville High School in Texas (the alma mater of Kevin Kolb, his record-setting quarterback at Houston), where he won a pair of back-to-back Texas state championships in 1993-4 and 1998-99. His prep experience has paid enormous dividends in recruiting, as Briles remains a popular and respected figure among the all-important Texas high school coaching ranks.
Players to watch
Baylor will replace Griffin with senior Nick Florence, and a team could do worse when it comes to a first-year starter. That’s because Florence isn’t a neophyte, having taken significant snaps in each of the last three seasons and, in 2009, starting seven of the year’s final eight games after Griffin suffered a knee injury. He threw for at least 200 yards in six of those starts, including a 427-yard performance in Baylor’s upset win over Missouri to open November.
Briles had hoped to provide a year of separation between his unquestioned starter and top backup by putting a redshirt on Florence in 2011. That plan went out the window at halftime against Texas Tech, when Griffin slammed his head to the turf when scrambling outside the pocket late in the second quarter — after sitting a play, Griffin returned to the field in time to score on a three-yard touchdown run. In came Florence, who led the Bears to four offensive touchdowns over the game’s final 30 minutes. On the afternoon, and in one half of work, Florence completed 9 of 12 attempts for 151 yards and 2 touchdowns. He added another 14 yards and a score on the ground. Not Griffin, but certainly Griffin-like: cold and rusty, expecting his redshirt season to continue, Florence had the best half of his college career. Ratchet up the expectations surrounding his senior season, right?
Well, let’s get this out of the way: Florence is no Griffin. And no one is — or few are, seeing that Cam Newton was pretty good, and pretty good fairly recently. What Florence is, however, is the end result of three full seasons spent ingesting every aspect of Art Briles’ offense, and that should be enough to keep things interesting on the offensive side of the ball. Florence’s ascension to the full-time starting role underlines the most salient fact surrounding this team heading into 2012: Baylor must trust the system. It’s a system that works, and doesn’t necessarily need a Griffin at the helm to win games in conference play. That never hurts, of course, and that Baylor only had two other quarterbacks on the roster in 2011 does indicate that the program wasn’t entirely expecting Griffin to leave after his junior season.
While Briles has yet to officially anoint Florence as his starter, there’s very little chance that he doesn’t hold the top spot when Baylor kicks off its season in September. Beyond holding more experience than your normal first-year starter, Florence is far more well-versed in this system than sophomore Bryce Petty, his competition for the starting job. Florence will be fine – he won’t be Griffin, but he’ll be fine.
Baylor’s response to losing two starters off last year’s very strong offensive line was to take the three returning starters and move them into new positions. If that sounds illogical, well, think again. What the Bears have done is create a rock-solid interior: Ivory Wade moves from right tackle to center, replacing Philip Blake; Cameron Kaufhold moves from right to left guard, replacing Robert Griffin – the other one; and Cyril Richardson moves from left tackle to left guard, taking over for Kaufhold. For a team that must run the ball effectively to win games during Big 12 play, these changes create a trio that should move defenders between the tackles.
So it’s a series of moves that make sense, even if they run contrary to traditional thought – typically, a staff will stick with the status quo and simply promote last season’s reserves into starting roles. The lone negative, of course, is that the Bears are going to move forward with two very inexperienced starters at left and right tackle. Redshirt freshman Spencer Drango, once a national recruit, steps in on the blind side; sophomore Troy Baker has the inside track to the starting role on the strong side. With a less mobile quarterback taking snaps, the lack of proven production at tackle is a bit of a concern. But the benefits of creating a superb interior outweigh the drawbacks.
With all the talk of the one who got away – Kendall Wright, with bonus points for would-be starter Josh Gordon, who would have played a huge role had he not been dismissed from the program last summer – it’s easy to forget just how much Baylor returns at wide receiver. In all, the Bears bring back six of last season’s top seven at the position; this is a group led by senior Terrance Williams (59 receptions for 977 yards), junior Tevin Reese (51 for 877) and senior Lanear Sampson (42 for 572).
At the moment – and on paper – what this group lacks is a attention-grabbing top target. The health of the passing game hinges on Williams’s ability to fill Wright’s shoes as Florence’s go-to receiver. He was overshadowed by Wright last fall, but Williams has the ability to post an all-American-caliber season: 90-plus catches, around 1,350 yards, 10 or more touchdowns. He lines up outside, flanked on the opposite side by Sampson, the team’s fastest receiver. Reese will again line up inside, as he did a year ago, and must again give Baylor a deep threat in order to open up the intermediate passing game. Joining Reese inside will be sophomore Levi Norwood, who made six grabs last fall to go with solid work in the return game. The Bears recently added another target in Michigan transfer Darryl Stonum, though it’s hard to predict whether he’ll be able to crack the two-deep so late in the game. No Wright, no problem: Baylor has enough weapons to keep the passing game humming.
Baylor’s defense left 2011 on a low note, even if the Bears were able to outscore Keith Price and Washington in the Alamo Bowl. As at U.W., the putrid bowl performance was no exception to the rule; this defense was incompetent from late September on, not just in San Antonio, and must make some significant strides this fall to offset what should be a decline in production on offensive side of the ball. In Baylor’s favor is experience, with eight returning starters; proven production, with eight of last year’s top nine tacklers back in the fold; and the fact that this fall marks the program’s second season under defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
You’ll see an improved effort in 2012. For one, the Bears’ talented core is rapidly accumulating valuable experience both in the starting lineup and in key reserve roles; last year’s two-deep included six sophomore starters and another seven freshmen and sophomores in backup roles. As elsewhere – and this is applicable even in the high-flying Big 12 – these youthful defenders, many of whom were top-ranked recruits, are entering the point in their careers when the light turns on.
The greatest growth will take place in the secondary, where Baylor returns the entire back end of its 4-2-5 defense – I’m counting among this group junior Ahmad Dixon (89 tackles, 5.5 for loss), a hybrid safety-linebacker. Dixon fills the in-the-box role among Baylor’s three safeties; the more traditional roles are held by senior Mike Hicks (105 tackles, 3 interceptions) and junior Sam Holl (113 tackles, 3 interceptions), two reigning all-Big 12 picks. In fact, Dixon, Holl, Hicks and cornerback K.J. Morton (75 tackles, 4 picks) earned all-conference accolades last fall – a surprising fact when considering how poorly the Bears defended the pass.
Morton holds the key. Last fall, the former JUCO transfer began turning a corner over the year’s final four or five games; he seemed more at ease and far less tentative than he was over the season’s first two months. Morton is also the closest Baylor has to a stopper at cornerback, and it’s impossible to overvalue the trickle-down effect a clear-cut all-conference cornerback would have on the rest of this defense. He’s joined at cornerback by junior Joe Williams (43 tackles), who started the final eight games of last season.
Secondary play will define Baylor’s season. So why should the Bears’ secondary do a better job in 2012? One reason is the increased experience. A second is Morton’s projected development; thrown into the fire last fall, his development throughout the season bodes well for his future in Waco. A third is the increased depth, which is a byproduct of all this returning experience. One final reason is the increased knowledge of what it takes to run Bennett’s system. There’s little doubt that players like Morton, Dixon and these safeties will be far more comfortable running his scheme in 2012.
A bigger issue is the heart of this defense: Baylor breaks in new starters at tackle and at middle linebacker. When it comes to the line, Bennett and the Bears won’t have to look far for answers. Kaeron Johnson and Nick Johnson, both seniors, move into the starting lineup at nose guard and tackle, respectively, after backing up Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and Tracy Robertson a season ago. Both are intriguing prospects: Kaeron opened his career at fullback, starting four games as a sophomore, before being moved to defense heading into last season; Nick, a former JUCO transfer, gave Baylor some burst last fall as the third tackle.
They won’t be asked to do much: just occupy blockers. Doing so would not only keep Baylor’s linebackers clean but also open up lanes for ends Gary Mason Jr. (26 tackles, 8.0 for loss) and Terrance Lloyd (36 tackles, 7.0 for loss), who must do a better job bringing pressure off the edge. One player who could make an impact on passing downs is junior Chris McAllister, a converted linebacker entering his second season with his hand on the ground. As a team, getting to the quarterback is one of this defense’s major weaknesses.
The Bears will break in a pair of new starters at linebacker, barring a shakeup in August. On the weak side, JUCO transfer Eddie Lackey vaulted to the top of depth chart with a great spring – Lackey is yet another example of how enrolling early can pay enormous dividends, especially when it comes to a player coming off the JUCO ranks. Sophomore Bryce Hager (13 tackles) will step in at middle linebacker, replacing Elliot Coffey. If Hager makes one big play for every ounce of praise heaped upon his play during the spring… well, he’ll be an all-American.
There’s also some solid depth at linebacker, as in the secondary – defensive backs like Prince Kent, Chance Casey, who is working his way back from a knee injury, and Josh Wilson will see the field in certain packages. Hager will be backed up by senior Rodney Chadwick (68 tackles), a starter at outside linebacker in 2011. Once again, junior Brody Trahan provides support on the weak side.
It’s important to keep things in perspective. Baylor is going to get an improved effort out of its defense in 2012, but this group is not going to jump from Kansas territory into Texas territory, to use a Big 12 example. But improvement is improvement; the Bears are not going to rank among the bottom 20 nationally, it’s safe to say, and could even make a move into the top six in the league if the secondary plays up to its overall talent. Most of all, this group will help offset a projected decline from Baylor’s offense.
Thanks to four years of very solid results on the recruiting trail, Baylor’s special teams should be the best of Briles’ tenure. Junior kicker Aaron Jones had an off year last fall – even if set a new school record for points – but showed his leg in 2010, when he made five of eight kicks of 40-plus yards. He has a big leg, as does sophomore punter Spencer Roth; the Bears also have more snappers than they know what to do with. All that this group needs is a bit more explosiveness in the return game.
Position battle(s) to watch
Running back Any chance that Florence has of ably filling Griffin’s shoes – and, by extension, any chance this offense has of scoring enough points to win five games in Big 12 play – hinges on the wherewithal of a running game that must replace Terrance Ganaway, one of the nation’s most underappreciated skill players as a senior. Why Ganaway flew in under the radar is simple; he was sharing a backfield with the most acclaimed quarterback in the sport, after all. But his importance cannot be overestimated: Ganaway’s play gave the Bears tremendous balance on offense.
Briles will obviously continue to place heavy emphasis on the running game. For one, his offense has always been slanted towards the run – especially in Griffin’s first season, back in 2008, and again last fall, when Baylor’s offense was among the five best in the country. Secondly, even if Florence is more experienced than your typical first-year starter he’ll need significant help on the ground. Three backs will be tasked with maintaining Baylor’s success on the ground: senior Jarred Salubi (331 yards), junior Glasco Martin (268 yards) and sophomore Lache Seastrunk.
Salubi has played a fairly big role in each of the last two years, backing up Jay Finley in 2010 – rushing for 215 yards on 8.7 yards per carry – and Ganaway a season ago. He’s proven; Baylor knows that he’ll produce, even lending some support as a safety valve for Florence as a receiver, but Salubi has yet to indicate an ability to serve as the Bears’ every-down back. Martin runs to his size, which is great to see, and should occupy a role as Baylor’s short-yardage option. Then there’s Seastrunk, the former Oregon transfer, who was clearly the team’s most capable big-play threat during spring ball.
There’s talent here, as well as a nice blend of experience and potential, but questions remain. For one, will Baylor be forced to go with a by-committee approach all season? Of the three options, Salubi and Seastrunk seem the most capable of shouldering 20 carries per game – something Ganaway did six times last fall, including 42 carries in the win over Texas Tech. Seastrunk gives Baylor the best chance at a momentum-changing play, which counts for something. But all three will play until one distances himself from the pack.
Game(s) to watch
The non-conference slate is easy enough to allow Baylor’s offense to get on the same page before starting a beastly Big 12 schedule. The push for bowl eligibility begins on Sept. 20, when Baylor opens with conference games against the league’s two new faces – West Virginia and T.C.U., with the latter hungry for another chance at the Bears after last fall’s season-opening loss. While the Big 12 schedule starts with a bang, the Bears do end the year with home games against Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State; in addition, Baylor gets Kansas and Iowa State, with the Jayhawks at home, over back-to-back weeks in October and November. Overall, the key will be starting strong and taking care of business at home; if Baylor opens 3-0 and goes 3-2 in Waco, well, this is a bowl team. Whether the Bears can match last season’s success – a very long shot, admittedly – depends on how this team fares against the Big 12’s best. One thing is sure: Baylor isn’t beating Oklahoma in Norman. Then again, many said the same heading into last year’s date in Waco.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Baylor lost a transcendent, once-in-a-century, Heisman-winning, program-defining quarterback – not to mention an all-American receiver, one of the nation’s most underrated running backs, two-fifths of its offensive line, the interior of its defensive line and its starting middle linebacker. These are losses that point to one thing: Baylor is not winning another 10 games in 2012. Instead, the Bears will win seven games in the regular season, dominating during non-conference play, taking care of business against the Big 12’s bottom half and struggling to mount a consistent effort against the league’s best. Instead of being a realistic threat to the Big 12’s upper echelon – those elite programs shocked to see the Bears climb up the standings last fall – the Bears will simply be a nuisance.
A nuisance that wins seven games – in the Big 12, without Griffin, Ganaway and company, while returning the backbone of one of the nation’s weakest defenses. This is Baylor today: Briles has acquired enough high-level talent to make the program more about the sum of its parts than just the one piece who seemed to single-handedly carry the program to largely unknown heights over the last 24 months. This team will be weaker without Griffin, of course, but has enough talent and experience to reach a third straight bowl game. Give Briles an incalculable amount of credit for doing what so many other could not; he’s actually developed Baylor to a point where it could not only land a player of Griffin’s caliber, but also survive once this talent walks out the door – in Griffin’s case, one year ahead of schedule.
What you’ll see in 2012 is a team that begins approaching greater balance between its offense and defense. The offense will take a step back without Griffin and Wright, though the latter’s departure overshadows the fact that Baylor returns a tremendous amount of talent at receiver. But the defense is ready to step up in its second season under Bennett: the front four is a concern, but there’s speed on the second level and tremendous talent and depth in the secondary. This defense is going to do its part to lift Baylor to another bowl berth. The Bears are prepared for life post-Griffin.
Dream season Baylor posts another nine-win regular season. The losses come to T.C.U. and at Texas and Oklahoma. What does that mean? That the Bears win at West Virginia – welcome to the Big 12, Mountaineers – and beat Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home.
Nightmare season I stand corrected: Baylor isn’t ready for life after Griffin. After two years of growth, the Bears slide to 4-8, 2-7 in the Big 12.
In case you were wondering
Where do Baylor fans congregate? I have nothing but love for those independent sites, so be sure to take a trip to Baylor Fans, where you can find chatter on Baylor football, basketball and baseball. For recruiting information, take a look at Sic Em Sports and Bears Illustrated. As noted below, an egregious oversight: Our Daily Bears is the best blog for Baylor sports talk.
Baylor all-name nominee CB Lynx Hawthorne. (Baylor recruited Hawthorne as an athlete, so I’m using his all-around skills at a position of need.)
Through 79 teams 310,586.
Who is No. 45? The county that houses tomorrow’s university shares its name with 11 other counties in the United States. The oldest of the 12 was founded in 1812; the county in question was created in 1838, making it the fifth-oldest with its name in the Union.
Tags: Aaron Jones, Ahmad Dixon, Art Briles, Baylor, Big 12, Bryce Hager, Cyril Richardson, Eddie Lackey, Glasco Martin, Ivory Wade, Jarred Salubi, K.J. Morton, Kaeron Johnson, Lache Seastrunk, Lanear Sampson, Mike Hicks, Nick Florence, Phil Bennett, Sam Holl, Spencer Drango, Terrance Lloyd, Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese
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