At long last-- football season is upon us. In mere days the Frogs travel to Waco to face the Bears in the last of a four-game series that begin in 2006. Baylor is 0-3 so far in the series; below the jump is a position-by-position analysis of the 2011 Bears, including the Purple Wimple prediction for the game.
BAYLOR SET 55 OFFENSIVE school records last year, among them total offense (6,179 yards), passing yards (3,649), yards-per-rush (a very respectable 5.4) and total points (405). Much of the machinery for that record-setting offense returns, giving it more than a leg up on the defense, which is not only learning new schemes, but replacing six of its top seven tacklers. Backup quarterback Nick Florence says the difference is experience.
"Two years ago was just Coach Briles’ second year here, and we’re way more evolved now," Florence said. "The receivers and running backs understand the offense so much better now. We’re consistently adding new things to the offense."
Starter Robert Griffin, III, is a known quantity at quarterback.
"His mobility has always been good," coach Art Briles said. "Last year when he started out there was a little hesitation, play calling, schematically, making sure he was OK, because he was inside of a year. I think it takes an ACL a full year to really feel comfortable about what you're doing. So this year starting out we know where he's at. We know what he can do on the field."
The backup, Florence, is "like a coach on the field," says Briles said. "He’s intelligent and gifted, and we’re danged fortunate to have him." The heir apparent, redshirt freshman Bryce Petty, is still learning the ropes.
Four more known quantities are on the first team o-line, junior left guard Cameron Kaufhold, senior center Philip Blake, senior right guard Robert T. Griffin, and junior right tackle Ivory Wade. They have 77 starts between them.
"I don’t know if we have as many stars this year, but we’re good and we work together well," says Kaufhold, "We all came in here as raw talents and Coach (Randy) Clements developed us."
First round draftee Danny Watkins’ replacement at left tackle is sophomore Cyril Richardson, who started four games last season at guard. "We’ve got it in our heads that we want to be the meanest, nastiest guys out there," Richardson said. Backups are Troy Baker and Kelvin Palmer at tackle, Jake Jackson and John Jones at guard, and Stefan Huber at center.
Also known quantities: the receivers. Until Josh Gordon was dismissed for smoking weed, Baylor was looking to return its top five receivers from last season. Now it’s four of the top five—Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese, and Lanear Sampson. The only question will be which of them plays yin to Wright’s yang, and which young receivers draw attention away from the veterans.
One young player that might is Clay Fuller (6-1, 195), who has joined the team as a freshman after playing pro baseball for six years. While the coach at Houston, Art Briles told Fuller, "if baseball doesn’t work out, call me," Fuller said. "Baylor was the only school I contacted. So it worked out perfectly."
"We feel like we got a steal," Briles said. "He’s just picked it up and has great natural ability. He’s a big guy with soft hands and is very intelligent and mature. It’s kind of like riding a bike. You might not have ridden it for a while, but you jump back on it and wiggle around a little bit, and the next thing you know you’re rolling down the highway saying, ‘Look Ma, no hands.’ "
Look for the tight ends to figure into the offense more in 2011.
"What I like is that they give us a whole different mentality offensively," Briles said. "They’re both big and bring a lot of physicality and toughness to that side of the ball. They allow us to do a lot of things that we haven’t been able to do before schematically."
The returner is Jared Monk, but the whispers at fall camp have been about sophomore Jordan Najvar, who transferred from Stanford a year ago and sat out 2010. He’s a large target, at 6-6, 260.
The only real question on the offense is who will replace—if anyone can—Jay Finley, who was Baylor’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2003. Finley's all-Big 12 performance at tailback was the key to Baylor's potency on offense, and no new tailback has emerged to power a ground game. Three contenders have been trying since the spring: Jarred Salubi (5-9, 205) and Terrance Ganaway (6-0, 240), who are experienced, and sophomore Glasco Martin (6-1, 210), who is returning from injury.
"It’s been a hard three years and I want to get my chance," Martin said. "I had never been injured before and I had to be patient as I recovered from my injury. I felt I had a good spring, and I know I can be the guy. I’m a physical runner who can run downhill and get the tough yardage."
Salubi and Ganaway have taken most of the first team snaps this fall, and knows where his bread is buttered. "It helps a lot to have an offensive line like that, and I thank our coaches every day," Salubi said. "We’ve got playmakers across the offensive line."
Don’t expect just one answer to the runningback question in Waco.
"Two or three of them will play," Briles said. "I would like for one running back to step up, but I don’t think it’s going to be that way. Terrance holds the key to himself a little bit because physically he has the qualities you need."
Ganaway knows to use his size as an advantage. "Now that I’m 240 pounds, I’m more of a downhill runner. I have to stop second guessing and just run the ball." Ganaway played with the ones in a scrimmage, while Salubi was out. Robert Griffin was impressed.
"They’re all contributing," Griffin said. "Ganaway’s obviously the bigger of the four or five, and he’s doing a good job running. He knows when to hit it in there and he knows when to juke and jive. So that’s probably why he’s taken the lead in there, but (Jarred) Salubi and the rest of those guys are going to be fine."
Briles is looking for more than physical tools; he wants to see "an eagerness to them and a bad mentality and keeps the chains moving, that’s who will play. We’re not looking for a nice guy."
At kicker, sophomore Aaron Jones returns, having set or tied five school records last year.
ACROSS THE TRENCHES, the unknowns outnumber the knowns by a large margin. There’s a new coach, new schemes, and a litany of new players. They have a tall task ahead of him. Last year, Baylor was pitiful on defense, especially on pass defense, allowing 265.1 yards passing per game (114th nationally), 66.2 percent completions, and snagging only 10 interceptions.
The new coach is a familiar foe for Horned Frogs, Phil Bennett from SMU (via a stop at Pittsburgh). Flatteringly, he is installing a 4-2-5 defense in Waco. "I'm really excited about Phil Bennett," Briles said at the conference media days session. "I really am. It's been — I hate to say it — a breath of fresh air." Getting the acclimation period for the defense out of the way is refreshing for Baylor, too. "Without question, we’re better than we were in the spring, but that’s not good enough," Bennett said. Briles has noticed, too. "I saw a whole lot of retention from last spring," Briles said. "We’re not starting at ground zero, and we’re ready to go on the defensive side of the ball."
In fall scrimmages, the offense rolled, partly because of repeated offside penalties, but Briles said he’s not worried.
"That’s just anxiety," he said. "That’s something we’ve got to understand is when you come out of the tunnel you’ve got to be under control. You’ve got to have composed aggression. It was good for us to get in this atmosphere where we’re turning it up a little bit. All those guys will remember what happened today, and they’ll be fine."
After another offensive clinic, Bennett reassured the Bears, "We’re not where we need to be, but we’re dang sure not where we were." Robert Griffin concurred:
"They’re a lot more aggressive, and it’s good to see them play well because it makes the offense better," Griffin said. "We were just clicking on offense in every group... I think (the defense) had a lot of busted assignments today. We can’t have that when the season starts, Phil Bennett will make sure that doesn’t happen."
The first new face on defense is the replacement for first round draftee Phil Taylor, at defensive tackle. Tracy Robertson, who started games at tackle and at end last season, is starting at tackle this season. "We lost a great guy in Phil Taylor because those guys don’t come along very often," Briles said. "But we’ve got four guys [at both inside spots] we feel comfortable with." Those four are seniors Tracy Robertson and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste on first team, and juniors Kaeron Johnson and Nick Johnson on the second team. The Johnsons both played on offense last season.
"We’ve been short the past few years, but we’ve got four or five in the rotation now," Jean-Baptiste said. "It’s a big deal to have a lot of guys because of all the spread stuff that teams use in the Big 12. With so many passing downs, you get real tired and you need somebody to come in so you don’t lose a step."
Johnson (6-2, 305) spent a year playing fullback. "I’m glad to be back over there. There’s nothing like being the hunter. The one thing you have to keep in mind is to destroy the guy in front of you."
Sophomore Dominique Jones also will likely be in the rotation.
At defensive end, junior Gary Mason (6-4, 275) and sophomore Tevin Elliot (6-3, 250) played poorly in the bowl game, but Briles focuses on their potential. "Both Tevin and Gary are showing signs of really being Big 12 players, assignment-wise and ability and work ethic... I like the depth we have at defensive end, but we have to develop it."
Mason feels fully recovered from an injury he played through last season. "Now I’m feeling better and can move pretty well. I’m coming to practice every day knowing my spot isn’t secure, so I have to show the coaches that I deserve the No. 1 spot."
Briles ways Terrance Lloyd, Chris McAllister and Zac Scotton are in the rotation. "We feel like we have four or five solid football players at defensive end who can really make plays," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "We’re anxious to see what Gary and Tevin can do. We’ve got some quality depth there and guys fighting hard to get on the field, and that’s the way it should be."
Returning starters become scarce behind the line. Linebacker Elliot Coffey is one; his unlikely partner in the middle will be Brody Trahan, who was the holder for the Bears last season. Trahan caught Phil Bennett’s eye, before Bennett even was a coach at Baylor, when he ran down an Aggie who recovered a blocked kick during an ESPN televised game. A few months later, Bennett took a job as Baylor's defensive coordinator and remembered the play.
Bennett learned that Trahan was a hard worker, the switch was on. "I want you to play linebacker for me," Bennett told him. Trahan had heard it before. "It was kind of a joke at first. We weren’t really sure if I’d earn some playing time," he said. "It kind of shocked everyone."
The change in conditioning was not easy. "The most running I did in practice was dropping back or running to the running back and handing it off to him. Now I’m using the hips more, muscles I didn’t know I had, and running sideline to sideline," he said. Nor has the on-the-job training been easy.
"A couple times on a screen, I’ll mistakenly have my eyes looking the wrong way, and I’ll cut back inside and there’s big ol’ 6-foot-8 or whatever he is Robert Griffin, and he just swallowed me."
Imagine the odds—Trahan is expected to start at linebacker, not holder, on September 2.
The secondary has been a work in progress since Bennett arrived. Clearly Ahmad Dixon—another familiar name for TCU fans—is going to start at the nickel. "Ahmad’s an extremely dynamic player," Briles said. "We’re really pumped up to see how he grows at that position." LeQuince McCall is also competing for the spot.
"I’m looking for perfection and there’s too many ebbs and flows right now," Bennett said. "They’re both athletic and savvy about playing in space. They have coverage and playmaking skills. But I’d like one of them to take a step and have a better focus day in and day out."
The nickel back will be flanked by junior Mike Hicks and sophomore Sam Holl. "I think they’re smart," Bennett said. "They’ve got some experience issues, haven’t played a whole lot. But they have some ability." The coach might be getting some help from above on his selection of players.
"My buddies joke about that with me all the time," Hicks said, "wondering why I wasn’t recruited as a receiver. But I feel like God has given me a job on this team, and this is it."
The only returning starter in the secondary is junior cornerback Chance Casey. "Robert and the guys make us that much better," Casey said. "I feel we have the best receiving corps in the Big 12, and I hope they’ll make us the best secondary in the Big 12."
Casey likes the new defensive schemes.
"Coach Bennett teaches us a lot of different techniques, but we’re pretty much one-on-one most of the time," Casey said. "If we want to press them we can because we want to be an aggressive defense."
Briles likes how Casey has taken to those new schemes. "[He] has had a nice camp and has taken off from the spring," reported Briles. "The rest of the guys are a work in progress."
The best of the rest is sophomore Tyler Stephenson (5-11, 165), an all-freshmen corner last season, including four starts. Behind those two, however, the depth chart has been very fluid. Redshirt freshman Tuswani Copeland appeared to have one of the backup roles pinned down, but he hurt his knee and will be out for the season.
A whole secondary’s worth of players have been playing backup corner this fall. Baylor converted senior running back Isaac Williams and receiver Terrance Nathan to cornerback to add depth, with transfer Colin Simpson, freshman Anthony Webb, and JUCO transfer Joe Williams, who says, "It’s been a big transition, but I’m catching up fast." Also in the mix: redshirt freshman T.C. Robinson, converted from safety. "T.C. was originally a corner and now he’s back," Briles said. "It’s good to have that versatility. We’re trying to fill a little void there and find a spark." JUCO transfer K.J. Morton is taking snaps both at backup safety and corner. "We’ve been waiting to get K.J., and he will certainly have an opportunity to see what he can do to get on the field."
Chance Casey says of his long train of backups, "this is the most depth since I’ve been here."
Baylor’s punter is true freshman Spencer Roth (6-6, 220), one of the few punters out of high school to land a scholarship.
"I tried to shake him a little and get him to melt down, but he just stood there and did his job," Briles said. "That was impressive for a freshman. That was a pressure packed situation."
Also impressive: at a scrimmage Roth punted five times for a 50.4-yard average.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN for TCU, which travels to Baylor on Friday? Waco is getting excited for the game. "It might be the biggest atmosphere game since I’ve been here," said Briles. "I think the tone is set." That tone is more focused than last year’s. Cameron Kaufhold says last year's loss in Fort Worth is on their minds.
"All the players feel like we left so much on the field against TCU. We started stumbling early and didn’t get to show the team that we really were. Walking off the field with their fans shouting at us started a fire inside of everybody that’s still burning to this day."
Ah, yes; the shouting was memorable. Robert Griffin tries not to sound Gordon Gee-ish about it.
"There’s no warm-up game, we’re not playing the sisters of the poor," Griffin said. "TCU did a good job against us last year, and they did a good job against everybody else. But this is a new TCU team and a new Baylor team, and we’re looking forward to going out there and getting a victory."
Note the absence of the word fluke.
Robert Griffin III is going to catch TCU’s safeties out of position some of the time. Of course, he’ll also be running for his life some of the time, so don’t expect Baylor to torch TCU aerially. But he’ll move the ball through the air more than last year, which is to say, he'll be moderately successful maybe half the time. But Casey Pachall is going to catch Baylor's very young secondary out of position now and then, too. TCU's passing game will lack the polish of Baylor's, but it won't lack for success in Waco.
Baylor's return to the post-season hinges on whether or not a credible threat emerges from its backfield. But don't expect one to show up against TCU, which appears poised to be tougher against the run than it was in 2010. Keeping Baylor one-dimensional gives the advantage to TCU’s already-formidable defense.
Baylor’s defense does not yet seem capable of stopping anybody. The run defense is suspect; the pass defense is especially suspect. Look for TCU to keep it as vanilla as possible—lots of rushing, options, and screens. The Frogs will have a nice cheering section for this road game, and will reward them with a win—but probably not a blow-out. TCU 31, Baylor 21.
Ezra Hood blogs about all things TCU football at Frogs O' War