April 11, 2014
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
When Art Briles came to Baylor 6 ½ years ago, he talked about trying to just get his Bears "up to the table" where they could share a meal with the big boys.
Last year, the Bears didn't just share a meal, they ate the whole buffet and even took home some leftovers with the first Big 12 football championship in school history, the most-ever wins (11-2) and the first BCS bowl game appearance.
Now, the shoe's on the other foot. Baylor, which wrapped up its seventh spring training session under Briles with a controlled scrimmage last Saturday, has gone from the hunter to the hunted.
"I think it's inspiring. I think it elevates your level, without question," Briles said. "It keeps your senses more alert, and brings an added level of responsibility to you. That's the way we're approaching it: that we have a responsibility to ourselves, to our program and to our university, to maintain the level of respect we've earned."
With four consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and a record of 36-16 in that stretch, Briles said the Bears have definitely earned that respect.
"It wasn't like we went out and said, `Here's five bucks, respect us,''' he said. "No, we went out and earned it over a period of time. So, that's where we're at. Once you get to that level, then you fight your butt off to hang on to it, because it's hard to get respect in this profession. And right now, Baylor is respected."
Not only does Baylor hold the Big 12 championship trophy, the Bears will carry it into a new house this fall with the opening of the $260 million, riverfront McLane Stadium. The debut in the new stadium will come Aug. 31 with a matchup against former Southwest Conference rival SMU.
You can call it the perfect storm, which is why the 28,000 season tickets are already sold out.
"The timing has been great for everyone concerned with Baylor," Briles said. "And that's the part that's invigorating and inspiring to us. The people that love this University have an opportunity to smile when they talk about it. And that's inspiring to me. The timing is unbelievable; it's perfect. So, my hat's off to our Board of Regents and our donors that made this a reality. And everybody should be thankful for it, because it's universally changed the way this University and this community is perceived."
The way that Briles described the 15-date spring session that just finished was "non-eventful, which is good. That's kind of what we wanted."
"We had a pretty good idea where our personnel needed to be, especially on offense," he said. "Defensively, we had to move some guys around a little bit, but I think we've got everybody in their best position now. This is our seventh spring (at Baylor), so guys understand, the coaches understand, what we're trying to get accomplished, which is just fine-tuning our trade and personnel placement."
One of the biggest issues in the spring was just working around the guys that weren't there. Four of the projected top nine offensive linemen missed at least part of the spring drills, while the defense had two of its returning starters sitting out.
The unsettled offensive line already had starting left tackle Spencer Drango out following back surgery, and then had tackle Pat Colbert, guard Blake Muir and utility man Tyler Edwards all go down with injuries within the last couple weeks.
Drango is now "healthy and ready to go," and Briles said, "He was in on every snap of every play, mentally."
"That guy's a machine," he said. "He's smart, big, physical, strong, and just cares. And he's a great athlete. He's a great football player, and he's got a great future if that's what he chooses to do."
With the 6-6, 305-pound Drango and 6-7, 305-pound senior Troy Baker as bookend starting tackles, "that's two mammoth men," Briles said. Baker is a year and a week removed from having ACL knee surgery and is "just now back."
"I think it takes a full year," Briles said. "During the rehab time, you're not doing football drills. The first 5 ½ months, you're just rehabbing, rehabbing, rehabbing, and you feel like you're ready to go. Well, those 5 ½ months, everybody else has been working football. So, it just takes time to get back to where you're really football-ready."
Joining that duo up front are returning starter Desmine Hilliard (6-5, 340) at right guard, sophomore Kyle Fuller (6-4, 305) at center and either LaQuan McGowan (6-7, 385) or junior transfer Blake Muir (6-6, 300) at right guard. Muir, one of three Aussies on the team, started as a freshman at Hawaii in 2012 and had to sit out last season.
"We didn't bring him here to teach us the Australian fight song," Briles said. "We brought him here to help us win football games. He's got to contribute. If you're going to fly halfway across the world, be a player. And he is. He'll help us."
For the first time in three years, the Bears will go into a season with a returning starter at quarterback. Senior Bryce Petty, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns and added another 14 TDs rushing in leading the nation's No. 1 offense.
"He's a guy that stays hungry, stays determined, stays motivated, which is why he has the ability to be great," Briles said. "His journey has been tough to get to this spot, so he's appreciative of where he is, and he doesn't take it for granted."
Petty, who had a phenomenal spring, said he needs to improve on staying in the pocket. But Briles said it's just a matter of some minor fine-tuning.
"I would say just situational awareness," he said. "And not that he had many mistakes, but eliminate the negative plays and mistakes. Don't ever let them creep up into that stat category."
Despite the loss of Tevin Reese, who leaves as the program's No. 3 all-time receiver in career catches (187), yards (3,102) and touchdowns (24), Petty once again has a great core of receivers.
Senior Antwan Goodley earned All-America honors last season, leading the Bears and ranking among the tops nationally with 1,339 yards and 13 TDs on 71 catches. Levi Norwood (47-733-8 TD), Corey Coleman (35-527-2), Clay Fuller (32-512-3) and Jay Lee (22-309-1) are also back, along with Robbie Rhodes and incoming freshman Davion Hall.
"Where last year he was kind of an unknown, now Antwan's the guy," Briles said. "And we've got guys around him that certainly can take a lot of that heat off of him. We've got to have Corey be a stud, you've got to have Clay, you've got to have Levi. . . . Robbie gives us the vertical threat that we've got to keep having. And we've got a couple incoming freshmen that we certainly feel are capable of getting on the field."
Lache Seastrunk entering the NFL Draft a year early left a hole in the backfield, but Shock Linwood had four 100-yard games and rushed for a freshman-record 881 yards and eight TDs. He's joined by fellow sophomore Devin Chafin, along with redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson and true freshman Terence Williams, who enrolled in January and went through the spring.
Briles called Linwood's freshman season "phenomenal, but not surprising in the fact that that's who he is."
"He's a football junkie; keeps his mind and body physically fit and ready. He keeps his pads low and has a little side step to open up running lanes for him, to create extra yards. So, we're really pumped about him."
On defense, everything starts up front. Without a doubt, this could be the deepest and most talented front four that the Bears have ever had.
"I said it before we started spring ball and I'll say it again: I think our front four can be as good as anybody in America," Briles said.
Sophomore Javonte Magee (6-5, 280), who re-enrolled in January after sitting out the fall semester, joins a rotation at the inside tackles that has everyone else back. Junior Beau Blackshear and sophomore Byron Bonds were the returning starters, but sophomore Andrew Billings earned a starting spot in the spring.
"It's just so hard to find those guys that fit at this level," Briles said of the defensive tackle positions. "In the state of Texas, as great as high school football is here - legit inside defensive linemen that can come in and start in the Big 12 as a freshman or sophomore and be productive - there are probably three (a year). That's it. They're just hard to find."
At the ends, juniors Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer move up to the starting spots after ranking among the team leaders last season with 12.5 and 11 tackles for losses, respectively.
In the spring, Briles said the offensive line couldn't block Oakman, "and I don't think anyone else will, either. And he's just one of about six or seven in there that are going to be dominant, dynamic players for us in the fall."
Another one is Sam Ukwuachu, who earned Freshman All-America honors at Boise State in 2012. "Sam's a stud. He's going to put somebody on the bench," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said.
One of the big keys on defense is the healthy return of senior middle linebacker Bryce Hager, a second-team All-Big 12 pick who missed the last four games and all spring with a pulled groin. When Hager comes back in the fall, sophomore Aiavion Edwards is expected to slide outside to the "Will" linebacker spot that Eddie Lackey manned the last two seasons.
Senior walk-on Collin Brence was one of the biggest surprises of the spring, beating out a field of contenders that included Kiante Griffin and Travon Blanchard, for the starting job at the hybrid "Bear" position that Sam Holl played last year and Ahmad Dixon before that.
"He's just a smart, tough kid," Briles said of Brence, the son of former Plano High School head coach and current athletic director Gerald Brence. "He's a good player."
Particularly with starting safety Terrell Burt missing the spring after an off-season surgery, the secondary was and probably still is the biggest concern.
But the one that stepped up and grabbed a spot was sophomore cornerback Xavien "X-Man" Howard.
"He had a phenomenal spring, and he was good in the fall. He just had those other three guys that had played two or three years," Briles said. "I think he's going to be phenomenal, I really do."
Sophomore Terrence "Freaky-T" Singleton is listed as the other starting corner, while the safeties are Burt and sophomore Orion Stewart. The Bears also added some depth at corner with the mid-year additions of junior college transfers Chris Sanders and Tion Wright.
Despite losing seven starters on defense, Briles said the Bears can't take a step back.
"That's what our standard is, and that's what we've got to maintain, just like winning the Big 12," he said. "That's our standard, so that's what we've got to maintain. You have an image, a perception, and our perception and image need to be that they're tough and aggressive on defense, they're dynamic on offense, and they win the Big 12. That needs to be the image that everybody looks at when they think about Baylor football."