July 14, 2008
The Art Briles Era at Baylor begins in 2008, and Bear fans are anxious for the anticipated improvement possible under Briles’ new system and history of prolific offenses.
Offensively, the Bears return nine starters from last year’s unit which averaged 351.2 yards per game, Baylor’s highest mark since 1995 (383.3 ypg). Baylor must replace running back Brandon Whitaker, who led the Bears in both rushing (40.7 ypg) and receiving (58-425), as well as offensive guard Chad Smith, a two-year starter along the o-line.
Most of the attention during sping pratice was focused on the quarterback battle between senior Kirby Freeman, a transfer from Miami, Fla., who has one season of eligibility remaining, junior Blake Szymanski, a 10-game starter for the Bears a year ago, and true freshman Robert Griffin, who graduated from Copperas Cove [Texas] High School in December 2007 and went through spring ball with the Bears. The trio emerged from spring ball sharing the top line on the depth chart and figure to be pushed by incoming junior college transfer Jeremy Sanders during fall camp.
“They’re all really good. We can win with them,” Briles said of the quarterbacks. “I thought all the quarterbacks played really well. I’m proud of the way they led through the spring. All three of those guys are good players, really good players.”
Baylor’s offensive line, which allowed just 21 sacks last year (the program’s fewest since 1995), returns four starters--fifth-year senior Jason Smith at right tackle, fifth-year senior Dan Gay at left tackle, as well as a pair of juniors who started every game a year ago in center J.D. Walton and right guard James Barnard. Jason Smith has more career starts (27) than any returning Baylor player on either side of the ball.
“The o-line’s got to be a strength for us from an offensive standpoint, because however good they are up front is however good we're going to be offensively,” Briles said. “Those guys (Jason Smith, J.D. Walton and Dan Gay) are going to be the heart and soul of our offense, because as they go, we go as an offense. We’ve got some guys that should be all-conference and maybe even All-Americans in some instances.”
At running back, sophomore Jay Finley emerged from spring ball No. 1 on the depth chart with fifth-year senior Jacoby Jones and senior Ray Sims, a converted safety, sharing the No. 2 line. Finley and Jones averaged 17.2 ypg and 27.4 ypg, respectively a year ago, while Sims returns to a position he played in high school.
“I thought Jay (Finley) and Jacoby (Jones) ran extremely tough,” Briles said. “And that’s what we need. Jacoby was hurt early, so he just came on there at the end. But they both fought hard for yards, protected the ball. So that’s a good sign. Ray (Sims) will be in the mix. Ray’s a tough guy, too. He’s got good feet. We’ll be fine there.”
The Bears also return eight of their top nine receivers from a year ago, including four of five players who caught at least 30 balls in 2007--TE Justin Akers (43-426), TE Brad Taylor (35-465), IR Thomas White (34-475) and WR David Gettis (31-407).
“We had a couple injuries with Ernest (Smith) and Mikail (Baker), so those guys didn’t get to finish the spring, which hurt them a little bit,” Briles said. “They were learning how to play fast. And that’s the thing we stressed was playing fast, playing fast. And they’re getting that. I thought David Gettis improved tremendously through the spring. I thought he became more polished at the end of spring. And those other guys were productive.”
After playing a 4-2-5 defense the past five years, Baylor has switched to a 4-3 look in 2008 with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Brian Norwood from Penn State. The Bears return six starters from a year ago, including their top two tacklers in junior FS Jordan Lake and junior LB Joe Pawelek, who had 120 and 99 tackles, respectively, a year ago.
“I thought their effort and attitude was outstanding,” Briles said of the Bears’ defenders. “We’re still tinkering with a few positions and making sure we’ve got the right guys in the right spots. But that will take care of itself.”
Three returning defensive starters are along the line in senior DT Vincent Rhodes, NT Trey Bryant and DE Jason Lamb, a trio who started every game in 2007. DE Leon Freeman, who led the 2007 Bears in tackles for loss with 9.5 stops behind the line, is the odds on favorite to start opposite Lamb.
“We need for all those guys up front to be men,” Briles said. “They’ve just got to man up, because we don’t have a lot of depth there. But if I was a player, I’d be happy, because it would mean I’d get to play a lot. They've got to prepare their bodies and get themselves ready for football-related war. But Jason (Lamb) had a great spring. Jason’s a big body that has got quick twitch. Vincent Rhodes needs to be the most dominant d-lineman Baylor’s had in the last decade. That’s the way he needs to approach his season. Trey Bryant is a guy that could be a difference-maker for us. A big guy that’s quick twitch.”
Pawelek leads a young but talented linebacking corps that must replace two-year starter Nick Moore. Junior Antonio Jones and sophomores Antonio Johnson, a converted defensive end, Chris Francis and Earl Patin, a pair of All-Big 12 freshman selections a year ago, help make this one of the squad’s deepest positions.
“I think they need to be a force defensively,” Briles said of the Baylor linebackers. “I think we’ve got great depth. It should be the strength of our defense. We’re two-deep. I think we’ve got six guys that can play.”
Baylor lost its two starting cornerbacks a year ago, Josh Bell and Alton Widemon, to graduation. Fifth-year senior Dwain Crawford played rover a year ago and ranked No. 8 on the squad in tackles (48) despite misssing three gamesdue to injury, but he’s moved to cornerback for his final Green & Gold campaign. Sophomore Krys Buerck, who made six starts at wide receiver a year ago, moved to corner prior to spring practice and came out No. 1 on the depth chart opposite Crawford.
Lake, a consensus second-team All-Big 12 pick in 2007 missed all of spring practice recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, which gave senior Jake La Mar, an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection a year ago at rover, an opportunity at safety and he shares the top line on the depth chart with Lake. Junior Jeremy Williams, who started four games a year ago at outside safety, is listed No. 1 opposite Lake and La Mar.
“In the secondary, our objective is to rate our top five guys and get them on the field,” said Briles. “That’s our objective, regardless of position. Safety, corner, nickel back, whatever. Strong safety, free safety. Who’s the five best? Let’s get them on the field. And that’s what we’re trying to get to. I think those guys had a good spring.”
Sophomore Derek Epperson, who averaged 39.1 yards per punt as a true freshman en route to a spot on The Sporting News’ Big 12 All-Freshman team, returns for his second year as Baylor’s punter, while sophomore Shea Brewster, who split the Bears’ place-kicking chores a year ago as a true freshman, is also back.
“I feel real good about the kicking game,” Briles said. “I thought (Shea) Brewster had a great spring and (Derek) Epperson did a great job. And then our snapper, Carter (Brunelle). Those guys performed at the level they have to perform at.”
Briles expects to see a different looking football team in fall camp.
“I think they’ll be entirely different August 1 than they were April 1,” he said. “I expect them to be stronger and carry their body weight better, so that they can add weight but good body weight. And then mentally and physically be a machine. They’ve got to make their body a machine and let their mind control it.”