July 27, 2009
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
The countdown clock in Baylor's weight room at the Simpson Athletics and Academic Center is a constant reminder that not only is the summer almost over, the Sept. 5 season-opener at Wake Forest is just around the corner.
And for most of the veteran players, it can't get here soon enough.
"It can't come quick enough," said junior cornerback Antareis Bryan. "This is what we hope for. This is what we prepare for. This is what we want."
Not that any of the players have had much of a summer vacation. With few exceptions, they've been working out at least four times per week and coming back for 7-on-7 sessions later in the day.
"This is actually my first full off-season since my redshirt year," said senior free safety Jordan Lake, who had to come back from injuries the two previous years. "So it's been fun to be with the team and training hard every day. You can just tell we've gotten better when you watch us in 7-on-7 and stuff like that. This is a lot better product than we had last year, and last year was even better than we had the year before. We're looking to expand on what we did last year and keep building on it and get it done this year."
After last year's 4-8 finish that included down-to-the-wire losses to Missouri and Connecticut, the bar has been set much higher by the players, coaches and the strength and conditioning staff led by Kaz Kazadi.
"He's going to (push you harder), because his expectations are higher for us," sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin said of Kazadi's summer workouts. "I mean, Kaz is Kaz. He's going to be hard on you. I've never run this much in my life . . . well, for football. Track, obviously, I have. But he's a great strength coach, and I'm happy he's here."
"I think we've had a pretty good mindset about it," senior linebacker Joe Pawelek said. "(The strength and conditioning staff) does a great job of making sure that we're out here working for a purpose, and not just out here lifting and running and working up a sweat over the summer. We're getting ready for September 5."
Senior inside receiver Ernest Smith said everything the players do in the locker room and on the field is helping them become game-ready.
"Coach Kaz is doing everything in his will to make sure we're no less than ready to dominate our opponents," said Smith, who was switched from wide receiver in the spring. "(Kazadi) has a plan. Everything we do is set for a certain situation that may happen in the game. So he just has us mentally focus on that. We're not out here just to run and sweat and have groin and hamstring problems. No, we're out here to work hard to dominate our opponents. That's it."
The veterans' job is also to train the incoming freshmen and keep them on the right path. Especially during the 7-on-7 sessions, you will hear the older players constantly shouting, "Run to the ball! Run to the ball! You guys need to hustle!"
"That's what our coaches tell us to do," Bryan said. "We've got to pick up their slack. If they don't run to the ball, that's us not running to the ball. Everything we do, they've got to do just as hard or harder."
"Anywhere you go, the young guys are going to watch the old guys and see how they do it," Lake said. "If (the veterans) are slacking, they're going to slack. If they're not letting that happen, (the freshmen) will realize that it's a different tempo here than it is in high school and they'll pick it up. I think that's what we've shown. And we're not letting anything slide like we've had in the past. It's just straight focusing on the season. And if you're not with us, you're against us."
Much like Pawelek and Lake before him, Griffin has had leadership thrust on him at an early age. But it's a role that he had at Copperas Cove (Texas) High School and one that he welcomes now at Baylor.
"I've always been more of a lead-by-example kind of guy," Griffin said. "But I've talked more in the past couple months and after the season, just because I have the right to do that now. In high school, you've got to be the leader as well. But even moreso in college. The guys are older. They've got a lot more to do, a lot more trouble to get in. And when they see me not getting in any trouble and staying away from the bad stuff, it encourages them to do the same."
With a new head coach in Art Briles and a new quarterback in Griffin, there was a lot of excitement going into the 2008 season. But this year, wondering has been replaced by confidence as the players anxiously wait for training camp to start on Aug. 5.
"Last year, we knew we were going to be better. But we didn't know quite how good we were going to be," Lake said. "Just building from last year and seeing how close we were . . . we're confident going into this year and we're not going to sneak up on anyone. We know that everyone sees us coming this year, and that doesn't bother us. We're looking forward to the challenge, and we're ready for it."
"It's pretty plain to see where this program's going," Pawelek said. "And with the enthusiasm that Coach Briles and his staff bring, it just makes it fun. People want to come out and start two-a-days, which sounds crazy. But we're ready to go."
Smith takes it a step farther. He says this year's team has "a lot of swag."
"Guys have never been so determined and confident that we're going to win," he said. "It's like we've already won. Now we've just got to go do it."
While the media picked the Bears to finish fifth in the Big 12 South, ahead of Texas A&M, Griffin said, "That doesn't mean anything to me."
"They can pick whoever they want," he said. "They're not the ones going out there and playing. We'll decide that on the field.
"(Last year), nobody was really sure what was going to happen. But going into this year, we know what can happen, what can go right and what can go wrong. And we're looking to make things go right."