Aug. 9, 2010
The 2010 season marks year three of the Art Briles era at Baylor, and hopes are high in Central Texas that a solid foundation is being laid to foster successful football teams for years to come.
Nowhere is Baylor's steady improvement under Briles more evident than in the back-to-back recruiting classes his staff put together in 2009 and 2010 - the school's highest-ranked signing classes in the Big 12 era. The 2010 signing class was ranked 39th nationally by Rivals.com, including a defensive backfield rated fifth nationally.
Baylor's roster includes 47 returning lettermen and 13 scholarship redshirts from 2009, six scholarship newcomers added in the spring and 18 incoming signees reporting in the fall.
"Chemistry," was Briles' response when asked for the strengths of his 2010 team.
"Along with a high level of hunger. And speed; we'll be a fast football team that understands a sense of urgency. Our speed is going to be evident." Briles pointed to his squad's improved depth coming out of a productive four weeks of spring drills.
"We wanted to establish a competitive two-deep," Briles said, "which I feel like we accomplished at nearly every position. We're approaching this, but we need to get to the point that we don't have any drop-off if someone gets injured - it allows us to maintain the level necessary to play in the Big 12 South."
He added that an emphasis during 2010 spring drills was to improve the squad's mental toughness.
"This team's emphasis will be a great deal of mental toughness and physicalness to go with it."
The Bears will again face a tough schedule that includes a grueling run through the Big 12 South division and non-conference games vs. TCU, Buffalo, Rice and Sam Houston State. Baylor will play 10 of 12 games in Texas this fall, leaving the state only twice, for league games at Colorado and at Oklahoma State.
Seven starters return from 2009, but that number doesn't include a starter from 2008 whose return is likely to have the most significant impact in 2010: quarterback Robert Griffin III. The season-ending knee injury suffered by RG3 in the third game last season, as well as the nagging ankle injury to first-string tailback Jay Finley, were key setbacks to Baylor's spread attack in 2009.
Without that duo at 100 percent, Baylor saw a significant drop in its rushing production.
"We have to be more productive running the football," Briles said, "that opens up a variety of things for our offense."
Success in running the ball will begin on the OFFENSIVE LINE, where team leader and All-America and Rotary-Lombardi Award candidate Danny Watkins anchors the line at left tackle.
"Danny is steady, consistent and solid," Briles said, "just like he has to be." The second-year senior and virtual newcomer to the sport (native Canadian, only fourth season playing football) headlines an experienced but relatively youthful line attempting to offset the loss of All-America center J.D. Walton.
The right tackle position is expected to be manned by sophomore Ivory Wade, a seven-game starter as a true freshman who earned 2009 freshman All-America honors.
Penciled in to replace Walton at center is second-year junior Philip Blake, who started all 12 games in 2009 at right tackle. Listed number two on the post-spring depth chart at center is redshirt freshman Stefan Huber.
Starters at the two guard spots will emerge from a group that includes third-year sophomore Cameron Kaufhold, versatile junior John Jones, redshirt freshman Cyril Richardson and huge newcomer Robert T. "Big Rob" Griffin (6-6, 335).
Jones and Kaufhold have experience and previous starts under their belts and exited spring drills atop the depth chart. Third-year sophomore Jake Jackson provides depth to the line.
The BACKFIELD hopes for a return to 2008 form, when QB Griffin and tailback Finley amassed a combined 2,091 passing and 1,708 rushing yards. Both were hampered last season and, after surgeries, expect to be completely healthy in 2010.
RG3 is back with a surgically repaired knee and ready to retake control of the offense. He practiced the entire spring, wearing a brace and participating in all non-tackling drills. Teammates, coaches and Baylor fans everywhere hope he returns to his previous dual-threat ways of ball-control passing (career 61 percent completions, 19-3 TD-int. ratio) and electrifying running (61.3 yards rushing per game), that saw him turn heads nationally as a freshman All-America in 2008.
"Robert is right on track to be where he needs to be," Briles said after the spring.
"We're excited about him being ready to go in the fall."
Griffin's hardship waiver was approved by the Big 12 Conference in late 2009 which resulted in him retaining three seasons of eligibility and competing as a sophomore in 2010.
Backing up Griffin is young but proven sophomore Nick Florence, who as a true freshman last season took the reins when the Bears' top two QBs went down, started seven games and set a school-record of 427 yards passing in leading Baylor to a road upset win at Missouri.
"There have been a lot of quarterbacks go through Baylor and say, `Down, set, hut' and he set a school record as a freshman," Briles said. "That's pretty impressive. We feel real good about Nick; he's a great teammate."
Rounding out the quarterback position are true freshman Bryce Petty, a 2009 signee who enrolled at Baylor in January and joined the team for spring drills, and versatile redshirt freshman Brody Trahan, who will see plenty of snaps on special teams as holder and backup punter. Petty, a one-time Tennessee commit, is a strong-armed pocket QB who captained the USA Football junior national team at the 2009 Junior World Championship.
Finley had off-season surgery to repair the ankle that limited him throughout the 2009 season. His return, as well as those of backfield mates Terrance Ganaway and Jarred Salubi are great signs for the Baylor rushing attack.
The hope is that Finley in 2010 resembles the healthy slasher who ran for 865 yards on 149 attempts (5.8 average) as a sophomore in 2008. His numbers during an injury-riddled junior year were 370 yards on 79 attempts (4.7 average).
"Jay has to be dynamic," Briles said. "He is a passionate runner who is capable of being that emotional player for us who raises everyone's game."
Finley is complemented by the bruising Ganaway, who led the team with five rushing TDs after transferring from Houston prior to 2009, and Salubi, an elusive scat-back from Waco who averaged a team-high 6.0 yards per carry and led all running backs with 19 receptions in 2009.
New to the backfield is junior transfer Isaac Williams, a mid-year transfer from El Camino College who impressed coaches during spring drills.
Glasco Martin, a redshirt freshman honored last season for his efforts on the scout team, is recovering from end-of-season knee surgery.
The fullback position will be manned by former defensive lineman Kaeron Johnson, who played the position during the final games of 2009 but made a permanent switch during the spring. The imposing Johnson (6-1, 295) will be backed up by walk-on redshirt freshman Erik Wolfe.
The RECEIVING CORPS will need to replace its top two wide receivers and starting tight end from 2009, but does return its No. 1 threat in inside receiver Kendall Wright. Wright leads a group of talented young receivers eager to contribute in 2010.
Wright is an explosive playmaker coming off an All-Big 12 season in 2009 in which he caught 66 passes for 740 yards, and coaches are hoping the third-year starter takes another step as a junior.
"Kendall has been really productive the last two years as our leading receiver," Briles said. "He has to continue to progress as a leader and a playmaker for us."
The other starting inside position looks to be senior Krys Buerck's for the taking. The one-time DB had just two receptions last season, but caught 23 balls as a true freshman in 2007. Also in the rotation at inside receiver is redshirt freshman Darius Jones and true freshman Tevin Reese, a 2009 signee who joined the team for 2010 spring drills.
Eager to fill the vacancies left by departed wide receivers David Gettis and Ernest Smith are sophomores Lanear Sampson and Terrance Williams and redshirt freshman Josh Gordon. The speedy Sampson started 11 games last year and caught 29 passes en route to being named an All-Big 12 freshman honoree.
"Lanear is steady and solid," Briles said. "He was dependable all spring."
Williams caught just three passes last season as a redshirt freshman, but made an impact as the primary return man on special teams. Gordon is a big receiver who earned praise from coaches for his improvement in spring drills.
In the mix at tight end are senior Brad Taylor, and sophomores Jerod Monk and converted wide receiver Willie Jefferson. Taylor is a fifth-year senior recovering from off-season surgery for tendonitis in his knee who is expected to be 100 percent for fall camp. The versatile Monk scored both running and throwing the ball last season as a true freshman. Jefferson brings his 6-foot-6 frame to tight end after averaging 20.2 yards-per-reception on the outside last season.
"We feel really good about our receiving corps," Briles said.
Just five starters return on defense, and fans are hopeful that Baylor can replace several departed stars on that side of the ball. Gone are All-America linebacker Joe Pawelek, All-Big 12 honorees Jason Lamb (DL) and Jordon Lake (FS), as well as five-year veterans Antonio Jones (LB) and Jeremy Williams (S).
"Our defense lost six fifth-year guys," Briles said, "which is a lot of hours on the field, in the locker room and in study hall. And there's only way to get experience - to live it. So as the season begins we'll see a changing of the guard so to speak. People have to step up and be accountable. And we've got guys that are anxious and willing to do that."
The foundation of that leadership will come from four returning starters, seniors Tim Atchison (free safety), Antonio Johnson (linebacker) and "Cousin Phil" Taylor (nose guard) and junior Zac Scotton (end), as well as two new starters, seniors Chris Francis (linebacker) and Byron Landor (safety).
"This defense has to limit big plays," Briles said. "Our upperclassmen have to lead and produce. Leaders can't talk it and not do it."
The DEFENSIVE LINE will benefit from increased depth, where returning starters Taylor (at nose guard) and Scotton (a defensive end/tackle) lead the way. Taylor, a preseason All-Big 12 honoree, made 25 tackles and blocked two kicks while battling turf toe in his first season at Baylor in 2009. Scotton started eight games and made 22 tackles as a sophomore last season.
"We expect a lot out of Phil," Briles said. "He's got more to give."
Playing alongside Taylor inside will be junior Tracy Robertson at tackle, who last season at end led the team with three sacks and had five tackles-for-loss. Briles describes Robertson as a "player who will be dynamic up front for us."
Expected to start at end opposite Scotton is third-year sophomore Gary Mason Jr.
"Gary is physically gifted and is maturing," Briles said. "He's learning to play with emotion."
Also vying for playing time at end will be redshirt freshman Tevin Elliott and sophomore Jared Edwards. Coaches label Elliott as having "big-play potential" on the line.
A continued strength for Baylor's D remains its LINEBACKING CORPS, which despite the loss of two fifth-year players, returns several talented athletes.
"We've been fortunate to have solid depth at linebacker the last two or three years and this year is no exception," Briles said.
Johnson, an All-Big 12 candidate and the team's leading returning tackler with 77 stops and six tackles-for-loss last season, is back as a third-year starter at outside linebacker. The Waco High School product is a quick, undersized backer and vocal leader.
"Antonio has been a dynamic player for us for the last two years and we expect more of the same," Briles said.
Manning the other outside backer spot are long-time reserves Elliot Coffey and Earl Patin. Coffey, listed as the starter heading into the fall, is a fourth-year junior who made 35 tackles last season. Patin is a fourth-year senior who made 38 tackles playing linebacker and end last season. Redshirt freshman LeQuince McCall provides depth on the outside.
Veteran reserve Francis and youngster Chris McAllister will replace four-year starter Pawelek at middle linebacker. Francis, a Baylor legacy and son of former 10-year NFL veteran James Francis, made 45 tackles as a junior last season and is listed as the starter on the post-spring depth chart. McAllister is a big redshirt freshman (6-2, 240) who was honored last season for his efforts on the scout team and continued to impress coaches during spring drills.
Baylor's SECONDARY, more than any other unit on the team, could receive help from true freshmen in order to increase depth and to offset the graduation of both starting safeties and offseason injuries.
Back to man the secondary are returning starters Atchison, a fifth-year senior who after starting all 12 games at cornerback last season is moving back to safety where he played as a freshman in 2007, and sophomore Chance Casey. Also returning are seniors with starting experience Clifton Odom, a four-game starter in 2009 who is expected to start at cornerback opposite Casey, and Landor, a three-game starter last season penciled in as the starting `hero' (strong) safety.
Coaches are looking to Atchison and Landor for leadership in addition to performance from the safety positions. Atchison had 42 tackles and five PBUs last season and Landor, a former JC transfer in his second season, had 46 tackles.
"Byron really needs to have a good year for us," Briles said. "He's a strong leader."
Casey was named to several All-Big 12 freshman teams after totaling 36 tackles, two interceptions and four PBUs as a true freshman in 2009. Odom, son of 13-year NFL vet Cliff Odom, made 33 tackles and a team-high six PBUs in 2009.
Other returnees include junior cornerback Romie Blaylock, who impressed coaches with his play in the spring, and sophomore safety Mike Hicks, who played 10 games and made 29 tackles as a true freshman last season.
The coaching staff has youthful options in the form of five 2010 DB signees that were rated the nation's fifth-best defensive back class by Rivals.com. The quintet, which includes early-enrollee Prince Kent who went through spring drills with the squad, is made up of prep All-America and Waco product Ahmad Dixon, dual football/track athlete Tyler Stephenson of Lancaster (Texas) High School, T.C. Robinson from Cooper High School in Abilene, Texas, and all-state safety from Katy (Texas) High School Sam Holl. A sixth freshman signee termed an "athlete" by recruiting experts, Tuswani Copeland of MacArthur High School in Lawton, Okla., will bolster the BU secondary.
Dixon, from Midway High School in Hewitt, Texas, is Baylor's highest-rated recruit in recent memory. He is ranked the nation's 15th-best signee (all positions) on the ESPNU 150 and is a SuperPrep All-American who played in the Under Armour All-American and Army All-American Bowl all-star games. Kent, a 2009 signee at the University of Miami (Fla.) who came to Baylor from Hargrave Military Academy, was listed No. 2 at `hero' safety following spring drills.
"Some of those incoming freshmen will get looks," Briles said. "That's a talented bunch."
Epperson is a preseason All-American and fourth-year starter who ranked sixth nationally with a 42.4 average in 2009 and has 38 career punts of 50-plus yards.
Williams ranked third in the Big 12 with a 24.1-yard return average as a redshirt freshman last season, and shared Baylor's co-Special Teams MVP award.
"Terrance plays with a tremendous amount of effort and passion," Briles said. "He's really steady, and a great teammate."
Baker is expected to be back and healthy to chase the school's all-time kickoff return records after receiving a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA. He missed spring drills while recovering from surgery after a season-ending knee injury in the third game of 2009. His 24.8 career return average ranks third all-time at Baylor.
Another option in kick returns may be true freshman Ahmad Dixon.
Punt return duties are expected to be handled by capable senior Krys Buerck, who covered the majority last season, or Williams.