Baylor is coming off its most successful football campaign in decades - a 2011 season in which the Bears won a school-record 10 games, earned their first bowl victory in 19 years (Alamo Bowl win over Washington), finished with the school's highest final ranking (12th ESPN/USA Today, 13th AP) since 1986, set or tied 119 school records, and had the program's first-ever Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III - but head coach Art Briles is quick to point out that his program has room for improvement.
"Our best days are ahead, and that's what's exciting," Briles said. "We have a very determined football team that's very eager to prove themselves. We still have a lot of room for improvement, which is good because you're never going to get better unless you're determined to get better."
Briles and staff will take on that challenge with 50 returning lettermen and 14 returning starters (eight on defense, six on offense, plus both specialists).
Baylor enters 2012 riding a six-game winning streak, the third-longest among FBS schools.
"As a program we feel like we've earned an elevated level," Briles said. "We're passed the `hope' stage and into the `reality' stage. We are a legitimate contender and we have to stay that way. Right now we're fighting to sustain to stay at that level. We walk out there on the field and we have to play our best game."
The Bears' 2012 schedule is highlighted by eight games vs. 2011 bowl teams: Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, SMU, TCU, Texas and West Virginia (including six champions); as well as the FCS national runnerup (Sam Houston State).
The record-setting offense has several large shoes to fill, beginning with consensus National Player of the Year Griffin III, but is loaded with talent - both experienced and young - ready to step up to the challenge of maintaining success.
Gone are five players drafted into the NFL, including a trio that led the offense to break or tie 101 records, the school's all-time leading passer, RG3, all-time leading receiver, All- American Kendall Wright, and single-season rushing leader, Terrance Ganaway.
Briles acknowledges the inevitable hole to fill in replacing a player as uniquely talented as Griffin III, and points out the opportunity his departure creates.
"You're talking about the guy that was the best player in college football last year," Briles said. "You're going to have to do things differently. That's what makes it exciting to a certain extent. We're going to have to have people become more accountable and become different play-makers."
But back are six starters and 24 lettermen on offense, as well as architects Briles (a 2011 Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award finalist) and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery (named the 2011 Rivals.com Offensive Coordinator of the Year).
Baylor's offensive system will likely continue to be thought of as a pass-happy scheme when, in reality, it's predicated on effectively running the ball.
"Running the football consistently, that's our strength," Briles said of the balanced Baylor offense that ranked 10th nationally with 235.6 rushing yards per game and fourth nationally with 351.5 passing yards - the only school in the nation to rank in the top 10 in both categories. The Bears ranked second nationally with 587.1 total offensive yards per game.
The Baylor ground game has produced back-to- back 1,000-yard rushers, and NFL draft picks, in school career-record holder Jay Finley, who ran for 1,218 yards and 12 TDs in 2010 and school single-season record holder Ganaway, who rushed for records of 1,547 yards and 21 TDs in 2011.
Paving the way for that ground attack is Baylor's OFFENSIVE LINE that has recently produced a steady stream of NFL Draft picks under the tutelage of running game coordinator Randy Clements. Baylor is one of just three schools in the nation (along with Iowa and Wisconsin) that has had an offensive lineman drafted in each of the last four NFL Drafts (Baylor and Wisconsin are the only two with an OL drafted among the top four rounds of each the of last four drafts). The 2012 draftees that must be replaced are center Philip Blake (4th round, Broncos) and guard Robert T. Griffin (6th round, Jets).
The 2012 line boasts a mixture of proven veterans and skilled youth led by honors candidates Ivory Wade and Cyril Richardson. Wade, a preseason All-Big 12 candidate, moved from tackle to Blake's vacated center spot in the spring. The fourth-year senior has started a team-high 33 career games heading into 2012.
"He's going to be our leader and our guy up front that has to really anchor things," Montgomery said. "We expect big things from Ivory."
Backup at center will be veteran fourth-year junior Stefan Huber.
Richardson, a returning All-Big 12 honoree and Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award candidate, is expected to start at left guard this fall after moving from left tackle during the spring.
"Cyril will dominate wherever he goes," Briles said of the fourth-year junior with 17 career starts.
During fall camp the starter at right guard was penciled in as veteran fifth-year senior Jake Jackson.
The reserves at guard are led by veteran starter recovering from injury Cameron Kaufhold, a two-year starter who started all 13 games at right guard in 2011. The fifth-year senior has played in all 38 games during his career.
Remaining backups include youngsters Tim Smith (sophomore) and Desmine Hilliard (redshirt freshman).
Listed at starter at left tackle following spring was talented youngster Spencer Drango, a redshirt freshman praised by coaches for his toughness and maturity. Drango, a 2011 Rivals250 recruit, will be backed-up by junior Kelvin Palmer.
"Spencer's got an old man's mentality, which is good," Briles said. "He has a tough mentality, with the build to back it up."
The job at right tackle is in the hands of another underclassman, as Troy Baker entered fall camp as the starter. Baker is a third-year sophomore from Waco's Connally High School. Redshirt freshman Pat Colbert was listed No. 2 at RT on the fall camp depth chart.
The BACKFIELD will have some new faces in starting roles in 2012, as experienced veterans take over for departed superstars.
Listed No. 1 on the fall camp depth chart was Salubi, a Doak Walker Award candidate and fifth-year senior with 844 career rushing yards. The versatile and elusive scat-back also has 29 career receptions for 234 yards. Coaches want Salubi, a Waco native, to become a more dominating player on each snap.
Martin is a hard-running fourth-year junior who had what coaches describe as a "solid spring." He rushed for 289 yards on 40 carries (6.7 yards-per-carry) and two TDs in 2011.
"Glasco is a very aggressive, powerful runner," Montgomery said, "who hits the hole like he's mad at something."
The 2012 season will be the much-anticipated debut for Seastrunk, a former prep All- American who sat out the 2011 season at Baylor after transferring from Oregon. A sophomore from nearby Temple, Texas, Seastrunk stole the headlines during BU's spring scrimmage when he totaled 138 yards on seven carries and scored on a 75-yard TD run.
"Lache showed some flashes," Briles said.
"He really finished up his last couple weeks being consistent." Coaches praised Seastrunk's improvement throughout the spring.
"Lache is a guy who is growing and maturing," Montgomery said. "He's a very explosive player who is very strong and very fast. He can break it at any time."
The fullback position remains manned by returning All-Big 12 blocker Erik Wolfe. Wolfe is a second-year first-stringer and walk-on junior.
The majority of headlines heading into Baylor's 2012 season revolve around replacing Heisman-winner Griffin III. The incumbent at QUARTERBACK is seasoned veteran Nick Florence, a Unitas Golden Arm Award watch list selection and fourth-year senior with 17 career appearances, seven starts and 1,992 career passing yards.
Florence, a mature, smart leader, was the starter in 2009 as a true freshman following an injury to Griffin III. He threw for a then-school record 427 yards in a road upset at Missouri.
More recently, he spelled RG3 in the second half of a 2011 game vs. Texas Tech and threw for 151 yards and two TDs and led Baylor to 31 second-half points and a decisive win.
The other option at QB is third-year sophomore Bryce Petty, a big, strong-armed thrower with deceptive scrambling ability. Petty played in five games in 2011 and completed 3 of 4 passes for 43 yards.
"Bryce has improved a bunch on taking care of the football," Briles said. "His mentality has improved."
Florence was listed atop the depth chart heading into fall camp, but Briles said: "It doesn't matter who our starting quarterback is (now)," Briles said, "it will matter Sept. 2."
Briles said regardless of which player starts, the key will be efficiency. "We have to be efficient at that position," he said. "Both of these guys have the right mindset, they're good leaders. They aren't worried about `them'; they are worried about `us'."
Despite the loss of the most prolific receiver in school history in first-round NFL Draft pick Wright (Titans), Baylor returns a deep and talented RECEIVING CORPS that includes two Biletnikoff Award watch listers, led by Maxwell Award and All-America candidate Terrance Williams, All-Big 12 candidate Tevin Reese as well as veteran Lanear Sampson - a trio of 1,000-yard career receivers who all totaled more than 40 receptions and 500 yards last season. Six of last season's top seven receivers return in 2012.
All-Big 12 returnee Williams is a fifth-year senior and third-year starter at wide receiver who ranks among the top receivers in school history. The Biletnikoff Award candidate is coming off a 2011 season in which he made 59 receptions for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns in the shadow of All-American Wright.
The coaching staff expects big things from the explosive Williams in his final season at Baylor.
"Terrance needs to become a 1,500-yard receiver for us," Briles said. "He's that good."
The other No. 1 outside is fourth-year starter and burner Sampson. He has 32 career starts (second on team), 113 career receptions (10th in school history) and a 30-game reception streak (third nationally among active FBS players heading into 2012). Sampson has clocked a 4.34 40-yard dash and is coming off a 42-catch, 572- yard 2011 campaign.
Adding valuable depth to the mix is senior transfer Darryl Stonum, a 1,000-yard (career) receiver and record-breaking returner in three seasons at Michigan.
Backups at wide receiver are Antwan Goodley and Jay Lee. Goodley is a third-year sophomore with a unique blend of strength and speed and "unbelievable hands"; Lee is a big, talented redshirt freshman who will make his debut in 2012.
Filling the vacancy at inside receiver vacated by Wright will be another Biletnikoff Award candidate in Reese, an elusive, quick junior who had 877 yards and seven TDs on 51 receptions last year.
"Tevin is extremely fast, and his hands have gotten so much better," Montgomery said of the third-year former track star who made seven starts in 2011.
Listed as the second starter inside is third year sophomore Levi Norwood. A smooth, fluid receiver and kick returner, Norwood should see many more touches in 2012 after totaling six receptions as a redshirt freshman in 2011.
"Levi is real slippery," Montgomery said.
"He's great at making the first defender miss."
Also in the rotation at inside receiver are sophomore Clay Fuller, an athletic 25-year-old former professional baseball player, and senior walk-on Michael Valdez. Another possible contributor at receiver is true freshman Corey Coleman, a highly touted signee from Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas.
The tight end position is stacked with talented veterans Jordan Najvar and Jerod Monk.
"Both of those guys are big, complement each other really well, and are vital to what we do offensively" Montgomery said. "Najvar is a very strong, aggressive blocker who adds nastiness. Monk is a finesse catcher who does a great job running routes."
Najvar is a returning All-Big 12 honoree and Mackey Award candidate who made six starts in 2011. A junior and former transfer from Stanford, he caught 15 passes and two TDs in 2011.
Monk is a fourth-year senior with 36 career games played. The former high school quarterback totaled 100 yards and two TDs on nine receptions in 2011 and has career scores via passing, rushing and catching.
Observers will continue to look for improvement on the defensive side of the ball in 2012, and second-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will have a deeper, more experienced pool of talent to work with.
The Bears defense returns 21 lettermen and eight starters from 2011, including eight of the top nine tacklers from a year ago.
"I see improvement, without question,"
Briles said of the defense following the spring.
"You can't buy experience. When you step on the field you've got to play. You got to be in the situation and that's what these guys have done, they've been there and now they are going to do that. I'm excited about them."
The DEFENSIVE LINE returns starters at the edges as well as new - but veteran - starters inside.
On the outside Baylor will line up with third-year starters Mason (senior) and Terrance Lloyd (junior), who coaches expect to set the tone for the defense.
Mason finished with eight tackles for loss in 2011, including 2.5 sacks for -23 yards. The fifth-year veteran has played in 35 career games and his 19 career starts are the most among BU's defensive players.
Lloyd is a fourth-year junior with 17 career starts, who totaled 36 tackles in 2011, including seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
"Both Terrance and Mason have to step up and play at a high level," Bennett said of his defensive ends.
Expected to see plenty of snaps in the defensive end rotation is fourth-year junior Chris McAllister. The former linebacker tallied 1.5 sacks last season off the bench in his first year on the line.
Another potential contributor at end could be true freshman Javonte Magee, a prep All- American and top-100 national recruit from Sam Houston High School in San Antonio.
Coaches expect significant improvement over last season in the interior of the line, where seniors Kaeron Johnson and Nick Johnson (no relation) combine with talented redshirt freshmen Beau Blackshear and Trevor Clemons-Valdez.
Kaeron Johnson is a fifth-year senior whose 37 career starts are the most on the defensive side of the ball. Coaches have high expectations for the former fullback who totaled just five tackles and one hurry in limited action as a reserve last season.
"Kaeron has the ability to be a dominant player," Briles said. "He has to become a force." Nick Johnson is a former juco transfer in his second season at Baylor. The Waco native made eight tackles including 1.5 sacks as a backup in his first season.
Clemons-Valdez, who impressed coaches during sprind drills, provides a promising option inside. Blackshear is a Waco native set to make his collegiate debut in 2012.
The LINEBACKING CORPS will include a relative newcomer stepping into the defensive quarterback spot, as sophomore Hager takes over at the Mike position. The third-year player wowed coaches during the spring and is described as an "outstanding leader." Hager totaled 13 tackles and one forced fumble last season as a reserve and on special teams.
Also available at MLB is fifth-year senior, and last year's starter, Rodney Chadwick. Chadwick, a veteran with 22 career games played, made 68 tackles, 2.5 sacks and five breakups in 10 starts in 2011.
Penciled in to start at Will linebacker is newcomer Eddie Lackey, a mid-year transfer from Riverside [Calif.] Community College who impressed coaches during the spring.
"The last couple of weeks (of spring) Eddie was making plays," Briles said. "He is going to be a really good football player for us."
Also in the mix at WLB will be versatile veteran Brody Trahan. Trahan, a former reserve QB, had 32 tackles and made three starts as well as serving as the primary kick holder as a sophomore in 2011.
Back as the starter at the hybrid nickelback/"Bear" position is returning All-Big 12 honoree Ahmad Dixon. A third-year junior and the team's vocal leader, Dixon made 89 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2011. The athletic, hometown product from Waco is a former prep All-American.
Josh Wilson, a second-year former junior college transfer, moved to nickelback during fall camp and is listed No. 2 on the preseason depth chart.
The SECONDARY returns all four starters (three of which were 2011 All-Big 12 honorees) from last season, and includes two reserves with starting experience.
"We've got some real good players back there," Briles said. "The depth is really strong." After being thrown into the fire shortly after arriving in Waco last August, the cornerbacking duo of K.J. Morton and Joe Williams returns as seasoned juniors in 2012.
Morton earned 2011 All-Big 12 honors after logging 75 tackles and a team-high four interceptions (ranked fourth in Big 12). His four interceptions came during a late-season, threegame stretch that included wins over No. 5 Oklahoma (one), Texas Tech (one) and Texas (two).
Williams started nine games and had a team high 12 PBUs along with 43 tackles in 2011, but is best remembered for knocking down a potential game-winning PAT pass in the endzone in overtime to clinch a Baylor win at Kansas.
"Both of those guys came in green in the summer last year," Briles said of Morton and Williams, "they are night and day ahead of where they were last year."
Three players coming off injury-limited 2011 seasons provide depth at cornerback: former Gonzaga basketball letterman Demitri Goodson, promising sophomore Tuswani Copeland and one-time starter Tyler Stephenson. Goodson made an impact as a returner and reserve corner early in 2011 before suffering an ankle injury. Copeland was climbing the 2011 preseason depth chart before a season-ending knee injury. Stephenson is a junior who began 2011 as a starter before an ankle injury limited his season.
Senior Mike Hicks, a returning All-Big 12 honoree, is back as the starter at cover safety and a defensive leader. The fourth-year local from nearby China Spring totaled 103 tackles, five PBUs and three interceptions in 2011, including a late-game pick that sealed the season-opening upset of No. 14 TCU.
Sam Holl, a third-year junior and 2011 All- Big 12 selection, is the returning starter at down safety. Holl's 113 tackles in 2011 are the most among returning players, and he added three interceptions. Coaches praised Holl's play during spring camp.
Additional options at safety include seniors Chance Casey, a veteran multi-season starter, as well as junior converted receiver Darius Jones and true freshman Terrell Burt of Wylie (Texas) High School. Casey has 22 career starts, the most among defenders and fourth-most on the team, and is coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss the final five games of the 2011 season. The three-year starter at cornerback has 132 career tackles.
All specialists return from 2011, notably placekicker Aaron Jones and punter Spencer Roth.
Jones, a Lou Groza Award candidate, is a fourth-year junior who began his career as a walk-on. He owns or shares nine school kicking records including a single-season record 105 kicking points in 2011. Affectionately nicknamed "Stork," he has hit 121 career PATs and 29 career field goals. Jones will handle all kicking duties, placekicks and kickoffs in 2012.
Roth is a big, strong-legged punter back for his sophomore campaign. He averaged 40.5 yards as a true freshman in 2011, and totaled three punts of 50-plus yards and six punts inside the 20-yard-line.
Sophomore Levi Norwood is back as the primary punt returner. Norwood averaged 8.2 yards-per-return as a redshirt freshman last season. Among the likely candidates to return kicks are Antwan Goodley, Demitri Goodson, Darius Jones and Darryl Stonum.
Holding duties will be handled for the third straight season by junior Brody Trahan. Three players with long-snapping experience are on the roster, but fourth-year junior Zack Northern (23 games) was atop the preseason depth chart.