Sept. 2, 2011
Baylor’s football program is coming off a record-setting 2010 season in which the Bears broke a 16-year bowl drought, spent multiple weeks ranked in the polls and set a record for Big 12 wins.
The next step in 2011? To build and improve on that success in head coach Art Briles’ fourth season.
“We’re going to continue to progress as a program,” Briles said. “We had a good year, but we need to get to the point that records are hard to come by around here.”
Briles and staff will take on that challenge with 49 returning lettermen and 14 returning starters.
“We’ve definitely increased our depth,” Briles said. “Across the board our depth is the best it has ever been.”
Baylor returns an offense loaded with veteran playmakers and a young defense under the direction of first-year coordinator Phil Bennett, a highly respected veteran with an impressive resume.
“We need to carry over the energy from last season,” Briles said. “We need to carry over the excitement. Our opening game vs. TCU should be the largest season-opening crowd in history.”
The Bears 2011 schedule includes an increased nine-game league schedule in the new 10-team Big 12 Conference, as well as three home non-conference games against TCU, Stephen F. Austin and Rice. Baylor’s home schedule also includes Oklahoma and Texas and the Bears host Texas Tech at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
Eight starters return from 2010’s record-breaking offense that set or tied 55 school records and ranked 13th nationally with 475 average yards-per-game.
Junior quarterback Robert Griffin III will direct an offense loaded with veteran playmakers and what could be the best offensive line – top-to-bottom – in Briles’ four seasons. Putting points on the board shouldn’t be a problem for the 2011 Bears.
“This offensive line has a chance to be outstanding,” Briles said. “One to five they’ll be the best line we’ve had.”
Richardson moves to left tackle to replace departed All-Big 12 tackle and first-round NFL Draft pick Danny Watkins. The third-year sophomore earned Freshman All-America and Big 12 All-Freshman honors as a four-game starter at guard in 2010.
“The sky’s the limit for Cyril,” Briles said. “He’s the real deal. He worked at left tackle during bowl preparations and he was really good. And he progressed in the spring.”
Senior third-year starter Blake returns to anchor the line at the center position. The Rimington Trophy candidate and CFL draftee has started all 25 games since transferring to Baylor, including all 13 at center last season.
The guard position is in great hands, as both 2010 starters return: junior Cameron Kaufhold on the left and huge senior Robert T. Griffin (6-6, 330) on the right. Providing depth at guard are veterans Jake Jackson (junior) and John Jones (senior).
The BACKFIELD returns all but one member from its productive 2010 edition; but the loss is significant in honorable mention All-American tailback and NFL draftee Jay Finley, who broke the school’s single-season rushing record with 1,218 yards in 2010.
The battle to fill Finley’s vacancy is likely to be the most interesting position race of fall practice, as four veterans are vying for the starting tailback spot that Briles termed “undecided” heading into the fall.
Penciled in at No. 1 on the post-spring depth chart is fourth-year junior Jarred Salubi, a scat-back from local Waco High School who has rushed for 513 yards in two seasons as a backup. Number two on the depth chart is third-year senior and former transfer Terrance Ganaway, a bruiser who has rushed for 495 yards in two reserve seasons at Baylor as well as 550 as a true freshman at Houston under Briles in 2007 (1,045 career yards).
The sleeper of the race is third-year hard-running sophomore Glasco Martin, who had nine carries for 21 yards as a redshirt freshman in last season’s crowded backfield. Second-year senior Isaac Williams, a former junior college transfer, is the fourth option at tailback (93 yards in 2010).
The fullback position will be manned by third-year sophomore Erik Wolfe, who played seven of 13 games in backup duty last season.
The top three quarterbacks all return in 2011, including All-American candidate and dual-threat superstar Griffin III. RG3 is coming off a record-setting sophomore season which resulted in Heisman Award mention and All-Big 12 honors. Griffin finished sixth nationally with 318 total offensive yards-per-game in 2010 and owns 30 school records heading into 2011. He is the career leader in passing yards (6,073), total offense (7,628), passing efficiency (143.3), passing TDs (41) and completion percentage (64.4). His 1,555 career rushing yards ranks 13th in school history.
“We need a continuation of where Robert was last year,” Briles said. “We need continuation and growth.”
Veteran, proven junior Nick Florence is an ideal backup quarterback. A smart, capable passer with seven career starts and 1,841 career passing yards and a 61.5 career completion percentage on his resume.
“Nick is like having another coach on the field,” Briles said. “He’s a sharp kid who loves the game and knows everything that is going on.”
Third on the depth chart at QB is redshirt freshman Bryce Petty, a big, strong-armed passer who participated in his second spring drills this spring.
“Bryce is a powerful kid,” Briles said, “both his arm and his legs. He’s a really good football player; that’s why he’s here.”
Baylor’s deepest and most talented position is arguably its RECEIVING CORPS. Back are four of the top five receivers from 2010, all of whom caught 42 or more passes last season. The group is led by All-Big 12 returnee Kendall Wright.
“The receivers have to be the bell cow for us,” Briles said. “They’re good and they want to win. They need to lead the team with attitude and production.”
Wright, an All-America and Biletnikoff Award candidate, is an electrifying inside receiver and the school’s career receptions leader (194). The senior and fourth-year starter is a two-time All-Big 12 honoree and caught a school-record 78 passes for 952 yards and team-high seven TDs in 2010.
“Kendall is coming off his best spring here,” Briles said. “He’s a passionate leader who gives everything he’s got every snap.”
The other starter at inside receiver is Tevin Reese, a lightning-quick sophomore who totaled 401 yards on 45 receptions in his first season in 2010. Depth at IR will come from Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood, a pair of talented redshirt freshmen.
Sampson and Williams are fourth-year juniors who had 42 and 43 receptions last season, respectively. Sampson is a sure-handed speedster with 21 career starts and brings a 17-game reception streak into 2011. Williams is a steady receiver/kick returner who caught four TDs last season and brings his own 14-game reception streak into 2011.
“We’re real excited about what our tight ends will allow us to do offensively,” Briles said. “They’re big, strong and physical and will allow us to do a lot from a schematic standpoint.”
Najvar, a product of Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas, is a sophomore who transferred from Stanford prior to the 2010 season and exited spring first on the depth chart. Monk is a versatile junior with 23 career games played who caught two TDs last season (has career TDs passing, rushing and receiving).
The most-discussed development of the off-season was the January hire of Bennett, who arrived at Baylor fresh off a BBVA Compass Bowl victory as interim head coach at Pittsburgh. The veteran coordinator returned to his native Texas and inherited a defense with five returning starters and 23 returning lettermen.
“The defense made great strides this spring,” Briles said. “They took everything Coach Bennett taught them and got better at adjusting to what the offense was doing.”
Bennett brings a wealth of experience to Waco, and he’s known for assembling stifling defenses.
“We made some drastic improvement over the last seven practices (of the spring),” Bennett said of the latter portion of spring drills after spending the first half assessing his talent.
Bennett inherited a defense that lost its top five tacklers from 2010 and is without any big-name veteran superstars; but flush with young, talented athletes.
“For us to be the type of defense that we want to be we’ve got to be whole,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to play as a complete unit – and we’re capable of that. It comes down to fundamentals; tackling, running and angles. Our strength is in numbers, and wanting to get it done. We need fanatical effort.”
Coaches expect leadership on the defense to come from its five returning starters: seniors Elliot Coffey (linebacker), Tracy Robertson (defensive tackle) and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste (nose guard) and juniors Chance Casey (cornerback) and Gary Mason Jr. (defensive end), as well as junior Mike Hicks (safety) and sophomores Tevin Elliott (end) and Ahmad Dixon (nickelback).
The DEFENSIVE LINE returns intact with the glaring exception of All-Big 12 nose guard and first-round NFL Draft selection Phil Taylor, who leaves some large shoes to fill on the interior of the line.
“We have some really good depth up front,” Briles said, “those guys are capable.”
Manning the inside of the line will be seniors Jean-Baptiste (nose guard) and Robertson (tackle), both of whom started nine games on the line in 2010.
Jean-Baptiste, a former walk-on, totaled 31 tackles as a first-year starter in 2010. Listed No. 2 at nose guard on the post-spring depth chart is newcomer Nick Johnson, a transfer from Navarro College and Waco native (younger brother of 2010 All-Big 12 linebacker Antonio Johnson).
Robertson is an aggressive third-year starter who coaches expect to step into a leadership role. He has 31 career games played and 7.5 career sacks. Former fullback Kaeron Johnson returns to the defense at d-tackle as a junior in 2011.
The five defensive ends listed on the post-spring depth chart all possess starting experience. A starting rotation will emerge from among junior Mason Jr. and sophomores Elliott, Terrance Lloyd and Chris McAllister.
Elliott is coming off a rookie season in which he started six games and was named honorable mention All-Big 12 and Big 12 All-Freshman. He made a team-high five sacks (42 yards) and 36 tackles.
“Tevin has unlimited potential,” Briles said. “He has great instincts and strength.” Mason started 11 games in 2010 and totaled 21 tackles. Lloyd started four games and totaled 13 tackles in 2010 before being sidelined with a knee injury.
McAllister, a two-game starter at linebacker in 2010, moved to end during spring drills. He totaled 42 tackles and is the third-leading returning tackler on the squad.
The LINEBACKING CORPS is headlined by senior Coffey, the starter at the Mike position who will serve as the quarterback on Bennett’s defense. The veteran with 34 career games played averaged 6.1 tackles-per-game last season and his 61 tackles make him the squad’s top returning tackler.
“The intriguing thing about Elliot is that he can get so much better and he knows it,” Bennett said. Briles uses the following terms to describe Coffey: intelligent, passionate, humble, and a great leader. “The ideal middle linebacker,” Briles said.
Backing up Coffey in the middle is redshirt freshman Bryce Hager.
A surprise of the spring was converted quarterback and special teams extraordinaire Brody Trahan, who moved to linebacker and finished spring drills listed as the starter at Will linebacker. The third-year sophomore impressed coaches with his speed, determination and leadership.
This year’s SECONDARY will include a hybrid safety-linebacker in the nickelback position that appears ideally suited for sophomore Dixon, a much-hyped local product in his second season in the Green and Gold. Dixon, a former prep All-American, made 16 tackles as a rookie reserve safety in 2010.
“We love Ahmad at the nickel,” Briles said, “he can be very disruptive.”
Listed No. 2 at nickel on the post-spring depth chart is former linebacker LeQuince McCall, an athletic sophomore who made 22 tackles in 2010.
Both safety positions were vacated in 2010, but coaches are excited about the talent and potential of new starters Hicks and Sam Holl.
“Those are some tough kids, they will make a lot of plays for us,” Briles said of the starting safeties that coaches expect to emerge as team leaders.
Hicks, a hard-hitting junior from nearby China Spring, Texas, won the staring cover safety position in spring drills. He played 23 games in his first two seasons as a backup safety and special teamer and made 28 tackles in 2010.
The starting down safety is expected to be Holl, who played 11 games last year as a reserve safety and on special teams.
Also in the mix at safety will be newcomers Josh Wilson, a junior transfer from Kilgore College who enrolled early and participated in spring drills, and K.J. Morton, a sophomore transfer from College of the Sequoias who will join the team prior to fall practice.
The starting cornerbacks are solid in third-year starting junior Casey and second-year speedster Tyler Stephenson.
Casey is the team’s No. 2 returning tackler who averaged 4.8 tackles-per-game in 10 games in 2010. He has 15 career starts, 84 career tackles and three career interceptions.
Stephenson was a 2010 Big 12 All-Freshman selection after making four starts and 21 tackles. Redshirt freshman Tuswani Copeland suffered a knee injury in fall camp. Other backups at cornerback are redshirt freshmen T.C. Robinson and sophomore transfer Morton.
Back to handle field goal and PAT duties is Groza Award candidate Aaron Jones, a record-setting sophomore who earned All-Big 12 and Freshman All-America honors as a rookie in 2010. Jones set or tied five school records including field goals made (19), PATs made (46) and scoring by a kicker (103 points).
Senior and three-year letterman Ben Parks will handle all kickoffs.
Noticeably absent on special teams will be Derek Epperson, who started four years at punter and three times earned All-Big 12 honors. His replacement will likely be Spencer Roth, a big (6-4, 230) strong-legged freshman from Catholic High School in Knoxville, Tenn. The other option at punter will be veteran placekicker Parks.
BENNETT ADDED TO LEAD DEFENSE
Art Briles made a big recruiting splash in January when he hired Phil Bennett to become Baylor’s new defensive coordinator. Bennett joined BU fresh off a bowl victory as interim head coach at Pittsburgh (led Pitt to 27-10 win over Kentucky in BBVA Compass Bowl).
Bennett is a 32-year coaching veteran who has served as D-coordinator at eight schools and was head coach at SMU for six seasons. He has coordinated defenses in the Big East, Big 12, SEC, Big Ten and Big Eight. Pitt finished 8-5 in 2010 and ranked eighth nationally in total defense; 17th against the run and 22nd against the pass. Pitt played in bowl games all three seasons during Bennett's tenure. The Panthers' defense ranked 23rd nationally in 2009 (319.31 ypg) and 27th nationally in Bennett's first season in 2008 (317.2 ypg).
RG3 BACK TO LEAD BAYLOR TO NEW HEIGHTS AS JUNIOR
Baylor’s record-setting quarterback Robert Griffin III is coming off a monster comeback season in 2010 in which he earned All-Big 12 honors and set or tied 27 school records as well as leading BU to its first bowl game in 16 seasons. After a knee injury that ended his 2009 season in its third game, RG3 returned as a redshirt sophomore in 2010 to throw for school records of 3,501 yards and 22 touchdowns and was an honorable mention for Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year by the league’s coaches. The former All-American track hurdler received his undergraduate degree in political science in December 2010, is taking graduate courses and completed his fourth year of spring drills (was early enrollee in spring of 2008) this spring.
BALANCED OFFENSIVE ATTACK
Baylor’s 2010 offense was as balanced as it was powerful. On the season, the Bears had 471 pass attempts and 468 rushing carries. Additionally, Baylor was one of three schools in 2010 to rank in the top 25 nationally in both passing (19th, 280.7 ypg) and rushing (24th, 194.6 ypg) offense (along with Boise State and Tulsa).
PRESEASON HONORS & WATCH LISTS
Eight Baylor players have been named to preseason All-Big 12 teams, including one preseason All-America (Robert Griffin III) and seven preseason watch lists. Junior QB Griffin III, a Heisman hopeful, was projected an All-American by Lindy’s and named to the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O’Brien and Manning Award watch lists. Senior C Philip Blake is on the Rimington Trophy watch list and was selected preseason All-Big 12 by Blue Ribbon, Sports Illustrated, Lindy’s, Phil Steele and Athlon Sports. Senior WR Kendall Wright is on the Biletnikoff Award watch list and was named preseason All-Big 12 by Sports Illustrated, Lindy’s, Phil Steele and Athlon Sports. Sophomore PK Aaron Jones is on the Lou Groza Award watch list and was selected a preseason All-Big 12 by Phil Steele. Other Bears receiving preseason All-Big 12 recognition: junior CB Chance Casey (Phil Steele), sophomore DE Tevin Elliott (Sporting News, Athlon Sports, Lindy’s and Phil Steele), senior OG Robert T. Griffin (Phil Steele) and sophomore OT Cyril Richardson (Athlon Sports). Richardson was also included on Rivals.com’s 2011 All-Spring football team.
WRIGHT LEADS IMPRESSIVE RECEIVING CORPS
All-America and Biletnikoff Award candidate Kendall Wright highlights a receiving corps that is expected to shine for Baylor in 2011. Athlon Sports rated BU’s receivers the eighth best unit nationally in its preseason publication. Baylor returns four of its top five receivers from 2010, all of whom caught 42 or more passes last season. Wright is joined by Tevin Reese (sophomore, 45-401), Terrance Williams (junior, 43-484) and Lanear Sampson (senior, 42-390) in addition to youngsters Darius Jones (sophomore) and redshirt freshmen Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood. Wright, a senior that Lindy’s rated the nation’s sixth-best receiver in its preseason publiction, is a two-time All-Big 12 honoree and the most decorated receiver in school history (five school records). He is the school career receptions leader (194), caught a school-record 78 passes (952 yards) in 2010 and has a reception in all 37 career games (fourth longest streak nationally entering 2011). Sampson boasts a 17-game reception streak and Williams one of 14 entering 2011.
POWERFUL, EXPERIENCED O-LINE
Baylor’s offensive line, which has produced draft picks in each of the last three NFL Drafts (2011 Danny Watkins, Eagles 1st Round; 2010 J.D. Walton, Broncos 3rd Round; 2009 Jason Smith, Rams 1st Round) will be a strength of the 2011 Bears squad and has been described by head coach Art Briles as the top line since he’s been in Waco. “One to five they’ll be the best line we’ve had,” Briles said. Led by Rimington Award candidate Philip Blake (senior C & 2011 CFL Draft pick) and former Freshman All-Americans Ivory Wade (junior OT) and Cyril Richardson (sophomore OT), the O-Line is ready to be the catalyst for a Baylor offense set to improve on last-season’s record-setting performance. Senior OG Robert T. Griffin and junior OG Cameron Kaufhold round out the starting five of the 2011 line which was recently rated the second-best in the Big 12 in a preseason ranking by ESPN.com. The front line boasts a first-string that all have starting experience and lost only one member from its 2010 unit that powered the nation’s No. 13 offense (475.3 ypg, third in Big 12) and the Big 12’s second-best yards-per-rush average (5.4 ypr).
YOUNG CUBS CONTRIBUTING
Nineteen of Baylor’s 48 returning lettermen are sophomores, the largest such class on the squad (17 juniors and 14 seniors). Nine total sophomores are listed as offensive or defensive starters on the post-Spring depth chart and PK Aaron Jones is a 10th. Potential sophomore starters: NB Ahmad Dixon, S Sam Holl, DE Terrance Lloyd, TE Jordan Najvar, IR Tevin Reese, LT Cyril Richardson, CB Tyler Stephenson, LB Brody Trahan and FB Erik Wolfe.
A few Baylor players made positional changes during the spring, the majority on defense as first-year coordinator Phil Bennett re-shapes his unit. Two players switched sides of the ball, as former backup quarterback Brody Trahan moved to linebacker and Kaeron Johnson returned to his original position at defensive tackle after one season at fullback. An additional four defensive players are at new positions: Ahmad Dixon moved from safety to nickleback, Prince Kent moved from safety to linebacker, Chris McAllister moved from lineback to defensive end and LeQuince McCall moved from linebacker to nickelback.
FOUR NEWCOMERS ADDED IN SPRING
Baylor added four newcomers during its 2011 spring drills. The quartet of January enrollees included two mid-year junior college transfers and two early enrollee high schoolers. The junior college transfers are defensive lineman Nick Johnson of Navarro College (brother of former Bear and All-Big 12 linebacker Antonio Johnson) and defensive back Josh Wilson of Kilgore College. Freshmen Trevor Clemons-Valdez (DL from Copperas Cove High School) and JeMarcus Johnson (DB from Lago Vista High School) graduated in December.
Graduated from Baylor’s program are several highly decorated seniors who will be missed on the playing field in 2011. Gone are six All-Big 12 veterans (including four NFL Draft picks) that include punter Derek Epperson, running back Jay Finley [Bengals], linebacker Antonio Johnson, safety Byron Landor, defensive lineman Phil Taylor [Browns] and offensive lineman Danny Watkins [Eagles]. Three additional veteran starters (Tim Atchison, Mikail Baker [Rams] and Brad Taylor) have departed.
BAYLOR ROSTER HAS LOCAL FLAVOR
Baylor’s 2011 roster features more than a dozen homegrown student-athletes. The following are 17 current Bears from the Central Texas area: redshirt freshman OL Troy Baker (Waco), freshman CB Anthony Betters (Waco), freshman DL Beau Blackshear (Waco), freshman LB Lee Bristow (Waco), freshman Trevor Clemons-Valdez (Copperas Cove), sophomore DB Ahmad Dixon (Waco), junior QB Robert Griffin III (Copperas Cove), junior S Mike Hicks (China Spring), junior DL Nick Johnson (Waco), redshirt freshman LB Charles Kelly (Waco), redshirt freshman WR Jeff LePak (Belton), sophomore LS Zach Northern (Waco), redshirt freshman WR Levi Norwood (Waco), sophomore WR Tevin Reese (Temple), junior RB Jarred Salubi (Waco), redshirt freshman RB Lache Seastrunk (Temple) and sophomore PK Chris Winkler (Temple).