Touring the Big 12: Baylor Bears

While he inherited a program drenched in mediocrity when he was hired on Nov. 28, Art Briles wasted little time in predicting success and sent a message to Baylor: We live in the present. The present is a precarious spot as the Bears remain unsettled at quarterback and must find depth at several other spots. It's always a tough road in the South, but there's no doubting a refreshing approach and attitude already puts the Bears in a better place.
Briefly: Briles brings a fresh start to lowly Bears
After it suffered through a winless Big 12 season for the first time since 2001 and with its bowl trophy case collecting another layer of dust, Baylor decided it needed a change. The memo went out during Briles' initial news conference. With legendary Grant Teaff in attendance at his hiring, Briles swooned fans by proclaiming, "We are going to get bowl eligible. We are going to win the South. We are going to win the Big 12 championship and then we'll take it from there. Lip service is easy, but we do have a plan."

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Long-term goal? Exactly. But Briles knows how to engineer a turnaround as he inherited a Houston program that was two years removed from an 0-11 season and won a total eight games between 2000 and 2003, and took the Cougars to a 34-28 mark with four bowl games. But Baylor is in need of repair and Briles headed into the summer concluding, "We've got a lot of good players, we just don't have much depth."
To wit, the Bears were without 14 players in their spring game, including second-team All-Big 12 free safety Jordan Lake (offseason shoulder surgery) and had to cutback on scrimmages toward the end of workouts. Most are expected to be healthy by the start of fall. Although the offense operated at a higher tempo and the defense was spirited, Briles left the spring unable to name surefire stars and further personnel development will be mandatory in training camp.
Whereas outgoing coach Guy Morriss preached emphatically about changing the culture year upon year, Briles believes developing a fighting mentality will take care of itself.
"It's not tough to get anybody to believe they need to do well. That's human nature," he said. "They don't have a choice and don't need a choice. We don't spend a lot of time trying to mentally prepare people to get themselves going because we don't have time to spend it that way. We've got to get the body ready and then tweak the mind to where when they call on their body it's ready to go."
Will Baylor be ready? Hey, this is a rebuilding project. And the Bears will get a heck of an opening test on Aug. 30 in hosting Wake Forest, which comes off a nine-win season.
"We have to be hungry, we have to be tough, we have to prove we're in it," Briles said. "We've got a lot of kids in that boat. We've got to have all 85 in there of the 108 that are working out, but when we get to that we'll be a team that you have to lace it up pretty tight to play."
Offense: Quarterback remains a question. Although junior Blake Szymanski returns, the keys to a revamped offense could end up in the hands of mid-year graduate Robert Griffin from Copperas Cove (Texas) High School. Although his numbers in the spring game weren't eye-popping, the 18-year-old Griffin completed 5 of 9 for 66 yards with a 17-yard scoring run and could have rushed for another score off the option (if not for a no-contact rule for QBs in the spring game) in leading the unit to a field goal and two touchdowns in his three series.
"He's a guy that if you don't watch him, the next thing you know you're looking for him because he's gone," Briles said. "He's a dynamic player and we have got to get 10 others like him on the field."
However, Szymanski has the experience factor despite throwing 18 INTs to go along with 22 TDs and senior transfer Kirby Freeman from Miami should make it a three-man battle in the fall. Freeman, who started on the first-team unit, went 7 of 13 for 75 yards but squandered his best opportunity with an interception. Szymanski went 9 of 13 for 102 yards with one touchdown.
"We've got some guys that can do some things," Briles said. "That's an issue that will take care of itself."
With Brandon Whitaker gone, the unit will look to improve a running game that finished 11th in the league with sophomore Jay Finley, who had 207 yards on 55 carries and two scores last season. Finley showed flashes with eight carries for 73 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Senior Jacoby Jones added 192 yards all of last year. Division I-AA transfer Tony Anderson will provide depth and freshman Jarred Salubi, a 5-foot-10, 195-pounder, will try to work himself into the mix.
"We'd like to take those 8s and make them 88s," Briles said. "We'd like to pop a few long ones."
For them to operate, the line must improve. It is solid at three spots headlined by the 6-foot-5, 298-pound left tackle Jason Smith. Smith didn't earn any honors a year ago but Briles called his effort "humbling" as he brings NFL tools and should enter his senior season on candidate lists. Senior Dan Gay returns at right tackle and junior center J.D. Walton was arguably the most improved along the line to end the season. Both guard spots are uncertain. Junior James Barnard earned starts a year ago but isn't guaranteed his job in the fall. Five others will join him to compete for the spots, including redshirt freshman Courtney Green and junior college transfer R.J. Brisbon.
"There are going to be some 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 (situations)," Briles said. "We've got to be able to make them so we've got to be powerful and physical up front."
David Gettis must work to become more polished so the first three-time 400-meter champion in California High School history dumped track and showed the most improvement in the spring behind a renewed focus after recording 31 receptions a year ago. Inside receiver Thomas White and slot receiver Justin Akers are back, but then things get interesting. Returner Ernest Smith missed the last week of spring with mono and John David Weed and Mikail Baker each suffered a broken hand. Briles moved Matt Singletary from defensive end to inside receiver in hopes that the 6-foot-4, 248-pounder can emerge as a bruising pass-catcher or "a guy who can turn upfield and get after somebody with a mean look on his face," as Briles puts it. Briles has big hopes for junior college transfer T.J. Scranton and mid-year high school signee Romie Blaylock while 6-foot, 192-pound Lanear Sampson[/db] was rated No. 50 at his position coming out of North (Texas) Mesquite High School. None might be as dangerous as freshman Kendall Wright.
"Right now we're looking at (Wright) as an inside receiver," Briles said. "You devise schemes to get him the football. You want him to handle the football."
RETURNING LEADERS – PASSING: Blake Szymanski (264-461, 2,844 yds, 22 TD, 18 INT), RUSHING: FB Jay Finley (55 att, 207 yds, 2 TD), RECEIVING: WR Justin Akers (43 rec, 426 yds, 4 TD)
Defense: Say this for the defense. It was consistent a year ago in finishing ranked 11th across the board in the four major categories. Coordinator Brian Norwood went from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 alignment that will demand solid play from linebackers, but that's where the Bears are fortunate as second-team All-Big 12 selection Joe Pawelek leads the attack.
The junior posted a second-most 99 tackles, including eight behind the line and is the heart of a corps that should feature junior Antonio Jones and sophomore Antonio Johnson, one of the fastest on the team, at the other spots. Jones missed the last half of spring after straining an MCL but should be good to go in the fall. Sophomores Earl Patin and Chris Francis add depth while redshirt freshman Elliot Coffey hasn't disappointed since switching from safety.
"It's a natural position for Elliot and he seems real comfortable playing inside the box," Briles said. "It's going to work out good for us."
The onus of attention could be focused on senior tackle Vincent Rhodes, who will be counted on to emerge as a dominant force inside. Junior nose tackle Trey Bryant started every game last season but depth is a concern across the line. Sam Sledge moved from offensive line to defensive tackle, had two sacks in the spring game, and Briles indicated he could be used on either line dependent upon the bigger need for the season. Left end Jason Lamb had a team-leading 5.0 sacks and six QB hurries a year ago but incumbent Raylon Walters must contribute on the right side after serving as backup. Establishing a consistent pass rush will be key after the Bears posted a Big 12-low 18 sacks.
"We're going to pack some guys on the field and make the field look small," Briles said. "We've got some guys who are playing with a high tempo and a fast motor and that's what they've got to do."
The ability to play big and fast up front necessitates out of concern along the edge at cornerback. Rover Jake La Mar is a playmaker and his 67 tackles last season are third among all returners. Lake, whose 120 tackles and two interceptions led the squad, will assuredly be expected to produce an All-Big 12 campaign as a junior while Jeremy Williams provides experience at strong safety. But back to cornerback, where sophomores Cliff Odom and Antareis Bryan must fill vacancies. If one can't handle it, Dominique Criss could get a shot as could Krys Buerck, who switched from wide receiver in the spring and believes he better utilizes his abilities at the position.
"Those guys are out there trying to make plays," Briles said. "There is not a whole lot of experience in some positions, but when we play Wake Forest, they're not going to say, 'This guy doesn't have his bearings, let's not go after him.' They're going to go at people. We have to be prepared and ready."
RETURNING LEADERS – FS Jordan Lake (120 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PBU), MLB Joe Pawelek (99 tackles, 8 loss, 2.0 sacks, 3 FF), ROV Jake La Mar (67 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 INT)
Kicking game: Sophomore Shea Brewster connected on field goals of 41 and 28 yards and nailed all three of his PATs in the spring game. Good thing after he was just 3 of 8 a year ago. Derek Epperson returns at punter after averaging 39.1 yards on 66 punts with 12 inside the 20. Gettis averaged 22.4 yards on 34 kickoff returns is back to handle kickoff returns along with V.J. McElroy. Joe Bennett is back after leading with an average of 8.5 yards on 19 punt returns.
From his lips:
"From the standpoint of what we're looking for, we're there. It's like I told them, this journey isn't over, it just started. We'll have 29 workouts before we play Wake Forest. We should see vast improvement and we will." — Baylor coach Art Briles
Figure-atively speaking:
6 — Combined wins by the Bears' previous three head coaches in their first season, including Dave Roberts (1997), Kevin Steele (1999) and Guy Morriss (2003).
Rivals.com '08 Best Catch: QB Robert Griffin Want to know how valuable the Bears' lone four-star signee could be in 2008? The 6-foot-3, 200-pound freshman, who led Copperas Cove (Texas) High School to back-to-back Class 4A state titles before enrolling early at Baylor, has big-time skills. Griffin led the team to 22 of its 31 points in the spring game, including a 17-yard run. Upon entering the game on the second possession, he guided the offense on a pair of 70-yard drives and one of 46 yards. Griffin completed 5 of 9 passes for 66 yards and added 35 yards on five carries during three series in which he took control of the huddle, made good decisions and showcased his accuracy. Griffin will continue to work on his throwing mechanics – more arm, less elbow – as he nears training camp. But watch out Blake Szymanski. "I'm never satisfied with what I do," Griffin said, "but I thought I did a pretty good job."