Forgive Baylor coach Art Briles if, at some point this spring, he thinks back wistfully on last fall.
Baylor is coming off perhaps the best season in school history. While there was no league title, the Bears won 10 games for just the second time in school history and QB Robert Griffin III took home the Heisman.
Briles has 15 starters back, but he lost his three best weapons (Griffin, RB Terrence Ganaway and WR Kendall Wright) and his best lineman (C Philip Blake) on offense. The defense? It was horrendous last season and has a ways to go to even become mediocre.
| Baylor at-a-glance
|Coach: Art Briles (5th season)
Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in Big 12
Spring practice dates: March 6-April 14
Returning starters: (minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): G Cameron Kaufhold, TE Jordan Najvar, WR Tevin Reese, T Cyril Richardson, WR Lanear Sampson, T Ivory Wade, WR Terrance Williams
Defense (8): LB Rodney Chadwick, DB Ahmad Dixon, S Mike Hicks, S Sam Holl, E Terrance Lloyd, E Gary Mason Jr., CB K.J. Morton, CB Joe Williams
Special teams (2): K Aaron Jones, P Spencer Roth
Nick Florence, who started the bulk of the games in 2009 when Griffin was injured, has the unenviable task of stepping in to try to replace the Heisman winner. He will have some solid skill-position talent with which to work; Briles' offense is a high-powered one, and Baylor is going to move the ball even without Griffin, albeit not to the same extent.
The hope defensively is that the experience gained last season by eight returning starters will help Baylor against the run. The Bears were extremely porous in that regard last season, ranking 102nd nationally in rush defense by allowing 197.4 yards per game. If coordinator Phil Bennett can rebuild the line, which lost two starters, perhaps the Bears' defense can go from horrendous to mediocre.
Bennett also needs to find some pass rushers; the Bears managed just 19 sacks last season, and in a league as high-powered as the Big 12, having no pass rush is a sort of death wish.
The biggest problem: Quarterback. Replacing Heisman winner Robert Griffin III has to be the priority. "RG3" had a season for the ages â the best in Baylor history â so no one will ask senior Nick Florence to duplicate Griffin's 2011 season. Still, Florence has had his moments in three seasons for the Bears. He led Baylor to a win at Missouri as a true freshman in 2009, breaking the school's passing mark at the time with 427 yards. Last season, with Griffin out after a concussion, Florence led Baylor to a 66-42 victory over Texas Tech, ending a 15-game losing streak to the Red Raiders. Sophomore Bryce Petty would be the next man up if Florence doesn't get the job done this spring.
On the spot: DE Gary Mason Jr. Mason, a senior, has had some nice moments for the Bears but ended last season as a backup. Whatever role he plays, he needs to be more productive and also take on leadership responsibilities for what remains a young defense. Mason had 26 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season. He's capable of a lot more.
On the verge: WR Tevin Reese. He made some big plays last season, leading the starters with a 17.2 yards-per-reception average. He had seven TDs, third among receivers. And with All-American Kendall Wright gone, Reese should be the go-to guy for Florence, who doesn't have the arm strength Griffin had.
General overview: Coming off a historic 10-3 season, a Heisman for RG3 and an Alamo Bowl win, it would seem that the Bears can only go down from here. That should be a motivating factor for coach Art Briles, who lives for stuff like this. Baylor won't be as prolific on offense (587.1 yards per game last season), but the Bears still should be efficient. Most of the offensive line is back, there are numerous top-notch receivers and there's an experienced quarterback. Regardless, the defense under second-year coordinator Phil Bennett has to pull more of its weight. Baylor allowed 488.5 yards per game last season, and that won't get it done with RG3 in the NFL.
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- Art Briles