Spring games are fun, but also sad. They are the culmination of football for the school year. A school year for the Bears that gave them their first Big 12 championship. However, it is also the last morsel of football we will have for months and months and months. It is the first time we get to look at the promise of "new talent" be it in freshmen who have come early to participate, junior college transfers ready to contribute, or red-shirt freshmen aching to get on the field after a year of sitting. But it is also the first time we will see our team without the seniors and multi-year players that we have come to know and love.
So with all of that mushy stuff out of the way, here are a few things that I am excited to see and learn about the next iteration of the Baylor Bears!
1. That Good Old Baylor Line – the Bears offensive line has not been itself in Spring practice. With Spencer Drango still out with injury, the literally and physically massive hole left by All-American Cyril Richardson, and the graduation of center Stefan Huber have left the Bears with quite a few question marks. Junior College transfer Jarrell Broxton is still acclimating to the offense. Left Guard Desmine Hilliard has been limited as well this spring due to injury, so the Bears have been quite thin on the offensive line.
We probably won't get answers to most of the questions for the Bears, but we will get some first looks at both of the Muir brothers. Older brother Blake Muir was a starter as a freshman at Hawaii and could possibly be one of the 5-best linemen the Bears have. However, he has been a tackle for his college career, but reports are stating that he is getting looks at center. A 6-foot- 5, center is surely an oddity. Will the elder Muir beat out his younger brother, and Kyle Fuller for the center spot?
2. Bryce Petty's Next Step – Perfection is something that drives Petty, so one can safely assume that he has been working his tail off to get better. He has been working with noted quarterback trainer George Whitfield and you know that Coach Briles gave him a few things to clean up. Petty has to get more comfortable in the pocket, and getting deeper in his reads. He was nearly perfect to begin the year on his first and even second reads, but once defenses started to take things away from the Bears, Petty's accuracy and decision making suffered.
The best news for Baylor fans is that repetitions and practice can really refine Petty's game, one that went without significant game time for several years (as we all know from EVERY report ever on the Senior to be QB). How he looks, and how he operates in the pocket will be something I am watching carefully.
3. Who is gonna hit someone??? - The Bears lost some serious muscle in their back-7 defensively. Sam Holl, Eddie Lackey and Ahmad Dixon were some of the best tacklers and ferocious hitters the Big 12 had to offer. Especially Dixon, who sent many "messages" to receivers over the middle to tread carefully. The Bears will surely lose a ton of experience and leadership with their loss, but how much of that intimidation factor will they lose?
Kiante Griffin has reportedly taken a big step this spring towards winning the NB spot vacated by Holl. He is a rangier athlete who will bring some better coverage skills to the position, but I have my doubts about his ability to step up and send a message to a receiver on a screen play (like Holl did many times). Orion Stewart is the favorite to take Dixon's spot, and again, the Bears will most likely take a step back in terms of pure hitting ability. So, who will give the Bears defense that edge that they succesfully played with for most of the year?
My candidates are Aiavion Edwards, who plays extremely fast and knows how to lay the wood and Xavier Phillips who has the size/speed combination to make physical plays at either the weakside linebacker spot or at nickle back.
4. How to shuffle the "big-nasties" - Mind you, I have only been a Bear fan since 2000, so I don't have the largest sample size here. But, I can't think of a time where the Bears were this rich of talent on the defensive line. Briles says that they could easily go 7 or 8 deep, and I have no issue agreeing with him. Shawn Oakman, Jamal Palmer, Andrew Billings, and Beau Blackshear are probably the 4-starters.
However, would anyone complain if Suleiman Masumbuko or Trevor Clemons-Valdez got a bunch of snaps on the inside? What about Javonte Magee inside or outside? How about the transfer Sam Ukwachu as a speed rusher alongside Brian Nance? There are tons of possibilities for the Bears down low. Figuring out the rotation will be something that gets started sooner rather than later.
5. First look at the new JJ - If there is one freshman (redshirt or true) that I am most excited to see, it if running back Johnny Jefferson. The 5-foot-11, 200 pound runner is a stud. To me, he is the most likely to emerge as an every-down running back for the Bears offense. Shock Linwood is the returning guy for the Bears, but Jefferson is the man with the upside. Maybe it is just unknown potential, but consider me an unapologetic fan of Jefferson's.
Jefferson has very good speed, good size, and good strength. He displayed a natural running style with good vision in high school. There will always be concerns how a running back can translate to the next level though. Jefferson would appear to have the tools to be a major contributor, even with a very good runner in front of him on the depth chart.
6. The unleashing of Robbie Rhodes – Hampered by nagging minor injuries and without a full comfort or working knowledge of the offense, Rhodes was never fully involved in the 2013 Bears offense. The man that Briles said was ready to play college football the minute he got to the parking lot wasn't quite ready. It is a big jump from Texas High School football to a BCS power-conference. Add to that the depth the Bears have, and still have at the wide receiver position, and the need for the freshmen to take on a larger role than he needed to was minimized.
But the jump from your 1st to 2nd year is always the best. That is where you improve. Your head isn't spinning about the newness of everything, and you are in a much more comfortable place. You are not quite a seasoned veteran, but you sure as heck aren't a newbie asking where the cafeteria is at. Rhodes could be in for a significantly larger role on the outside. This is the start of that process.