College football is a game of not only rebuilding but maintaining. There isn't a draft that will always restock your program like in the professional game. It is all about graduating players after their four or five, or even sometimes six years on campus and plugging in new players to replace their production. It is this assembly line of talented kids that keeps the top programs on the top and makes it incredibly difficult for the worst programs to make that seemingly impossible climb up the standings.
With the Bears climbing ever higher and higher on that ladder up the college football world, more and more players will be leaving that seem to be irreplaceable. This is a problem that all good or great programs have. Baylor will have to replace three quarters of their starting defensive backfield, including an All-American. They lost six Big 12 first teamers and another six that were honorable mention.
That is a lot of talent to replace, but the Bears have some great weapons returning to help those new starters. But who are some players that are not only going to get more playing time, but are ones that will be good enough to replace those Bears on the All-Big 12 teams? Some of these starters last year, but could be in a position now to breakout from a solid starter to a star.
5. Kyle Fuller – Center, Sophomore
The center position has been a strength for the Bears the last few years, but there has been little consistency from year to year. In fact, the Bears have had a different starting center for 4 straight seasons. It is now Fuller's turn, but as a sophomore he could really grow into the position. He will have to fend of Blake and Sean Muir for the starting spot, but he has played very well there in spurts last year and during the spring.
4. Xavien Howard – Cornerback, Sophomore
Big-corners. They are the new 'hot' thing after the Seattle Seahawks rode a massive defensive backfield to a Super Bowl last year. You can see that trend emerging in the Bears recruitment of 2014 defenders. Howard though has been on campus now for 2 years, and is entering his redshirt sophomore season. At 6-foot-2, Howard has tremendous size. He is the only cornerback on the roster to get a decent amount of playing time in 2013, so his experience in defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's system will be invaluable. He appeared in all 13 games for the Bears, and had an interception and a pass break up backing up the three rotating seniors that got the bulk of the snaps. With those three players graduated, Howard is now looked upon to carry a much larger load.
3. Terrell Burt – Safety, Junior
One of just two returning starters on this list, Burt was a solid free safety most of the year, though he did struggle badly in the Fiesta Bowl. However, you just have to look a few games before that to see what his impact can be. He had the game-clinching interception against TCU, and returned an interception for a touchdown against Louisiana-Monroe. Burt has excellent speed for a safety, and though a little undersized, does hit well. Burt will be asked to shoulder a larger load in terms of getting the defensive backfield in the right spots.
2. Corey Coleman – Wide Receiver, Sophomore
For some reason, it feels like Coleman has been around a long time. He came to Baylor as one of the best wide receiver recruits in the nation, but struggled with injuries during his first year in Waco. With a redshirt forced upon him, he used that year to learn the system and get healthy. With 10 starts last year, Coleman put together a solid first season, finishing the year with 35 catches for 527 yards and 2 touchdowns.
He got the bulk of his playing time after Tevin Reese was injured during the Oklahoma game. Coleman would have his breakout in the Fiesta Bowl though, catching 7 passes for 88 yards, both career highs. He also emerged as a very good kick returner, averaging 28.4 yards per return and even taking one back for a touchdown against Iowa State.
Coleman has the speed and shiftiness to destroy his defender in a one-on-one matchup. His quickness is incredible, and during the spring game, displayed the guts to go over the middle on slant routes and hook routes.
1. Shawn Oakman – Defensive End, Junior
Who else would be #1 on this list? After a dominant sophomore campaign off of the bench, Oakman will now be more than a situational pass rusher. He will be asked to be out there most of the snaps for the Bears. "It wasn't a bad role to play," Oakman said. "It was fun. But this year, I've got to take a bigger role and I've got to be able to play every down and every snap."
Even in limited snaps, the 6-foot-9 defensive end still had 12.5 tackles for loss, which was second on the team. During Spring camp, he absolutely destroyed anyone that was in front of him prompting Art Briles to say "We can't block him, and I don't think anyone else will, either."
With his dominating size and strength, Oakman should be able to be more than just a pass-rusher. He can cover the zone-read option by himself, able to use that length to take away the pitch angle as well as cover the quarterback. Also, even when blocked, his wing-span can still get a big paw on a ball carrier and either slow him down or drag him down.