The two-time defending Big 12 champion Baylor Bears will begin their quest for a third straight championship, joining Oklahoma as the only team to achieve that feat during the rather short life of the Big 12. The Bears are loaded with experience and talent, returning 18 starters on offense and defense from last year's title winning squad, including 7 players selected as first team preseason All-Big 12 members. With a new team though comes a few new questions, especially as the Bears look to replace some key leaders of the past few years.
Does the Quarterback Factory Push Out a New Model?
Two-year starter Bryce Petty is gone. Much has been written about him and the battle to replace him. That battle is all but over, with Seth Russell emerging victorious rather early in the contest over Chris Johnson and Jarrett Stidham. The Art Briles Quarterback factory will need to be cranked up again to put out the 2015 model. After successes with Robert Griffin, Nick Florence, and Bryce Petty at Baylor (to go along with the Houston duo of Case Keenum and Kevin Kolb), the factory has been quite successful in the past, to put it lightly.
While Russell might not have a substantial amount of experience coming into 2015, he has started a game, and played quite a bit in others. We know he is a strong and fast runner, capable of dominating a game with his legs. We also know that he is a risk taker, one that has not done the best job of protecting the ball at times. Either through interceptions or fumbles, this is the biggest question mark about the Baylor quarterback. How he values the ball, weights the risk vs. reward quickly, yet still pushes the ball down the field will say a lot about the Baylor offense. Even with average quarterback play, the offense should be very good still. However, it might not be at the elite level the Bears have been accustomed to the past few seasons.
Will a more experienced defensive backfield take the next step?
Will a more experienced defensive backfield take the next step?
With all 4 starters returning to the defensive backfield, Baylor will be a year older and wiser at the cornerback and safety position. Xavien Howard, Orion Stewart, Ryan Reid and Terrell Burt all have had their moments in their careers, good and bad. It is fair to say that their growth as a unit is the biggest potential upside of improvement for the Bears over last years team. That is a good thing, as the pass defense at times was a major issue for Baylor, especially late in the year and late in games against Texas Tech and Michigan State.
Some of the issues can be tied back to the lack of depth in the backfield, as players tired in the 4th quarter, especially when the opposition when to a hurry up style attack and started throwing deep. The Bears were beaten down the field in the fourth quarter way too often. With the improved depth at safety and cornerback, Baylor hopes that the additional experience and reps won't be the only thing they are betting on for improvement.
Who are a few of the younger players that could take a big step forward?
A few younger players will be looked at for starting roles, led by Travon Blanchard. However, there are a few other younger players that will push for playing time and maybe even a larger role as we get into the season. Younger players such as safety Chance Waz, defensive tackles Andrew Morris and Ira Lewis, and linebacker Raaquan Davis are all newcomers to the depth chart and will be looked at to challenge the guys above them. Morris and Lewis are more depth options behind the proven duo of Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear, but the rest of the younger players could push for starting roles.
On offense, it starts and ends with Chris Platt and Ishmael Zamora, two highly touted redshirt freshmen who both stood out in the spring. Platt brings exceptional speed to the inside receiver position, and could see quite a bit of time there if KD Cannon plays more outside receiver. Zamora is a huge target with great physical tools. He could challenge Davion Hall and Jay Lee for playing time on the outside. Blake Blackmar could get a large role if there are some injuries in the middle of the offensive line, as he can play guard or center.
Finally, there is 5-star quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who is battling for the backup spot. He will most likely attempt to redshirt. If Seth Russell were to get injured though, the shirt could come off and we could see him in his first action as a Baylor Bear.
How do the Bears replace their other Bryce?
In possibly the most heated position battle for the Bears this fall, Grant Campbell and Aiavion Edwards will be fighting for the middle linebacker spot vacated by 3-year starter Bryce Hager. Baylor will have to replace Hager not only his on the field production, but also his leadership off the field. Aiavion Edwards and Grant Campbell are the two favorites to replace him on the field, with Raaquan Davis as a darkhorse. Edwards has experience at both linebacker positions, and was the starter at the weakside spot until injury and the excellent performance of Taylor Young moved him to a reserve role.
While Taylor Young won't be the guy to replace Hager in the middle of the defense, he is a strong candidate to bring more leadership to the team in a larger role. The emerging star had a strong freshman campaign, and looks to continue his rise in 2015. With Andrew Billings and Shawn Oakman also taking on more leadership roles on the defense, the Bears have experience and talent leading the way.
With a new offensive coordinator, how different will the Bears offense look in 2015?
Baylor fans got a sneak peak at the new offense during their bowl game against Michigan State. With longtime play caller Phillip Montgomery now the head coach at Tulsa, the Bears promoted assistant Kendal Briles to the top offensive spot. The son of Art Briles, Kendal has been with the Baylor program since 2008, mainly as a receivers coach with a large role in recruiting, and eventually the passing game. With that information, and the performance against Michigan State (52 passes, 32 rushes)as our only data points, one could assume that the Bears might be a bit more pass heavy entering 2015.
That might be true, but I still expect the Baylor offense to be a run-first outfit, especially with a dual threat like Seth Russell behind center, and two backup quarterbacks who profile more as dual threat options. With that skill set throughout the roster, it makes sense to have an offensive foundation that all three quarterbacks can run with confidence. Utilizing the zone-read, and option attacks that we saw with Robert Griffin and involving the quarterback in the rushing attack are expected to be back in the offense after a two year absence.