The last few years have been the golden age of Baylor football, especially on the offensive side of the ball. With a record setting offense guiding the way the past 5 years, the Bears have rebounded from a lost decade, and that might be putting it mildly.
With Art Briles and his unique offense driving the Baylor Bears towards the top of the college football world, they have had the nation’s top offense the past two seasons. A big-play passing game and a pounding rushing attack have put defenses on their heels and made the Baylor offense one to be frightened.
The 2015 version of the Baylor offense should be just as feared, though there will be some slight changes. With 8 starters coming back, the Bears will be depending on an experienced, talented, and deep set of skill position players, along with one of the best offensive lines in the nation, to bring the Bears offensive attack back to the top of the food chain.
The one area that there is a slight question mark is at the quarterback position. The man that ran the Baylor offense the past two seasons is gone. Bryce Petty set records, led the top offense in the nation, and along the way, one two Big 12 championships. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill.
Stepping into those big loafers will be junior signal caller Seth Russell, who has quite a bit of experience as a backup and has even started one game. He has had a busy summer, working with the Baylor staff, and doing quite well at the Manning Passing Academy. Russell will bring back memories to past quarterbacks in that he is much more of a dual threat with his arms and legs than the traditional pocket passer Bryce Petty.
Russell is one of the best athletes on the team, running with some of the guys that he will be passing the ball to. He has made big plays with his arm and his legs, and that speed and athleticism should see Baylor bring back more of the zone-read and QB run aspects to the offense.
Baylor is returning all three key running backs from the 2014 season, with Rashodrick Linwood leading the way. Linwood was one of the best runners in the Big 12 last year, rushing for 1252 yards, second only to Samaje Perine. Shock brings a solid all-around game to the position, and excels at keeping his balance and getting those tough extra yards. He is not overly big, strong or fast, but is solid at all.
Behind Linwood will be the duo of Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson. Chafin is probably the best north/south runner on the Bears, and is more of a 1-cut back, which Briles has preferred in the past (see Jay Finley and Terrence Ganaway). He is a bigger back also, with more power behind his pads. An injury plagued start to the 2014 season pushed Chafin to the background until a 112 yard game against Kansas put him solidly in the rotation.
Redshirt sophomore Johnny Jefferson might be the most explosive of the three top runners on the Bears, but an ankle injury in 2014 took some of that ability away. Heathy and looking to take a big step forward in 2015, Jefferson will be the change of pace back to start the year.
Other options for the Bears include redshirt freshman Terence Williams and true freshman JaMycal Hasty. Williams is a bigger power back who has some big play ability to him. Hasty is a pure speed back who might be involved as a wide receiver as well, if he can avoid a redshirt campaign.
Baylor lost two key weapons at the wide receiver position this year, with Levi Norwood and Antwan Goodley graduating. However, both players struggled with injuries at times last year, so the options behind them gained valuable experience. Leading the way will be the star duo of Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon. Coleman missed the first few games of the 2014 season, but was one of the best receivers in the nation statistically from that point on. He was a big play machine, taking over the Oklahoma game and scoring a touchdown in all but 2 contests he appeared in.
Cannon was the breakout star of the early portion of the season, in his first action as a collegiate player. He had 223 yards receiving against Northwestern State and another 189 against Buffalo. 5 of his 8 total touchdowns came in the first three games of the year before a 2 touchdown, 197 yard breakout game against Michigan State.
Alongside those two will be Jay Lee, a multi-year starter who has excelled mainly as a possession receiver. With Norwood gone, Lee could see a larger role as a chain mover. The fourth spot in the rotation is up for grabs, with Lynx Hawthorne, Davion Hall, Chris Platt, and Ishmael Zamora all battling for snaps. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Hall and Zamora offer a bit more size to the position. While Platt is a pure speed threat. Hawthorne though is the favorite right now, with the most experience and a well-rounded skill set.
Returning starter Trevon Armstead will get the bulk of the playing time at the position, but his backup might get more attention. It isn't often that a 260 pound tight end is your "small" option. With LaQuan McGowan tipping the scales at over 400 pounds, and with his brilliant touchdown in the Cotton Bowl, McGowan has been a very popular man.
The Bears will always depend on the tight end position to be a blocking force in the running game. They will also be looked at to pass protect quite a bit of the time, as their deep play-action attack needs quite a bit of time for the receivers to get down the field. With both Armstead and McGowan being former offensive linemen, this makes sense. Yes, they will catch a few passes, and probably a few fun "big-guy" touchdowns, but their primary role and focus will be blocking and keeping the Baylor runners and quarterbacks free to do their thing.
With Spencer Drango surprising everyone by returning to the Bears for his senior campaign, Baylor welcomes back 6 linemen with starting experience. Drango is the star of the group, an All-American and one of the best players in the nation, at any position. He is the rock of the line from his left tackle position. Blake Muir is the starter out of the gate at left guard, with Desmine Hilliard behind him. Hilliard of course was the starter for most of last year until injuries took him out of the lineup.
At center, Kyle Fuller comes back to solidify the interior of the line. Fuller had his struggles at the beginning of the 2014 season, but kept improving and got better later in the year. He profiles as an elite center and looks to take another step forward in his development in his junior year.
On the right side of the line, Pat Colbert is the tackle with Jarell Broxton inside at guard. Colbert has been the backup swing tackle the past few seasons, starting a few games 2 years ago when Spencer Drango hurt his back, and last year for Troy Baker. Broxton slid into the lineup when Hilliard was hurt and played well enough to keep the spot when Hilliard came back.
Baylor has quite a bit of youth behind the 5 starters, with transfers Rami Hammad and Ishmael Wilson both being on the 2-deep. Add in redshirt freshman Blake Blackmar and sophomore Tanner Thrift, there is quite a bit of inexperience behind the top-5. Juco transfer Maurice Porter is also expected to make a push on the 2-deep as well, especially as the backup at left tackle.
Part two in the coming days on changes for the Baylor offense and some predictions!!!