It is a little crazy to think that Matt Rhule has only been the Baylor football head coach for over 3-months, but it is true. In that time, he has built an entire 2017 recruiting class from scratch, hired a completely new coaching staff, and begun to recruit for the 2018 class. Oh, and he also had a football team to manage after a very difficult year. To do all of that, and rebuild the Bears scholarship situation back up to the limit while losing very few current players to attrition might be his biggest victory so far.
Well, this week a new title will appear next to his name; football coach. The Baylor Bears start their preparations for the 2017 season this weekend, kicking off their spring camp with a practice on March 18th, concluding after 15 practices with the Spring Game on April 22nd at McLane Stadium. In addition, the Bears will be hosting their annual pro-day on April 5th.
As with every spring camp, there are always questions fans are asking, and it is no different this year. In fact, with an entirely new regime and set of players in Waco, the questions are pretty endless. Here are a few big ones and where they stand now:
1. What will the new offensive system look like?
The Baylor Bears are moving away from the Briles-style Veer-and-shoot to a different up-tempo style in the Oregon and Chip Kelly mold. Coach Rhule has been consistent in interviews stating that the Bears will still have an exciting and fast-paced offense, one that will score points. However, Rhule has also stated his desire to be the most "NFL" like team in the Big 12, one that gets its players ready for the next phase of their career. While Briles' offense put up a lot of points, few offensive stars made an easy transition to the NFL. Rhule wants to change that by putting in more pro-style concepts and getting kids familiar with play-books and more advanced route concepts.
2. Who will step up at Quarterback?
Zach Smith is the returning starter, but there will be a competition between all 3-options for the Bears offensive leader. Transfer Anu Solomon is very experienced and is a good match in terms of skill set for what the Oregon offense wants to do. Even true freshman Charlie Brewer will be given a chance to show his stuff.
The favorite though is probably Smith, and for good reason. He has a next-level arm and played the best game of his career in the bowl victory over Boise State. It is sometimes silly to put too much weight on a stand-out bowl game performance (see Knight, Trevor) and predict greatness from it. However, what Smith showed was not an outlier or playing out of his mind. He took care of the ball, made the right plays and took care of the ball. While Smith might be the early favorite, he will have to earn the job; starting with a strong spring camp.
3. What changes on defense?
With Phil Bennett gone to Arizona State, Matt Rhule brought his entire defensive coaching staff from Temple to help turn around the Bears performance on that side of the ball. A top-10 defense last year, defensive coordinator Phil Snow uses a much more multiple and flexible scheme than what the Bears have done the past few years. Expect more 3-man fronts, but the use of a "leo" type pass rusher that acts as a 4th lineman at times. The safeties and cornerbacks will also have a much more diverse range of responsibilities as well. With a proven coaching staff, and one that has worked together for years, the Bears have high hopes for their defense in 2017.
4. Who will step up and create much needed depth?
A very large freshman class will be making it to Waco in the summer, ready to make an impact this fall. Before they arrive though, a few freshmen, redshirt or true, and sophomore players will have a chance to carve out larger roles this spring. Players like freshmen Abram Smith and RJ Sneed, along with redshirt freshman Raleigh Texada. Will sophomores Denzel Mims and Jared Atkinson move up the wide receiver depth chart and prove themselves as capable replacements for KD Cannon or Ishmael Zamora? Which of the young linebackers will emerge next to Taylor Young, Raaquan Davis, and maybe Travon Blanchard?
5. How will the offensive line play out?
This was the biggest question entering fall camp in 2016, and it stays the same. Baylor will have just 7-players on scholarship for the offensive line. With 2-key starters gone, the Bears will have a new center and left tackle for 2017. While they might be able to find a very good starting 5, they will need more from the backups and walk-ons to simply have enough depth to practice. With 6-high school recruits making their way to Waco this summer though, there will be quite a bit of changes in the fall.