Breaking Down Baylor

As the Baylor Bears get ready to face the Sam Houston State Bearkats Saturday, come inside to see the breakdown on Baylor.

INSIDE SLANT

The reminders are everywhere that Baylor players see in their expansive weight room.

Listed in tidy order are all of the bowl partners of the Big 12. That group is a tantalizing reminder of what the Bears have been unable to accomplish during their history in the conference.

Baylor hasn't made a bowl trip since 1994, tying Duke for the longest drought among schools in BCS affiliated conferences.

But a noticeable confidence is bubbling as the Bears prepare for their Sept. 4 opener against Sam Houston State in Waco.

The school is grabbing the expectations by the horns with a marketing campaign entitled "Rise Up" as they head into the season.

Baylor coach Art Briles and several of his players have appeared in television commercials that have become heavy in the Central Texas You Tube rotation in the days leading up to the season. Their faces are slapped on billboards across the Waco area appealing to fans for support.

"Our marketing group is doing a real good job of promoting the season," Briles told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "It's really an all-out effort to make Baylor what it needs to be. But playing well seems to solve everything."

And that's the crux.

Similar hopes were in place last season after quarterback Robert Griffin's breakthrough freshman season. But those hopes were cruelly dashed after Griffin's season-ending knee injury three games into the season. After starting with two victories in three games with him in charge, the Bears skidded to seven losses in their final nine games to finish 4-8 for the second-straight season with Briles in charge.

A bigger, more chiseled Griffin has made a strong recovery to reclaim the starting position and renew those hopes.

"I'm going to be excited, nervous, anxious, ready to go," Griffin said. "I don't feel like I have anything to prove, but I'm definitely excited to get back out on the field."

Griffin is surrounded by what Briles says is the best collection of talent he's seen in his three seasons at Baylor. But questions still remain that won't be answered until the season finally begins.

"I think there's a bunch of (question marks)," Briles said. "I'm not sure I could name one. I know how our team will respond and I feel pretty confident how we'll play when we get on the field. I know we'll be fast, physical and play with passion. And that eliminates those questions for me."


NOTES, QUOTES

--Redshirt freshman kicker Aaron "The Stork" Jones has been the most consistent kicking prospect in camp. Briles has liked what he's seen so far from the skinny kicker so far, despite his inexperience.

"Most storks don't panic, and he's not a panic guy," Briles told the Waco Tribune-Herald.

--Baylor fans have responded enthusiastically to the return of QB Robert Griffin and the Bears' chances for snapping the bowl drought. A crowd of more than 40,000 is expected against Sam Houston State as the school has already sold more than 12,000 season tickets -- ahead of last season's pace.

--The Bears could have three defensive starters whose fathers played in the NFL. Middle linebacker Chris Francis' father, James, played at Baylor before playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. Outside linebacker Elliot Coffey's father, Ken, was a defensive back with the Washington Redskins. And cornerback Clifton Odom's father, Cliff, was a linebacker with the Indianapolis Colts.

SERIES HISTORY: Baylor leads Sam Houston State, 2-0 (most recent meeting, 2003, 27-6 Baylor).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The return of QB Robert Griffin will do wonders for the Bears, especially if he flashes anywhere near the form he exhibited as a freshman in 2008. The team seems to get a certain amount of swagger from Griffin and his return will be critical in improvement in the offense. The line is more experienced than any Baylor unit under Briles, and the offense is studded with potential playmakers. If Griffin can tie them all together, a bowl berth isn't out of the question.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Losing key veteran leaders like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake will leave this unit inexperienced. The Bears' defensive hopes will depend on developing a semblance of a pass rush after ranking last in the Big 12 with only 18 sacks last season. Briles likes the improvement along his defensive front. But if that group doesn't make a big step forward, it could be another long season for the Bears.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've never been to a bowl game, but everyone talks about it. Once we get there it will be some sweet pride." -- Baylor offensive tackle Danny Watkins describing what breaking the Bears' bowl-game drought would mean to him.


STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Sam Houston State at Baylor, Sept. 4 -- Baylor needs to build some early-season confidence, and the FCS Bearkats should provide a willing test. While not as talented as other teams the Bears will face later in the season, it might be a perfect opponent for a first game. Quarterback Robert Griffin has been itching to get back into live action and his return should pump confidence through his team. Briles calls this his deepest and most talented team. But the Bears desperately need some on-the-field confidence. A resounding victory in their opener would be a critical first step.

KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Robert Griffin's health will remain a question mark until he sees action. Baylor shouldn't ask him to try to do too much in his first start since undergoing knee injury last season. The Bears are more talented that Sam Houston State and should employ their opener as a way to build confidence -- particularly in the trenches for an offensive line and defensive front that often seemed overmatched last season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Robert Griffin -- Baylor's bowl hopes were scuttled last season as soon as "The Franchise" went down with a season-ending knee injury. If he returns to the form shown as a freshman, the Bears' bowl hopes will be strong this season.

NG Phil Taylor -- The massive run-stuffer never got into shape last season and struggled with a turf toe. He could develop into a dominant run-stuffer after losing more than 20 pounds from last season.

S Ahmad Dixon -- The centerpiece of the Bears' most recent recruiting class has the kind of talent that made Texas want him badly. After makings his grades this summer, he has the kind of talent to play immediately as a freshman for Baylor at one of the biggest positions of need.

ROSTER REPORT:

--RB Jay Finley has been closely watched during fall camp as he recovers from ankle surgery earlier this spring. But coaches expect him to be ready to play against the Bearkats.

--OT Danny Watkins and senior S Tim Atchison have both been plagued with back ailments during fall camp. Briles was careful with them in the final weeks of training camp and both should be ready for the start of the season.

--S Tim Atchison will make the move from cornerback to his new (and old) position, filling the void that Jordan Lake filled during three seasons as a starter.

--OL Robert T. Griffin has rebounded nicely from shoulder surgery after spring drills to have a strong start at claiming a starting position at guard. Griffin originally reported at 370 pounds, but has lost more than 40 pounds as he may have earned a starting position at guard.

--Senior Chris Francis, the son of former Baylor standout linebacker James Francis, appears ready for a big start after moving to the middle from the outside.

--Baylor's biggest area of weakness last season was at defensive tackle. But hopes are high this season after Phil Taylor shed more than 15 pounds to report in better shape and Tracy Robertson moved from defensive end.



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