The Baylor Bears could end up being the most surprising team in the Big XII and maybe even the nation if things go right for them this season. Although they only won 4 games last season, they were much more competitive than expected for an unproven team and have things lining up for them coming in to this season. Although much of the focus when talking about the Bears goes to the sensational QB Robert Griffin, this team is much more than him. How will the Bears fare this year in their trip to Columbia? Let's go inside the Baylor Bears.
We start out with the most recognizable Bear, sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin. This 6-3 quarterback stormed onto the college football scene last season by throwing for 2,091 yards, 15 touchdowns and only 3 INT's while also rushing for 846 yards and 13 TD's in his true freshman season. That's tough to do, especially in your first year out of high school. The key to Baylor's improvement lies with Griffin getting more comfortable passing the ball. He will have no problem making plays with his legs like he did last season, but he has to be able to take more risks passing the ball this year. His arm must be feared as much as his legs if the Bears want to prevent defenses focusing on just stopping the run. With that said, Griffin will be a dynamic playmaker for Baylor this year and will probably be the key part to whatever success they have this year.
Jay Finley was quietly productive running behind Robert Griffin in 2008, rushing for over 850 yards and recording 7 touchdowns as a sophomore. Jarred Salubi will probably be the change of pace back in this, his redshirt freshman season. Salubi was a sprinter in high school and could add another nice jolt of speed to Baylor's attack. There isn't anything to worry about at running back for the Bears, but if Finley can take a giant leap forward (entirely possible going into his junior season), the Bears' offense would add a much needed playmaker. This group has some things to prove this year, but they probably wont be a liability for head coach Art Briles.
Kendall Wright was another breakout freshman for the Bears last year, hauling in 50 balls for 649 yards and 5 TD's and establishing himself as the number one option for Robert Griffin (Fun Fact: Wright also plays basketball for the Bears). Senior David Gettis stands at 6-4 but hasn't performed the way many thought he would when he committed to Baylor. Still, with his height and speed he could provide a nice second option. Bears fans are hopeful that redshirt freshman Lanear Smith can emerge as another playmaker for this unit. Senior Ernest Smith will serve his role at slot receiver, providing a quick target in the seam. Justin Akers will start at tight end but probably won't provide anything too spectacular for Baylor after catching 14 passes for 167 yards last season.
If you are looking for the possible Achilles heel of this offensive unit, look no further than the offensive line. Of course it hurts when you lose a left tackle that gets selected at #2 in the NFL Draft, but it hurts even worse when you are Baylor and you don't have the resources to go recruit another Jason Smith. Taking over the leadership role on the offensive line will be senior center J.D. Walton and senior guard James Barnard. Combining to weigh 600 pounds, these two players should be a good, solid group in the middle of the line. Other than Walton and Barnard, there isn't much proven talent. John Jones was a top recruit 2 years ago and has plenty of promise, but will he perform well as a starter? Danny Watkins will try to replace Jason Smith at LT, but no matter how hard he tries there will be a talent drop off here. Cameron Kaufhold is a redshirt freshman that will probably start at right tackle but he probably won't be anything special as a young player. Surprisingly, the offensive line wasn't very good last year even with Jason Smith, and I don't expect them to be any better this season because they only return 1 starter.
The Bears a shaky defensive line last year, so maybe the fact that they return only one starter is a good thing. The big news for this unit during the spring was the arrival of Penn State transfer Phil Taylor. The 6-4, 355-pound (WOW) junior had disciplinary problems with the Nittany Lions so he decided to come to Baylor to try and save his career. As I've said before, a huge anchor at DT is the key to a good defense, so maybe the Bears are headed in the right direction. The other tackle, Trey Bryant, will be a solid player but won't make too many huge plays for this team. Even if they do get good production from Taylor, the Bears need someone to step up as a pass rusher. Zac Scotton stands at 6-7 (good size) and Tracey Robertson is a big strong rusher, but they need to grow into being a good starting pair through experience.
Joe Pawelek has been a tackling machine ever since he stepped onto the Baylor campus, recording 313 tackles in his first 3 years. Pawelek has good size (6-2, 240), athletic ability and is a very well rounded inside linebacker, so he will probably be the star of the defense this season. The other 2 linebackers for the Bears aren't slouches either. Antonio Jones also has good size (6-2, 225) and will be called upon to be a playmaker at outside linebacker. Antonio Johnson will be a bit of a rover for Baylor and will provide a pretty good amount of speed for the defense this year. He and Jones will probably be pretty good playmakers because of their athleticism. These 3 guys all have plenty of experience, so the Bears know exactly what to expect from them. This unit could be one of the better ones in the Big XII.
The Bears' pass defense was ranked in the 100's last year, but those numbers are probably inflated because of the pass-happy Big XII. The Bears do have some serious talent at defensive back, it just needs to convert that into good play this season. Jordan Lake will lead the secondary from his free safety spot after proving to be a good player last season (especially against Mizzou). Lake will use his range to create a good team with Jeremy Williams, a very athletic 5-11 strong safety who is a sure tackler. The Bears also return 3 experienced corners who showed promise at the end of last season. Antareis Bryan, Trentson Hill and Tim Atchison will provide a good trio at corner, and they could be a big part of a defensive improvement this season.
Baylor is a very intriguing team if not just for the fact that they have Robert Griffin touching the ball on every offensive play. The offense is young but has a lot of talent for Griffin to work with through the air and on the ground. Their success depends entirely on how the offensive line gels together early in the season. On the other side of the ball, the Bears hope to get near all-conference play from players like Phil Taylor, Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake in order to have a more reliant unit this season. There are a lot of toss-up games for the Bears this year, so if things go right, you will probably see the Bears in a good bowl game this year. However, they could also take a step back and finish 4-8 after their promising season last year. It will be interesting to see which direction this program moves.