Here's how Guy Morriss, Baylor's fourth coach in the past ten years, defines progress after his young cubs posted a 3-9 mark during his first season in Waco: "We can break the huddle and find the line of scrimmage now."
But finding support for his program among Baylor faculty, staff and students may be a tougher bear to wrestle. Reviving a downtrodden program that has yet to win consecutive Big 12 games in league history has more to do than simply instilling confidence among players, Morriss maintains. It also has to do with changing a whole university's mindset and philosophy about its football program.
There may actually have been more excitement for football at a hoops school like Kentucky (which Morris led to a 7-5 mark in 2002) then even at a Big 12 school deep in the heart of Texas. Morris seemed hesitant at first to discuss what makes his task so difficult but then...aw, what the hell...
"The hardest part for me is that not a lot of people at Baylor have the same sense of urgency that we as a football team have," he said. "We've made some changes, and change is always hard for some people. We need to make people at Baylor understand that football has to be a priority. I'm not sure that everyone on campus feels that way right now. Things are moving in the right direction but it's not happening as fast as we'd like right now."
Part of what Morris wants is a new, on-campus practice facility but "that's not moving fast enough to suit me." But no small part of what Baylor needs most is wins. The last winning campaign was 1995 and it's been 10 years since the Bears have gone bowling. I asked Morris how important the surprising 42-30 win over Colorado was to a program that had produced just four Big 12 wins prior to that point.
While admitting that "anytime you beat a program like Colorado on TV it will instill confidence in players," the highlight of his year was the 41-3 loss at Oklahoma. In that one, Baylor actually got to QB Jason White again and again, holding the Sooners to just seven points following intermission. It was enough to elicit "a chorus of boos from the restless crowd" (according to the Baylor media guide) while eliciting hope for the Bears.
"We lost the game, obviously, but we played well and we exposed Oklahoma a little bit," he said. " I told our team we faced the Boogeyman and now you don't have to be afraid of playing the big boys."
Baylor's nonconference slate will allow the team to get untracked, and possibly be undefeated, when Big 12 play opens at Texas on October 2. The Bears travel to UAB to launch the 2004 campaign before hosting Texas State and North Texas.
:The key for is in having a good second year is a fast start," Morris said. "We need to get out of the gate and win our first three non-conference games. The key for us as a football team is also health. We're not blessed with great depth at a lot of positions. If we get a couple of key guys hurt at key positions, we'll be in trouble. It will be a long season."
Cutting back on full-speed, contact drills may be on tap during August two-a-days which, of course, became two-every-other-days as the NCAA continues to shorten the amount of time players can actually hit in full pads. In fact, the recent trended prompted Morris to come up with the best one-liner of the day: "The way it's going, we're going to be wearing skirts soon."
TEXAS TECH WANTS TO GET DEFENSIVE IN 2004
Now that it's been established it doesn't matter who the quarterback is at Texas Tech, the high-flying question these days is whether the air (Red) Raiders can get defensive. Tech's best defensive player, 2003 Big 12 sack leader DE Adell Duckett, was on hand Tuesday during the league's annual media days in Kansas City to promise that his unit would be better in 2004. Then again, things can only improve when you are emerging from cellar.
"Defensively, we have to get better," Duckett said. "There's no question about it. I think this year's there's going to be a great start of an upward movement for the Texas Tech defense. For me, I'm taking a lot on my shoulder to improve our defense. Anything I can do to help, I will do. Even if I have to play 100 snaps a game, I will give 110 percent for 100 snaps a game."
Registering a Big 12 best 14 sacks last season, the senior was a bright spot on an otherwise woeful defense that ranked dead last in league standings (No. 106 overall) by surrendering 453.4 ypg. But the biggest part of Tech's defensive woes may have resulted from the growing pains of having fielded so many freshmen in 2003, according to DT coach Ruffin McNeil (filling in for head coach Mike Leach who reportedly missed the Big 12 Media Conference because he was "double-booked"). Even now, there are 10 sophomores listed on Tech's two-deep defensive chart.
"At the beginning of the (2003) season, it was like going to a gunfight with a knife, and opponents had the guns and we had a knife," McNeil said. "As a coach, you have to be patient. It was like trying to eat a whole elephant with a fork. You have to take one bite at a time."
Still, a last-place defense will be hard to swallow for Duckett.
"We want to try and take our defense to another level this season," Duckett said, who also led the conference with 24.5 tackles for loss in 2003.
The Tech passing game, however, is in a league of its own. Last year, Tech led the nation in total offense (7,576 yards) and passing offense (6,179 yards). The freak show multiple offense typically lines up with four-wides and the QB operating out of the shotgun but, after that, nearly anything can happen. It's a record-setting scheme that spreads defenses by sharing the wealth among nearly all its eligible receivers.
"Mike believes in throwing the football and sharing it," McNeil said. "We do a study every year to see how many touches everyone has. We do a good job of distributing the ball. The biggest thing about our offense is distribution."
Tech also tries to spread the defense with those wide-open spaces between each offensive lineman. Opponents don't always know what to make of it, according to senior OT Daniel Loper.
"They actually ask us in games, 'What are you doing?'", Loper said. "They think we're crazy."
McNeil concedes that the scheme is not for everyone.
"As far as other teams doing it, I don't know he said," he said. "You've got to be willing to sacrifice and put the time in to do this offense. You have to really commit to it. Mike is committed to it, and so is our staff and our players. We recruit players to fit this offense."
Other than questions about Tech's defense, inquiring minds want to know who'll be flinging the rock now that record-setting quarterback B.J. Symons has graduated (following his one-year stint replacing previous record-setting QB Kliff Kingsbury). The answer is: it just doesn't matter! Look for fifth-year senior Sonny Cumbie
"Sonny has been around forever and he knows the system better than anyone," Daniel said. "We're expecting him to have the job since we've been working with him as the first team offense."
Cumbie will likely remind teammates and fans more of Kingsbury, Daniel added.
"B.J. had more raw talent for the game but Sonny is big into studying film," he said. "He knows the defense. He knows how to pick them apart."
McNeil, however, is reticent to publicly name Cumbie the heir apparent just yet. Instead, he emphasized the general profile of a Tech quarterback rather than naming specific personnel.
"Mike looks for a particular type of quarterback," he said. "He's looking for a guy who can throw, who is accurate, who can put ball where it's supposed to be, who can put the ball in the right spot. You won't see a change (in offensive production)."
That, of course, is a mixed blessing for that Texas Tech defense. An offense that can score on any possession requires that Tech rotate fresh bodies on both sides of the ball. The difference is the Raiders have had those bodies on offense, and is desperate to build depth on defense. All told, McNeill expects his unit to rotate no less than 25 defenders with no significant drop-off when backups are on the field.
"We want our offense to score as many points as they want to and as quick as quickly as they want to," he said. "It doesn't matter to our defense but we want to do our part, too. We have to have a backup at every position because our offense does score quickly. We have to put them in with confidence. We can't hesitate to put guys in."
But putting the defensive woes behind them while putting as many points on the scoreboard?: now, that would put Tech in contention for a Big 12 South Division title run.
MISSOURI: MISTER SMITH, MEET MISTER YOUNG
Every hardcore college football fan knows that Missouri QB Brad Smith and Texas QB Vince Young have drawn countless comparisons on the football field, but not knows the two recently drew roommate assignments at Steve McNair's football camp.
"They just put us together for some reason," Smith said. "It worked out good because we got to talk about some of the things we go through, how (Texas) calls plays and what they look at and that kind of thing. We really learned from each other."
Other than that, Brad, what did you think of VY?
"He was very funny," Smith laughed, "but he's a very humble guy and he's an awfully great talent."
Named National Freshman of the Year in 2002, Smith ran for 2,415 yards during his first two seasons representing the most rushing yards by any D-I quarterback during that span. But the rub on Smith is that, although he can run circles around defenses, his passing game is alarmingly inconsistent. (Sound familiar?).
Last season, Smith was the Big 12's fourth-leading rusher with 1,360 yards on 258 attempts. He averaged 6.6 ypc, second only in the Big 12 to Young's NCAA-leading 7.4 ypc. In conference action, Smith's 18 rushing TDs trailed only Texas RB Cedric Benson's NCAA-leading 21 rushing scores. Smith completed 211 of 350 passes for 1,977yards (No. 10 Big 12, No. 75 NCAA) and was noted for his inaccuracy when launching the deep ball. His 11 passing TDs were offset by seven picks in 2003.
Marked improvement in the passing game is a must before an improving Tiger team can continue its upward mobility in D-! college football, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
"If you want to be a high-level football team, you obviously have to throw the football well," he said. "We worked hard on it throughout the spring and we're working hard all summer long but there's no question about it -- it has to get better."
In three seasons, Pinkel taken Mizzou from a 4-7 club to last year's 8-5 team that snagged a bowl berth (Independence) for the first time since 1998. The Tigers are on the upswing, thanks largely to Smith and the talent that his mere presence attracts. At the same time, a two-week stretch last season was indicative of Missouri's rollercoaster season. That's when the Tigers lost by three touchdown's on the road to rival Kansas and then upset nationally-ranked Nebraska at home the following weekend, 41-24.
"The Nebraska win was a big win for our program," Pinkel recalled. "It was a big win based on history, too, because when you haven't beaten someone in 25 years, it made it a much bigger win from that standpoint. But you have to win games like that more than once a year if you want to be good."
And Pinkel wants Missouri to be more than good; he wants them to play with the big boys on an annual basis.
"Our goal is to build a national program that, year in and year out, plays at the highest level," he said. "We made some steps last year but we've got a long way to go."
Evidence of those steps is that the Tigers enter the 2004 campaign as a Top 25 team in most preseason polls. Smith said the team is taking the props all in stride.
"It doesn't matter to us (because) what matters is where you end up at the end of year," Smith said. "We'll try to go out every week and perform our best. We'll try to put it all together and, at the end of season, let's see where we're at."
Where the Tigers will likely be "at" is undefeated when Texas hosts them on October 16. While the Horns will coming off the stratospheric, raw emotions of the Oklahoma game (not to mention a road trip to Arkansas on September 11), Missouri will have faced the likes of Arkansas State, Troy State and Baylor. The game at DKR, then, will be go a long way toward determining whether the program has arrived or if they are just paper Tigers.
For college football purists, meanwhile, it shapes up as a must-see contest pitting arguably the nation's top two running quarterbacks.
"I want Vince to do well because he's a friend," Smith said. "I want him to do well..."
Smith paused, and then added...
"...except for when we play them."