It is the greatest, cruelest aspect of college sports: players come, then go. It is great because, like term limits in politics, it forces new blood into the picture every now and then, keeps things fresh. It puts caps on the careers of players you don't like and forces you to move on (and get to know new players) from those you do. Of course, it also allows for the ruling class to remain the ruling class. "Congratulations on that great player, [Random Second-Tier School]; he'll be gone soon." To become great, you have to recruit great players, then recruit more, then more, then more. And unless you have a huge name from a historical standpoint, that is all but guaranteed not to happen.
Amid this admittedly depressing backdrop, Art Briles and the Baylor Bears go about building momentum all over again following the departure of the program's best player ever, quarterback and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. As an added bonus, their leading receiver (himself a first-round draft pick), rusher and two all-conference offensive linemen are also gone. Briles has done an incredible job of building both depth and speed in Waco, and it is fair to assume he has put together a program capable of continuing to make bowl appearances without RGIII and company. But even if a return to moribund ways is not likely, it is worth noting where Baylor was, pre-Briles and pre-RGIII, and where they are now.
- In 2007, Guy Morriss' final year as Baylor head coach, average attendance at Floyd Casey Stadium was 34,378. Remove the visit from the University of Texas (in which there were probably as many Longhorn fans as Bear fans in attendance), and the average sinks under 33,000. That same year, the University of New Mexico's average attendance was 38,341. UTEP: 47,899. In 2011, Baylor's average attendance was up over 20 percent.
- In five years (2003-07), Morriss won 18 games. In the last two years (2010-11), Briles won 17.
- Before 2010, Baylor had not been ranked at all since 1993 and hadn't finished a season ranked since 1986. They crept into the Top 25 in 2010, spent 11 weeks there in 2011, and finished the 2011 season ranked 13th. Only four times have they ever finished higher than that; three of those four instances came over 50 years ago.
- In 2010-11, the Baylor offense gained 13,811 yards. The Bears gained 14,924 yards from 2004-07.
While Griffin gets most of the press, we should also step back and marvel at the career Briles has put together. After 16 years as a Texas high school head coach (he took over Stephenville High School in 1988 amid a more than three-decade playoff drought, and took the Yellow Jackets to the playoffs for 10 straight seasons, winning four 4A state tittles, first with a devastating Wishbone offense, then with a record-setting spread), he inherited a University of Houston program that had gone 8-26 in three years under Dana Dimel (they had gone 0-11 in 2001) and took them to four bowls in five seasons, going 18-9 in his final two years and winning the Conference USA title in 2007. He brought his Stephenville quarterback, Kevin Kolb, with him (Kolb was originally an Oklahoma State commit), then replaced him with Case Keenum in 2007.
Five years later, Houston is preparing for a promotion of sorts to the Big East Conference.
On Sept. 24, 2007, Briles scored a commitment from a 6'3, 195-pound quarterback from Copperas Cove. Rivals listed him as the No. 44 player in the state of Texas. (He ended up No. 42, just behind No. 39 LaMichael James and just ahead of No. 43 Darron Thomas. The top five: defensive end R.J. Washington, running back Jermie Calhoun, offensive lineman Stephen Good, defensive back Aaron Williams and receiver Darryl Stonum. Recruiting: still a bit of an inexact science.) Two months later, on Nov. 28, Briles accepted the Baylor job. A week after that, Griffin announced that he would be attending school in Waco instead.
And now, here we are. Briles' Bears are coming off their second ever 10-win season, their first bowl win since 1992, and their first ever Heisman Trophy. Griffin was an amazing player, one of my favorites ever, but do you think Briles is too worried about losing a star quarterback when he can just go out and produce another?
Now if he could figure out how to get a better defense on the field...
Here's what I said about the Bears last May, back when there was at least a little room left on the RGIII bandwagon:
Robert Griffin III is smart, loyal, likable, brutally tough, ridiculously fast, incredibly underrated as a passer, and in 2010, he led Baylor to any number of firsts -- first bowl since 1994 ... first AP ranking since 1993 ... first win at Texas since 1991 ... basically first anything good since around the time Grant Teaff left. […]
Griffin and an extremely capable Baylor offense were burned too many times by a defense that was both experienced and completely unreliable. The better the Baylor O performed, the worse the Baylor D performed; it was that way when Baylor was running out to a 7-2 start, and it was that way when they were losing their final four games of the season. The defense held Baylor back in 2010, and at first glance, there's no reason to think the same thing won't happen in 2011. […]
To say the least, there is plenty of opportunity to draw big crowds and score big wins on the 2011 schedule -- Baylor hosts Oklahoma, TCU, Texas and Missouri among their seven home games. But quite a few indicators suggest Baylor is just as likely to regress as progress.
For starters, Baylor recovered an inordinate amount of fumbles in 2010. They went 3-1 in close games last year, recovering 11 of 18 fumbles in those games; a shift of a couple turnovers could have made the difference in one or two of those games and completely redefined Baylor's turnaround year. (Among other things, they fumbled five times against Texas but recovered four of them.)
Beyond that, it's hard to imagine the Baylor offense improving too much -- they were already at a pretty high level -- but it's a lot easier to imagine their defense regressing with the loss of Taylor and some key defensive backs.
Even while professing undying admiration for Griffin and the Bears offense, I was selling them short. The offense did improve, from 16th in Off. F/+ to second, and though the defense still held the Bears back, it improved just enough (from 106th in Def. F/+ to 92nd) to keep from destroying the season this time around, though Baylor was a lot closer to seven wins than 11.
By now, I've come to realize that quarterbacks seem to play an inordinately large role in close games. The Bears went 3-1 in one-possession games in 2010, then went 4-1 in 2011. Griffin's late heroics saved Baylor from a collapse against TCU (Baylor blew a 24-point lead, then won, 50-48) and overcame a dreadfully slow start versus Kansas (BU fell behind, 24-3, then won, 31-30). He found Terrence Williams on an incredible strike late against Oklahoma, and he threw for 406 yards against Missouri and staked the Bears to a lead a hair too big for the defense to blow.
Still, the defense, though slightly improved, was an issue. New coordinator Phil Bennett couldn't find the right buttons to press, and it would behoove Baylor greatly if he found his buttons in 2012. Senior quarterback Nick Florence should assure that the Bears once again field a solid offense, but he might not have the late-game touch that was required to drag the same sorry defense to 10 wins.
We know two things about Baylor's offense heading into this fall: 1. RGIII is gone. 2. An Art Briles offense is going to score a lot of points regardless.
Oh, and 3. Nick Florence will be the starting quarterback this fall. Let's not forget that one. Florence is almost certainly not going to be Heisman contender, but he should certainly suffice. When Griffin was concussed versus Texas Tech last year, Florence completed nine of 12 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns to guide the Bears to an easy win. When Griffin tore his ACL in 2009, Florence (then a greyshirt freshman), had his moments then, too. He completed 20 of 27 passes for 216 yards against Kent State, 21 of 35 for 235 yards against Oklahoma State, and 32 of 43 for 427 yards at Missouri. His 2009 season as a whole was a bit hit-or-miss, but he's not a freshman anymore, and he'll have some experienced, interesting weapons at his disposal.
It starts, of course, with senior Terrence Williams. In almost any other offense in the country, Williams would have been by far the No. 1 receiver. He managed an absurd combination of efficiency (71 percent catch rate) and explosiveness (16.2 yards per catch) and caught the aforementioned game-winner versus Oklahoma. But he happened to share a receiving corps with Kendall Wright (75 percent catch rate, 15.5 per catch, 11.2 targets per game). Still, Williams had more than his fair share of moments. He caught eight of 10 passes for 146 yards against Texas A&M, eight of 10 for 154 against Oklahoma State, and seven of 10 for 100 yards against Missouri. And at 6'3, 205 pounds (up from 190 last year), he can take the pounding that a boatload of targets can ensure.
On the rare occasion that opponents got a handle on both Wright and Williams, Baylor killed them with Tevin Reese. A blazing-fast inside receiver, Reese caught four of five passes for 84 yards versus Oklahoma and seven of 10 for 127 yards versus Missouri; he was given seven touches in the Alamo Bowl win over Washington, and he gained 167 yards (5-for-5 receiving for 66 yards, two carries for 101 yards). At 165 pounds, we can question his durability, but you have to be able to hit him for that to matter. Quite a few teams could not in 2011.
Beyond Reese, there are even more weapons. Lanear Sampson (572 yards, 9.4 per target, 71 percent catch rate) made the most of his opportunities as the No. 5 target last year, and tight ends Jordan Navjar and Jerod Monk caught 24 of 26 passes thrown their way. Plus, four-star freshman Corey Coleman could quickly make waves at inside receiver. And to top it off, Michigan receiver Darryl Stonum, he of "Top Five in Texas" recruiting fame, transferred from Michigan this summer and is expected to be eligible in 2012. The receiving corps will almost be worse by default without Wright, but a top five of Williams, Reese, Sampson, Stonum and Navjar/Monk is still rather ridiculous.
Despite the gaudy passing totals, Baylor also found time to run the ball last year (that's what happens when you move at a nuclear pace). Then-senior Terrance Ganaway averaged nearly 20 carries per game, and while no returnee can match Ganaway's odd combination of size and speed, the trio of senior Jarred Salubi, junior Glasco Martin and sophomore (and former blue-chipper) Lache Seastrunk should suffice. Seastrunk did not waste time in building up expectations: the five-star prospect from the 2010 class (who spent a redshirt year at Oregon before transferring) raced for 138 yards in just seven carries in the 2012 spring game. He pulled off a 75-yarder in the second half of the scrimmage. With Seastrunk and, potentially, Stonum joining and already incredibly fast unit of skill position players, I'm pretty sure I could quarterback Baylor to at least 24 points per game.
If there's a question mark, it comes up front. The line ranked sixth in Adj. Line Yards last year but must replace two multi-year starters: guard Robert T. Griffin and center Philip Blake. Briles and line coach Randy Clements did some shuffling -- senior tackle Ivory Wade (33 career starts) moves to center, senior guard Cameron Kaufhold moves from the left side of the line to the right, left tackle Cyril Richardson (17) moves to left guard, and backup guard Tim Smith moves to center -- but it does appear when combined with youngsters like four-star redshirt freshman Spencer Drango and sophomore Troy Baker, the makings of a relatively solid line are still present. And Florence could help the line out a bit by attempting more short, easy passes; Griffin's only flaw last year was a propensity for sacks (6.3 percent sack rate). To say the least, he made up for it in other ways.
Phil Bennett has been around. He took his first BCS conference defensive coordinator position in 1983, at age 27, for Iowa State. He was there for four seasons, then moved to Purdue for five. Then LSU for three. Texas A&M for two. TCU for one. After connecting with Bill Snyder for three wonderfully impressive seasons at Kansas State (1999-01), Bennett took the SMU head coaching position, almost built a winner in Dallas (SMU went 5-6 in 2005, 6-6 in 2006), then floundered (1-11 in 2007). Fired from SMU, he landed in Dave Wannstedt's staff at Pittsburgh for three years. Now he's entering his second year in Waco. In most of the stops of his long, mostly illustrious career, he has produced strong, aggressive defenses. He tends to know what to do with the weapons he inherits (Dat Nguyen, Mark Simoneau, et cetera).
That said, Bennett had no idea what to do with Baylor's personnel last year. Okay, that's a bit unfair. As mentioned above, the Baylor defense did technically improve last year, even if it still leaked too many points and yards. Baylor was terrible against the pass (91st in Passing S&P+, 109th in Adj. Sack Rate -- bad things in the Big 12) but downright average against the run (62nd in Rushing S&P+). They improved on passing downs, when Bennett could be suitably aggressive, and they stiffened at least a bit in the red zone. It would have been worse. But without the RGIII safety net, it now needs to be quite a bit better.
If you believe in the power of star rankings, improvement is at least conceivable. Quite a few former four- and high three-star recruits will soon be getting their chance in the rotation, from freshman end Javonte Magee, to redshirt freshman tackles Beau Blackshear and Trevor Clemons-Valdez, to junior college linebacker Eddie Lackey, to junior defensive back Tyler Stephenson, to junior rover Prince Kent, to freshman defensive backs Ryan Reid and Aiavion Edwards. It's not as if Baylor has taken every single one of its good recruits and every single super-fast player and put them on the offensive side of the ball. There is athleticism on this Baylor defense. Now there needs to be more evidence of pure talent and know-how.
On the plus side, the secondary could improve quite a bit in 2012. Rover* Ahmad Dixon, the most highly-touted recruit on the defensive side of the ball (he decommitted from Texas to choose Baylor), had a solid season in 2011, all things considered: one interception, three passes broken up, 5.5 tackles for loss. By all accounts, Dixon has taken leadership of this defense entering his junior season, and he has lovely ball-hawk potential near the line of scrimmage. And while they also allowed far too many plays, there is some potential aggressiveness at the cornerback position: juniors K.J. Morton and Joe Williams (himself a former four-star recruit) combined for five interceptions, 18 passes broken up, 3.0 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. The problem last year, more than anything, was the safety position. (Well, that and the horrid pass rush.) Starters Sam Holl and Mike Hicks return, though Baylor fans might need convincing that this is a good thing. The two combined for some solid disruptive stats -- 5.0 tackles for loss, six interceptions, six passes broken up -- but suffered far too many breakdowns and missed far too many tackles (which is amazing considering they still combined for 20 percent of Baylor's tackles). They might not be getting as much help from the front six/seven this year, so they will need to raise their respective games significantly.
* The rover position is listed as a third linebacker, but in practice it's basically an aggressive nickel back, so I'm listing it as a fifth defensive back.
The defensive line was far from amazing last year, but in end Tevin Elliot (dismissed after a sexual assault charge) and tackles Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and Tracy Robertson, they have lost three of their more proven play-makers, at least if there were such a thing on last year's defense. The three combined for 23.0 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks; the rest of the returning line combined for 18.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. At end, junior Terrance Lloyd does return -- at 240 pounds, he is a bit of an all-or-nothing speed guy, as do Gary Mason Jr., and Chris McAllister. But the tackle position is almost devoid of experience; you've got seniors Nick Johnson and Kaeron Johnson (combined: 11.5 tackles, 1.5 for loss in 2011) leading the way by default, but the potential is probably in youngsters Blackshear and Clemons-Valdez.
If you count Dixon as a defensive back, and I stubbornly do, then the linebacker position is without its best playmaker in 2012 as well. Elliot Coffey (5.0 tackles for loss) is gone -- yes, Baylor pretty much cornered the market in players named Elliot, Terrance/Terrence, Tevin, and Robert Griffin last year -- and it looks like Phil Bennett will be leaning on incoming juco Eddie Lackey (who looked good this spring) and senior Rodney Chadwick (2.5 tackles for loss, five passes broken up) for leadership.
The Baylor offense and its ridiculously high pace do the Baylor defense no favors, obviously. But while the D probably can't ever (and doesn't need to) dominate like those late-1990s Kansas State defenses did, it still needs to approach average.
Honestly, this almost feels like a freebie year for Baylor. Just make another bowl (it would be the first time they ever attended a bowl for three straight years) and score a lot of points, and that's probably enough, even if the talent is in place to aim higher.
When my colleagues Dan Rubenstein and Spencer Hall tried out EA Sports' NCAA '13 video game a month ago, they did the meanest thing they could think of: to test out the "put an old Heisman winner on any team" function, they apologetically put Robert Griffin III on the Indiana Hoosiers. Here's the deal, though: that basically really happened. When Griffin followed Art Briles to Waco, he willingly became the face of one of the country's worst BCS conference programs. From 1997-2007, Baylor averaged 2.8 wins per season. They were consistently mocked, consistently vilified as the school that had stolen TCU's rightful Big 12 bid through politics. (This is incredible revisionist history, by the way: when the Big 12 was coming together, Baylor was not far removed from a run of decent play, and TCU was horrible. But I digress.) They were worse than Indiana then -- the Hoosiers, after all, were coming off a bowl bid in 2007.
Griffin is now a Washington Redskin, having left behind a completely different program, one that is building a new stadium, one that is becoming a safe haven for talented second-chance kids with talent (for better or worse), and one whose name just means something different than it did four years ago. Griffin also leaves behind Briles, a winner in his own right who inspires loyalty in his players and who should be able to keep the bowl bids coming in while he searches for the next RGIII.
And hopefully the next RGIII will play defense.
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