Jan 1, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; UCF Knights running back Storm Johnson (8) loses control of the ball as he is tackled by Baylor Bears defensive end Jamal Palmer (92) during the second quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium during the Fiesta Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Baylor Bears for real?


Jan 1, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Baylor Bears quarterback Bryce Petty (14) is congratulated by running back Shock Linwood (32) after a touchdown during the third quarter against the Central Florida Knights during the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. Central Florida defeated Baylor 52-42. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The big question on campus last season was whether Nick Florence could replace Robert Griffin III at quarterback. While Florence wasn’t a threat to win the Heisman trophy, he did a solid job. In 2013, the question was whether Bryce Petty could continue the Bears run of success. Petty didn’t just carry on the success, he took it to the next level, leading a ridiculously prolific offense that racked up over 8000 yards and scored nearly 700 points. Petty was the Big 12 conference player of the year, and he led the team to 11 wins, a league title and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. So, the offense was great, but this is Baylor, so the defense sucked – right? Wrong! This was a strong defense for most of the season, despite playing in an offensive conference. Oklahoma State put an end to the Bears outside shot at a national title game spot with a tough loss. While the Bears were stunned by UCF (wasn’t everyone) in the Fiesta Bowl, taking some of the luster off the season, Art Briles has the Bears believing in themselves.

 

Offense

Jan 1, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Baylor Bears running back Shock Linwood (32) runs the ball against the UCF Knights during the fourth quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium during the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights won 52-42. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

What a season of offense for the Bears, breaking a number of national records as they tore up the Big 12. Petty led the way, passing for 4200 yards and 32 TDs with a mere 3 interceptions, throwing to a plethora of speedy receivers. Antwan Goodley was the top wideout with 71 catches for 1339 yards and 13 scores, while Tevin Reese gained 867 yards and scored 8 TDs on just 38 receptions. He could have done even more if not for 3 missed games late in the season. The running attack averaged 260 yards per game, and accounted for 47 of the team’s TDs. Lache Seastrunk was the star, rushing for 1177 yards and 11 TDs, despite some late injury woes. Freshman Shock Linwood filled in admirably, accounting for 881 yards and another 8 scores. Petty was a great goal-line threat, adding 209 yards and 14 TDs. Big 12 offensive lineman of the year, left guard Cyril Richardson, led an outstanding offensive line that allowed just 19 sacks. Left tackle Spencer Drango joined Richardson as an all-conference pick.

The best news of the offseason has to be Petty’s decision to stick around. He should be even better with a full year running the offense. Reese has run out of eligibility, as has tight end Jordan Najvar, but the rest of the receiving corps returns. Goodley will lead the way, but Levi Norwood (47-733-8) and freshman Corey Coleman (35-527-2) will be contributors. Briles has added a ton of freshman talent at the position – watch for KD Cannon and Davion Hall to flash their ability when the opportunity arises. Seastrunk and power-runner Glasco Martin are finished, but Linwood ensures the running game will be in good hands. Another freshman, Devin Chafin, could be on course for greater productivity after picking up 295 yards and scoring 4 times last season. If there’s one concern on offense, it’s an offensive line that was generally excellent, but had the occasional hiccough in pass protection. The line loses 3 starters, Richardson, center Stefan Huber and right tackle Kevin Palmer. Richardson is the biggest loss, while Huber and Palmer were 1-year starters. Massive JUCO Jarrell Broxton should replace Richardson, but he has big shoes to fill. Hawaii-transfer Blake Muir, who is eligible to play this year, was a starter at left tackle as a redshirt freshman at Hawaii, and is a likely frontrunner to replace Palmer, as is Pat Colbert, who started a couple of games there last season. Kyle Fuller backed up Huber last season, and will get a shot to replace him in 2014. The system will mask the offensive line to a degree, but if this year’s unit can’t come close to last year’s group, it could become a factor in big games.

 

Defense

The defense really stepped it up last season. They knocked over 140 yards and 13 points per game off their 2012 totals, their best performance in years. Why the sudden success? A senior-laden defense brought experience to Briles’ attacking schemes, and the defense wasn’t shredded when the pressure failed to get there. The defensive line did a great job getting after opposing passers, led by defensive end Chris McAllister with 6 sacks. They weren’t just pass rushers either, tying up blockers and making the job of the linebackers a lot easier. Speaking of linebackers, the group was the class of the defense. Eddie Lackey was the star on the weakside, racking up 108 tackles, 13 for loss, with 4.5 sacks and 3 interceptions. Bryce Hager missed 4 games in the middle, yet still made 71 tackles and led the team with 9 quarterback hurries. Sam Holl made 66 tackles on the strongside, but made 10 in the backfield and also broke up 6 passes. The secondary wasn’t far behind the linebackers. Safety Ahmad Dixon was all-conference, making 81 tackles with 6 PBUs, while cornerbacks KJ Morton and Demetri Goodson combined for 23 PBUs and 6 interceptions.

The problem with a senior-laden defense is, the following season they need to be replaced, and Baylor will be auditioning 7 new starters for 2014. Make that 6 starters, as end Jamal Palmer was probably the second best lineman behind McAllister, despite playing as a reserve all season. He was second on the team with 5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, and he should slot right in to McAllister’s old spot. Beau Blackshear should be set at nose, but the other tackle spot could be open to competition. Byron Bonds likely has the edge after starting 6 games there as a true freshman. At the other end, Terrance Lloyd needs to be replaced, but Shawn Oakman looks to be ready to step in after making 12.5 tackles for loss as a reserve. Keep an eye on Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu to push for playing time now that he’s eligible to play. Only linebacker Bryce Hager returns from last season’s linebacking corps, and he won’t be available until fall camp. The positive is it will give the young guys a chance to strut their stuff. Brody Trahan filled in for Hager late last season and did okay, and he may get a longer look at one of the other vacant spots. Aiavion Edwards showed some big play ability last season as a freshman, while fellow sophomore Kendall Ehrlich and JUCO Grant Campbell will also be in the mix. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning member of the starting secondary, and don’t write off a switch to cornerback for 2014. Orion Stewart did a good job as a backup and sometime starter at other safety spot, and is the leading candidate to replace Dixon. Baylor went the JUCO route to replace their corners, and may have gotten a couple of good ones in Chris Sanders and Tion Wright.

 

Special Teams

It’s just as well that the Bears could score TDs almost at will, as placekicker Aaron Jones wasn’t the most accurate of kickers. He wasn’t bad, hitting 14 of 23, and also had 40 touchbacks, but he missed too many manageable kicks. Spencer Roth certainly helped out the defense with his punting, hitting nearly a third (17 of 52) over 50 yards. He dropped 17 inside the 20, but hit 7 touchbacks. His coverage unit was less than stellar, allowing an average of 16.8 yards per punt return. The kickoff coverage was a lot better, despite getting a lot of work. Coleman was the pick of the kick returners, averaging over 28 yards and scoring a TD, while Norwood scored twice on punt returns.

Jones has finally graduated, so now it’s Kyle Peterson’s turn to show what he can do. In limited action last season, he hit 6 of 7 PATs and a 43-yard field goal, his only attempt of the season. Roth is back to punt, while Coleman and Norwood should man the return spots again. The punt coverage needs to improve drastically though.

 

Prediction

Can we now consider Baylor to be regular contenders in the Big Twelve, or was last year just a flash in the pan? This season could go a long way to answering that, as there are quite a few questions. The offense should be explosive again, too much for most teams to handle, but will the line be good enough to get those crucial rushing yards in big games, or form a solid pocket when passing is the only answer? On defense, can youth and exuberance make up for a lack of experience, and how good is the depth? At first glance, the conference as a whole doesn’t look great, more like a collection of solid teams capable of knocking each other off. Can Briles get the Bears to dig deep again, and that special “thing” that will put them head and shoulders above the rest, or will 9-3 be good enough to win the Big Twelve? A visit to Texas in the 4th October should reveal more.

 

Tags: Aiavion Edwards Antwan Goodley Art Briles Beau Blackshear Blake Muir Brody Trahan Bryce Hager Bryce Petty Byron Bonds Chris Sanders Corey Coleman Davion Hall Devin Chafin Featured Jamal Palmer Jarrell Broxton JUCO Grant Campbell KD Cannon Kendall Ehrlich Kyle Fuller Kyle Peterson Levi Norwood Orion Stewart Pat Colbert Popular Sam Ukwuachu Shawn Oakman Shock Linwood Spencer Drango Spencer Roth Terrell Burt Tion Wright

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