Saturday, July 10, 2010

Opponent Preview: BAYLOR

Baylor has been on the cusp of bowl-eligibility, at least in pre-season writing, for years.  It appears that the Bears are finally going to make good on all that pre-season press, now that the team's best runningback and quarterback return, and get to work behind slightly improved lines.  It does not yet appear that Baylor is so much improved, however, that they may expect to leave Fort Worth with a win. 

While all eyes and the Green and Gold hopes are on the return of Robert Griffin at QB, the worries accumulate in front of him, where the offensive line returns only 37 starts (15th worst in the NCAA). Granted, last year’s line managed to pave the way for only 3.5 ypc (down from 4.9 in ‘08) and allowed over 30 sacks, so maybe a fresh set of faces up front ain’t a bad thing.

In fact, the talent upgrade that Art Briles has brought to Waco is beginning to show on the offensive line. Phil Steele lists six of the players on the two-deep as notable recruits. Two of them, LT Danny Watkins (the star up front, pictured right), and Robert Griffin (RG) (no relation to the QB) are JUCO transfers. Watkins didn’t play up to his hype in 2009, but still has enormous upside, and will get the starts to show it, if he can. Watkins, C Philip Blake (who played RT last season) are and RT Ivory Wade (played guard last season) started all of 2009, and are not a bad group to build around. Wade was the star of the Bears’ 2009 freshman class. However, the line they anchored this spring (with Kaufhold/Richardson at LG, Jones at RG; Griffin did not play) did not impress. The Bears’s defensive line pushed back the offensive all spring, and registered too many sacks to soothe Bear-watchers’ fears that this year may not return all the way to the 4.9 ypc mark set in ‘08.

Protecting Mr. Griffin III (left) will be the line’s first task. Baylor’s bowl hopes rise and set with Griffin’s health in 2010. The speedy QB felt like he was playing at 90% in the spring, and expects to play at 100% plus a knee brace this fall. So the ground game depends an awful lot on the spark it gets from Robert Griffin at QB, both as a runner, and as a passer. Griffin was Baylor’s #2 rusher in ‘08 (only 19 yards behind Jay Finley, the ‘08 best rushing Bear). Baylor basically had no rushing game in 2009 (Finley, playing through injury, tallied only 370 yards, almost 100 more than the next-best Bear; the whole team rushed for about half as many yards as in 2008). Jay Finley returns with Griffin, though neither played much during the spring (giving backup Issac Williams time to shine, and he did). Bear fans hope the two starters, playing at 100% for the first time in almost a year, will be able to capitalize on the fresh strength up front, and resurrect the ground game. And while the ground game in Waco can’t get any worse in 2010, expect improvement to be incremental, setting the groundwork for much higher expectations in 2011.

What about the air attack? Griffin is easily the best passing quarterback on the roster, and he has a decent group of receivers. Returning starters Lanear Sampson and Kendall Wright accounted for about a third of last year’s receiving game. Coach Briles is high on sophomore Josh Gordon, right, who may be a go-to receiver this season. Terrance Williams has impressed in spring, as well. Tight end Willie Jefferson (6-6) will be the tallest receiver on the team. The first-team group of receivers is respectable by any measure. There is almost no experience behind them, however.

The defense realistically cannot get worse, especially when offset by likely improvement in the offense. Fresher legs on D is always good, and Baylor will have more of them as the offense chews up more minutes and puts up more points.

How good is the defensive line that pushed around the offensive line all spring? Two of the four who last season led the dismal 98th-best rushing defense in the country (over 178 ypg allowed on the ground) and managed only 18 sacks last season return: guard Phil Taylor and end Zac Scotton. Taylor, above left, who transferred from Penn State and had a too-average year last season, hopes to play more quickly, having shed 20 pounds this offseason (down to a slim 355!); his backup, Nicholas Jean-Baptiste showed well in the spring. The new starting end and tackle are Gary Mason and Tracy Robertson.

Despite losing one of the team’s all-time great linebackers, Joe Pawelek, the Bears seem to be well stocked at linebacker for 2010. The team's playmakers appear at this level of the defense. Chris McAllister (redshirt sophomore) LeQuince McCall (sophomore) and Rodney Chadwick (redshirt freshman) all impressed in the spring, and likely all of them will be back ups starting the year. Elliot Coffey, Chris Francis, and star Antonio Johnson (right) top the two-deep going into fall drills. Nowhere else on the team do the Bears feel so talented and deep.

The secondary was a hospital ward this spring, with starting safety Byron Landor had knee surgery, Anthony Moore and CB Antareis Bryan out with a foot injury. One safety and corner spot each is open, with incoming freshman Ahmad Dixon hoping to oust senior Byron Landor from the first team safety (returning senior Tim Atchison is the other starting safety) and healed Antareis Bryan hopes to oust senior Clifton Odom from starting at corner (sophomore Chance Casey is the other starter at corner).

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