By Chris Derrett
Football’s path to consecutive postseason appearances started Monday as the Bears returned to the Highers Athletics Complex for the first of 15 spring workouts. As normal, energy and emotions ran high among players itching to get back on the field.
Last season’s Texas Bowl appearance and disappointing loss to end the year added fuel to the fire, coach Art Briles said.
“There’s a lot more energy,” Briles said.
Among the biggest changes in the offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, brought to help change a defense that ranked ninth in conference sacks and 11th in both scoring defense and third-down conversion percentage. Briles and the team saw Bennett’s schemes Monday, and the offense will continue to practice against them all throughout spring drills.
Bennett opted out of viewing game film from last season, telling the defensive unit that all spots are up for grabs regardless of the first-, second- or third-string assignments currently given to players.
“I said everyone here’s got a free shot. It’s a change to get better. Regardless of what your role’s been, let’s see what it can be now,” Bennett said.
He also reiterated his emphasis on speed, as reflected in a few position changes. Sophomore Chris McAllister, at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, moves from linebacker to defensive end, and 6-foot-1, 295-pound junior Kaeron Johnson shifts from fullback to defensive tackle. Sophomore Prince Kent moves his 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame from safety to linebacker.
The moves are part of a simple goal Bennett set forth entering his Baylor debut.
“I asked one of the kids, ‘Have you played on a great defense while you’ve been at Baylor?’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, get ready.’ You’ve got to change the attitude,” Bennett said.
Briles said he looks forward to watching Bennett’s defense take on junior quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Bears’ offense.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be good for us on the offensive side to go against different schemes and things than what we’ve been by in the past,” Briles said.
Offensively the Bears finished 2010 with their offense almost fully intact. Griffin has Baylor’s top-five 2010 receivers in senior Kendall Wright, juniors Terrance Williams, Josh Gordon and Lanear Sampson and sophomore Tevin Reese.
With yet another spring season to work with his receivers, Griffin said the timing downfield will undoubtedly get better.
“It definitely will with the same guys coming back. It’ll be great … we’ve got all those guys, everybody that we all know,” Griffin said.
Griffin’s 69.6 pass completion percentage led all Big 12 starting quarterbacks last season.
If any question mark exists in Baylor’s offense, it comes in the running game. Potential NFL draft pick Jay Finley depleted his NCAA eligibility last season, taking with him 1,218 yards on the ground.
The running back battle will depend on a number of aspects Briles mentioned Monday.
“Dependability, durability, consistency, effort, toughness and intelligence,” Briles said. “They’ve all got talent, so talent’s at the bottom of the list. You’ve got to have those other intangibles to be able to be fit to play.”
Monday’s practice seemed to go according to plan, with Bennett hollering commands to defenders learning his system and Griffin driving his offense down the field in non-contact scrimmages.
If opponents have any film on Baylor’s offense from 2010, getting additional film from Monday would prove to be of little or no help. Griffin and his receivers seemed to stick with bread-and-butter plays that kept them moving down the field en route to the Bears’ first bowl eligibility in 16 years.
Before practice Griffin was asked what the 2011 spring drills will ultimately enable the offense to do.
“Continue to work like a machine. Offensively we’ll continue to run the ball well and throw the ball well,” Griffin said.