By Chris Derrett
Editor in Chief
Baylor football went back to work Thursday, and it was hot outside.
That seemed to be the team’s collective sentiment, at least about the weather. Regardless of the triple-digit temperatures, the Bears were thrilled to hold their first team practice Thursday and prepare for the 2011 season, which starts with a Sept. 4 ESPN matchup in Waco against No. 14 ranked TCU.
An excited Robert Griffin III even cracked a few jokes about the inevitable heat before taking the field.
“It’s going to be hot; we’re going to sweat a lot. I’m going to get five shades darker, but I’m willing to do that for the team,” the junior quarterback said.
Thursday’s activities, all designed for helmets-only action, included drills outside for roughly an hour and offense-defense scrimmages in the shade of the Allison Indoor Facility for another hour. Players are not expected to be in full pads until next Tuesday.
Not being able to tackle, however, did not deter the Bears from high-energy play, head coach Art Briles observed.
“It was about like they should be,” Briles said about his players’ demeanor. “We didn’t want to come out here and see who could holler the most; we wanted to come out here and get some work done.”
Baylor looks to return to the win column as quickly as possible. It couldn’t finish last season that way, reaching the program’s first bowl game in 15 years but suffering a dismal 38-14 loss to Illinois at the Texas Bowl.
Griffin joins a receiving corps nearly identical to last year’s group; all but one of the team’s top five catchers are on the fall roster and participated in Thursday’s practice.
The one receiver missing is sophomore Josh Gordon, who was suspended indefinitely earlier in the summer for an unspecified violation of team rules. Gordon electrified crowds last year with seven touchdown catches that averaged 48.7 yards.
In Gordon’s absence, receiver Lanear Sampson said anybody could become Baylor’s deep ball threat.
“There’s speed everywhere. You can pick your poison; whatever play’s called, you can get beat on any route,” Sampson said.
Griffin has so many options, Sampson added, that he doesn’t expect defenses to easily key on any one specific player. Later in the day the offense supported Sampson’s statement and sent several receivers on deep routes during scrimmage time.
The weeks leading up to kickoff also give Briles one last chance to evaluate his running backs in the search for a Jay Finley-like replacement.
Junior Jarred Salubi, one of five runners Briles mentioned as the potential featured back, wasn’t quite sure what Briles is still looking for but offered his best guess.
“I think [it’s] that guy that feels and knows he’s the one, who comes out there, is confident, and is ready to ball,” Salubi said.
Like his fellow running backs, Salubi believes he has a chance at being that player.
Uncertainty lies on the defensive side as well, not in the talent level or new direction from defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, but in finding the best position for each defender.
“We’ll probably plug in 15 to 16 guys like we do offensively,” Briles said. “I think we have a pretty good idea who will jog out there first, but there’s still a few jobs open no doubt. That’s what fall camp’s for.”
Bennett said last spring he was specifically looking for improvement in cornerback play. The Bears’ pass defense against Big 12 opponents was last in the conference at 307.9 yards per game and allowed quarterbacks a 68.6 percent completion rate.
Junior Chance Casey, likely a starter at cornerback this season, acknowledged the chip on his defense’s shoulder.
“They’ve always said we’re the weak part of this team, and we want to take that away from them,” Casey said of people outside the team. “We want to change that, and to change that, we’re going to have to change ourselves.”
Sophomore Tyler Stephenson often lined up opposite Casey during Thursday’s scrimmage time, and sophomore junior college transfer Joe Williams also saw considerable action.
For the remainder of August practice and the ensuing season, the Bears will undoubtedly keep their focus on the field, not the thermometer. Briles insists on using wisdom to avoid heat-related injuries, but Griffin and his teammates know the staff won’t entertain petty complaints.
“Coach Kaz [Kazadi] cracks us up,” Griffin said of the Bears’ strength and condition coach. “He’s like, ‘It’s hot, and water’s wet, so what are we talking about?”