By Shehan Jeyarajah
In 2013, Baylor football took a big step toward national prominence by winning the Big 12 for the first time in program history. In 2014, the Bears proved they are here to stay with a second straight conference crown.
Now, Baylor football looks to take the next step nationally in 2015 and qualify for the College Football Playoff.
“Every time we step on the field, we expect to win and other people expect us to win,” head coach Art Briles said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that, for our players, coaches and fans.”
It’s no secret, Baylor’s success is dependent on production from the quarterback position. Baylor has finished with a winning record each of the last four seasons; Bear quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence and Petty have averaged over 4,160 passing yards and 32 touchdowns per season.
With Petty gone to the NFL, junior quarterback Seth Russell steps into the fold. The Garland native threw for 438 yards and five touchdowns in his lone half starting and has already thrown for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns in a backup role. Now, he is set up to be the starter.
“It’s a huge responsibility being able to go out there and be able to continue this legacy,” Russell said. “I’m following some big shoes with the past quarterbacks, so it’s going to be fun.”
Baylor lost Petty and former All-American receiver Antwan Goodley to graduation, but return the rest of the rotation. Briles’ offense starts with domination in the trenches and this team is poised to be elite. Senior left tackle Spencer Drango is returning for his senior year and will fortify a line that returns six players with starting experience.
At receiver, it’s still an embarrassment of riches. Junior wide receiver Corey Coleman and sophomore KD Cannon became the sixth and seventh players in Baylor history to accumulate over 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Cannon was the first to do it as a freshman.
After a disappointing collapse in the 2015 Cotton Bowl, Baylor’s defense has plenty to prove.
“It’s a big chip because we have so much to prove,” sophomore linebacker Taylor Young said. “We are a good defense that can be great. We have so much potential”
While Briles’ offenses start on the lines, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett relies on dominating opposing frontlines. On the defensive line, senior All-American Shawn Oakman is complemented by fellow All-Big 12 member junior defensive tackle Andrew Billings. The duo were part of a unit that advanced statistics outlet Football Outsiders ranked No. 12 nationally. Baylor returns every player in the defensive line rotation.
Linebacker is the lone place where the Bears saw significant attrition on defense. Three-time All-Big 12 middle linebacker Bryce Hager leaves a void in the middle that BU will have a hard time replacing.
“It’s weird but that’s life,” Young said. “It’s time to move on. Bryce was a great linebacker and a great leader. If anyone needed anything or had a question to ask, Bryce was always there. The coaches have no other goal but for me to get there.”
Former junior college transfer Grant Campbell was listed as the starting middle linebacker on the post-spring depth chart, but junior Aiavion Edwards is also expected to compete for the role.
The secondary is arguably where Baylor saw the most issue in 2014. The Bears’ defense gave up 264.2 yards per game, good enough for No. 107 nationally out of 125 teams. However, Baylor had three new starters last year who will all return in 2015.
“It is going to be a big difference because we really did struggle on that end last year,” junior safety Orion Stewart said. “With everyone back and having a year of experience I feel that next year we are really going to be good.”
Baylor has built on its resume each of the last three seasons and only two goals remain incomplete: winning a major bowl game and qualifying for and winning the College Football Playoff. It seems as though this would be the year to do both.