Back for More: Returning starters give Bears hope of third Big 12 title

Junior quarterback Seth Russell looks deep for a pass in the Bears’ game against Northwestern State on Sept. 7 at McLane Stadium. Russell started one game last season for an injured Bryce Petty and looks to keep the starting job for the 2015 season. Photo credit: Lariat File Photo

It’s the start of another college football season and the Baylor Bears, fresh off a second consecutive Big 12 championship, are reloaded for another title run. The Bears also have a good chance to become one of the final four in the College Football Playoff, something that the Bears barely missed out on in 2014.

“We’ve used last season [as motivation]. We knew somebody would get fifth, we just didn’t know it’d be us,” head coach Art Briles said in an ESPN interview.

The playoff snub isn’t the only source of motivation the Bears will have at their disposal coming into 2015. The last time Baylor took the field, they surrendered a 21-point lead to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, ultimately losing a 42-41 shootout.

“We’re using [Cotton Bowl loss] as motivation. We’ve got a little extra fire going into this season,” Briles said of the Cotton Bowl loss.

With this motivation teamed up alongside some of the best talent in college football, Baylor looks primed to make a powerful statement this year.

Offensive firepower has been the trademark of the Bears, ranking nationally in the top five offensively in both yards gained and points scored in the last two seasons. With nine starters returning on the offense, Baylor is predicted to be among the nation’s elite offenses in 2015. The loss of quarterback Bryce Petty stands out.

One of the most successful Baylor quarterbacks ever, Petty led Baylor to consecutive Big 12 championships, two New Year’s bowl games, and posted statistics that rank him second in school history in passing yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage. Baylor has shown the ability to plug in talent year in and year out and the quarterback position looks no different.

Seth Russell will be the man responsible for ushering in a new era of Baylor football at the head of the offense after having served as the backup for Petty the last couple of seasons and head coach Art Briles believes he has been preparing for this moment for a long time.

“He’s been paying on it for a while. Now it’s his opportunity to make sure the clothes fit,” Briles said.

Russell will step into the starting quarterback role armed with a plethora of weapons as well as the entire starting offensive line from last season. Few first year starters can boast the experience that the junior signal caller has from playing over the years – including starting for an injured Petty last season against Northwestern State, a game where he threw for 438 yards and five touchdowns.

Among the aforementioned weapons is the dynamic wide receiving duo of junior Corey Coleman and sophomore K.D. Cannon, who combined for 2,149 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2014. Both players were named to the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver annually.

Senior tight end LaQuan McGowan (6-foot-7 410 pounds), who became an immediate fan favorite after catching a touchdown pass in the Cotton Bowl last season, also returns in a more developed role.

“He’s an extremely athletic guy and that’s what made us [move him to tight end],” said Briles. “We’ve got this big, huge person that has good skills and we understand that we’re living in 2035 and this is an experiment… but we also understand that we have to take the opportunity to use him to help our team win.”

Baylor also returns its entire starting offensive line from the second half of the 2014 season. According to first year offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, this could be one of the best units, not only in school history, but in the nation as well.

Baylor is one of only seven programs among ‘Power 5’ (ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big 10) schools to return all five starters on the offensive line. Led by senior left tackle Spencer Drango, an All-American in 2014, and junior center Kyle Fuller, the offensive line will look to continue producing an offensive onslaught that ranked first in the nation in yards per game and points per game.

Running behind Baylor’s offensive line is another returnee in junior running back Shock Linwood. Linwood ran for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns in the 2014 campaign and will once again be the feature back in a stable of rushers consisting of sophomore Johnny Jefferson and junior Devin Chafin, who combined for 907 yards and 14 touchdowns.

With so many weapons returning to Waco on the offensive side of the ball, the Baylor Bears look to continue their trend of explosiveness into the 2015 campaign in search of a third consecutive Big 12 title. Offense is only half the battle for the Bears though: As the age-old adage states, “Offense wins games but defense wins championships.”

The past four seasons, the Bears have lowered opposing teams’ averages in yards per carry and rushing yards per game, while increasing their production in the sack category. For the Bears to win the Big 12 and be considered National Title contenders, they will need to continue their upward trend on defense.

The defensive improvements are mainly thanks to the nationally recognized corps of defensive linemen assembled under Defensive Coordinator Phil Bennett. The D-line has developed to the point that many experts are including Baylor in discussions for the best in the country. Bennett, however, believes it’s a little early to be making such claims.

“They’re all really good players but as they well know, projections don’t mean anything… you have to go out and prove it,” said Bennett.

At the forefront of the defense is mammoth senior defensive end Shawn Oakman (6-foot-9, 280 pounds). Oakman enters this season looking to expand upon his record-setting season in 2014 (11 sacks – school single-season best). His extraordinary frame and athleticism make it no surprise that the regular season 1st Team All-Big 12 (2014) player is on numerous watch lists, including the Bednarik Award for best defensive player in college football.

Another member on that list is last season’s 1st Team All-Big 12 junior nose tackle Andrew Billings. Head Coach Art Briles thinks this group of linemen, led by Oakman, Billings and senior defensive tackle Beau Blackshear, can be a force.

“We’ve got guys that are super athletic.” Briles told the Afternoon Show on 103.3FM ESPN. “All of [our defensive line] is coming back and we feel good up front defensively. So we think we can play dominant football this year.”

Senior defensive end Jamal Palmer suffered a season-ending ACL tear last year against the Longhorns, missing the eight remaining games. Thanks to rehab and a great job from the training staff in the recovery process he is ready to go, Palmer said.

“This reminds me of 2013,” said Bennett. “We’ve got guys that have played a lot of games and we have a lot of [depth]. It gives us a lot of possibilities.”

With the losses of Bryce Hager and Collin Brence, last season’s No. 1 and No. 4 tacklers for the Bears respectively, sophomore linebacker Taylor Young will have an even greater load on his shoulders this season. Bennett is not worried about Young’s progression though.

“He’s good; he’s a playmaker… but what I love most about Taylor is that he knows how much better he can be,” said Bennett.

2nd-Team All-Big 12 safety Orion Stewart, a junior, can help Young lead the Bears’ secondary. The two-year veteran caught a team-leading four interceptions and was effective in stopping the run game as he ended the year third on the team with 6.2 tackles per game.

Expectations are high with a team returning 18 starters (9 offense, 9 defense), but there are first-year players at crucial positions this season and the Bears’ success depends on their production. Fortunately for Baylor fans, the new starters will have time to acclimate themselves before the heavyweight matchups come to fruition.

Baylor’s schedule appears back-loaded as the Bears’ final five opponents had a combined record of 42-23 last year. Over the past three seasons, eight of the Bears’ last nine losses have been away from home.

“The Big 12 is tough,” Briles said. “It’s hard to play nine rival games year in and year out. It’s a hard schedule and if you go through the Big 12 without a blemish on your record, then you’re in [the College Football Playoff] … because you’re going to have to beat some really good football teams.”