Bears gear up for unprecedented season

Junior linebacker Terrel Bernard celebrates during Baylor’s home game against Oklahoma on Nov. 16, 2019 at McLane Stadium. The Bears fell 34-31 to the Sooners, snapping an 11-game win streak dating back to the end of the 2018 season. Bernard is the only starting linebacker to return from the 2019 squad. Lariat File Photo

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

It’s beginning to look a lot like football season.

After losing spring practices due to the pandemic and going through walk-throughs and organized team activities late in the summer, Baylor football is finally putting on the pads and preparing for their first opponent: Louisiana Tech on Sept. 12 at McLane Stadium.

Head coach Dave Aranda said while the team had some energetic practice and walk-throughs with just helmets on, there’s a freedom to finally donning the pads.

“I think when you put the pads on it allows our guard on a counter play to kind of be himself and do what he does,” Aranda said. “We had a few of those where there was a freshman on the other end of that, so there’s some welcome to college football.”

The Bears return only one starter from what was the top defensive unit in the Big 12 last year. They also have to adjust to a new coaching staff on both sides of the ball, which, according to new offensive coordinator Larry Fedora, the team has been doing well in picking up the foundation it needs for success.

“There’s never been a class of kids or a group of kids that has ever dealt with anything like this in the history of the game that I know of,” Fedora said. “We’re asking them to do some things. That’s why we have to do a great job of thinking outside the box.”

Baylor had the third-best scoring offense in the Big 12 but also allowed 38 sacks for 234 yards, the most in the conference. Aranda said the offensive line will set the tone this season.

“I think we will go as far as our O-line goes,” Aranda said. “Our guys know that, and they have a lot of pride in that. They want to get in front of it.”

Aranda noted senior offensive lineman Xavier Newman-Johnson as one of the “emotional leaders” of the O-line. Newman, who started eight games on offense last year, will be an asset especially after the departure of veterans Sam Tecklenburg and Jake Fruhmorgen.

As will junior linebacker Terrel Bernard, the only returning starter on Baylor’s defense, who received Second Team All-Big 12 honors in 2019. However, new defensive coordinator Ron Roberts said Bernard won’t be alone in lifting up the D-line to where they need to be.

“I think we’re not going to have to rely on two guys,” Roberts said. “We can get it down to six or seven guys leading the pack, which is really what we want to do.”

Even though the Bears will be moving from a three-man defense back to a four-man, Roberts said it’s been an easier transition thanks in part to the culture set by Matt Rhule and Phil Snow.

“They were coached tough,” Roberts said. “Usually, when you go into a program you’ve got to change and teach them how to be a college athlete. The beauty of that is they had a firm foundation of that.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the season, Aranda and the coaching staff have expressed their faith and determination to “play in the present,” trying to control only the things they can control. This is particularly true in the way they continue to respond to the pandemic as the general Baylor student body returns to campus.

Aranda said he referenced a verse in Matthew chapter seven about walking life on the narrow road as opposed to the wide road.

“I think our athletic team, college athletics, we’re on that narrow road in terms of our daily appetites — our daily musts are all to play ball.” Aranda said. “The wide road, I showed an LA freeway at rush hour with all these cars. Other people are living that life and that’s just not the road for us right now.”