By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor, Video by Braden Murray | Broadcast Reporter
It’s only been a couple months since Baylor football’s Sugar Bowl victory over the University of Mississippi, but the team is already back on the grind and preparing for the upcoming season.
“There’s been a lot of work, whether it’s conditioning or weightlifting or leadership, mentoring and everything to get to this point,” head coach Dave Aranda said. “In terms of a calendar, maybe not a whole lot of time since we’ve been off the field, but it sure seems like we’ve been investing a lot.”
Even with the success of last season, the team still feels as though there’s another level to break through.
“We’re pumped, but we’re still working like we still got something to prove because we’re going to have a target on our backs this year,” sixth-year senior wide receiver Gavin Holmes said. “It’s about not getting complacent and going back to the roots of what we did last year to get us to that point. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
With that mentality comes forgetting about what happened last season and instead “starting from ground one.”
“You [have] to understand, what we did last year is what we did last year. When we play everybody this upcoming year, it’s going to be everybody’s Big 12 Championship,” fifth-year senior cornerback Mark Milton said. “You can’t be like, ‘We’re going to build off what we did last year.’ You got to say, ‘We’re starting from ground one.’ Then you act like you’re starting from ground one and you need to build it up on a strong foundation in order to do what we did last year and do it even better.”
While the squad did lose some key pieces from last year to the upcoming NFL draft, they still have a decent amount of veterans, especially across the offensive and defensive lines that allowed them to be “big-men driven.” However, even with the majority of them coming back, Aranda said there is still change and growth that needs to take place and that they can’t just do what made them successful last year.
“Change is difficult and change is never easy to embrace, but for us to go where we want to go, and to be who we need to be, we need to be able to take that change,” Aranda said. “It’s good that guys are back, but we need them to be at their best and that requires them kind of emerging from where they’ve been.”
One example of where Aranda is fostering the chance for players to emerge is within the quarterback room. Though fifth-year senior quarterback Gerry Bohanon won the starting job last season and led them in the Sugar Bowl, sophomore quarterback Blake Shapen stepped up multiple times last season when Bohanon went down with an injury, including in the Big 12 Championship. Now Aranda wants to give Shapen a chance to prove he can be a leader of the team.
“If you’re not the guy, you always want to come in with an opportunity to show what you can do and if you do it, have an opportunity to play,” Aranda said. “That’s something that I think is real and something that needs to be appreciated. We want to do a good job of seeing that … For Blake to be given an opportunity and then for Gerry to kind of assert himself is really what’s happening. I think it’s fair to both of them. Gerry’s got to come in and just continue to improve, and then Blake’s got to come in and outplay him.”
Another place Aranda is looking for someone to emerge is at the running back position. After losing both Trestan Ebner and Abram Smith, Aranda is looking for someone to take over the position with the same toughness those two displayed last season.
“One of the things that we were searching for last year in that room was that fighter mentality. The, ‘I’m going to attack you. I’m not going to be avoiding a hit or waiting to get hit, I’m going to go and finish a run and fall forward,’” Aranda said. “We’re in that phase right now. That’s what we need for this offense: someone that’s going to look to dish out punishment rather than receive it or avoid it.”
A player Aranda thinks might be perfect for the job is fifth-year senior Josh Fleeks. Similar to how he switched Abram from linebacker to running back, Aranda is switching Fleeks over from wide receiver.
“He’s got the ability to give us some of the things that Ebner gave us last year, but then I think he could also be the guy, first, second, as well as third down,” Aranda said. “He’s got great vision. There’s a toughness about him. There’s a chip on his shoulder and he’s got a great heart. You look at Josh and his maturity and his improvement as a person, I’m a big fan of his and I really want to see him be successful.”
On the defensive side of the ball, leaders are emerging to fill the vacancies left behind by guys like Terrel Bernard, Jalen Pitre and JT Woods, such as Milton who is stepping up to teach the younger guys what Baylor football is all about.
“A couple of guys call me Unc,” Milton said. “I remember when I was younger, I used to mess with the older guys … now I’m them. Being one of the older guys, [I’m] taking some of the younger guys in my position group and molding them and showing them the process. What to do and when I leave, what they need to do and take the young guys that come in and mold them the same way, so we can build a culture and keep on winning even when I leave.”
While the team is appreciative of everything the senior group did last season, players are ready for their chance to prove themselves and fill new roles to continue the success and build the future of the Baylor football program.
“They kind of paved the way for us last year,” Holmes said. “We’re still super confident in the room. They might have left, but we don’t feel like we fell off. That’s what we’re trying to prove right now as a group.”