By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Charlie Brewer was the expected starter in Aranda’s first season (2020), but the next two seasons brought about competitive off-season battles for the quarterback position. Nothing appears to be changing in 2023, as incumbent starter redshirt junior quarterback Blake Shapen will compete with redshirt sophomore quarterback Sawyer Robertson.
Junior slinger RJ Martinez is also expected to be in the mix, but Aranda specifically mentioned Shapen and Robertson as the two that have emerged following the first day of spring practice on Tuesday.
“I think they’re going to push each other,” Aranda said. “I think for both of them, their aim is the same and I think their fight’s going to improve us.”
Shapen is coming off an underwhelming 2022 campaign in which he was named the starting QB over 2021 starter Gerry Bohanon. The Shreveport, La., native was erratic at best, as he connected on 63.3% of his throws for 2,790 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Shapen led the team to a 6-7 season that was capped off by a 30-15 loss to the United States Air Force Academy’s football program in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22 in Fort Worth.
Aranda said Shapen has had a “really good spring” that has showcased growth in terms of confidence.
“Just him in front of the team, him in a huddle, him after a mistake that a teammate makes, there’s such a difference with all that,” Aranda said. “And it’s what you would like it to be, [and it] is the growth that you would want to see.”
Robertson, Shapen’s competitor, transferred to Baylor from Mississippi State University between semesters. Robertson spent two seasons with the Bulldogs and played sparingly in 2022, completing just six of 11 passes for 23 yards.
The former four-star recruit has impressed Aranda thus far, and the fourth-year head coach said Robertson’s ability to lead stands out most about him.
“Sawyer has a great leadership quality,” Aranda said. “There’s something about him. Guys [on the team] are drawn to him. Whether it is drill work, or it’s in the weight room, or it’s just watching film, guys want to watch film with him, guys want to go work out, push harder and do better with or around him.”
Aranda also noted that Robertson is “way eager” to continue showcasing his ability all spring and the coaches are “way blessed to have him.”
“I think his best football is way ahead of him,” Aranda said. “I’m up there getting coffee in the morning early and he pops out of that little quarterback room at really early hours. I mean, he’s putting in the work.”
Senior tight end Drake Dabney, who’s now fully recovered from a broken fibula suffered on Oct. 13, said he expects the position battle to include all three guys and each player is showing different things.
“I think Blake is a great leader,” Dabney said. “He’s definitely stepped up, and I think him and Sawyer will continue to push each other. All the quarterbacks, even RJ, they’re all doing a good job of pushing each other and making each other better and making everyone on the team better. It’s definitely nice to have numbers and just seeing all of them compete and be leaders on this offense and this team.”
As the quarterback battle is expected to wage on, the squad is also integrating new defensive coordinator Matt Powledge into the system. Powledge was named defensive coordinator for the Bears after the season ended, and he followed one of Aranda’s mentors, Ron Roberts, who was fired before the Armed Forces Bowl game.
Powledge spent last season at the University of Oregon as the co-defensive coordinator following two seasons on Aranda’s staff in Waco as the safeties and special teams coordinator.
Seventh-year senior safety Bryson Jackson is back in the green and gold for another season, and he said “the morale of the team” is trending upwards due to Powledge being a familiar face with a lot of energy.
“Being a guy who was already here before, most of us know what to expect and we know he’s going to bring that juice, bring that energy and kind of rally us as a unit, as the troops,” Jackson said. “Everybody in the locker room is behind him, and they’re willing to go out there and fight for him. You get that energy off the bat, you know what you’re getting from him. I’m very excited about what’s going to happen this spring for us as a defense and what he has in store for us as a unit.”
Baylor’s 6-7 season followed the program record 12-2 mark that the Bears set in 2021. Fifth-year senior defensive lineman TJ Franklin said what went wrong was “we were missing a lot of commitment.”
Franklin announced he would return for a fifth year on Jan. 16, utilizing his extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He thought the youth on last year’s group hurt the team and impacted how the season played out.
“A lot of childish stuff was going around,” Franklin said. “I feel like this year is a lot more mature. We have a lot more older guys in the locker room, people that have actually been in situations last year. Now they understand and [have] learned from those situations. I feel like everybody with that experience under their belt, it’ll be better for us.”
Aranda said he “probably was too lenient with guys” as well. The former defensive coordinator said that was a “big lesson” for him to learn.
“I probably tried to help too many guys that I think probably needed maybe a tougher version of me,” Aranda said. “I probably gave too many guys chances that were probably taking advantage of me or those chances. … When I go back to [at] least trying to lock in, it’s like, ‘Dude, I’m trying to help this person and he has to get over this hump or do this or do that.’ I think in the midst of that, the helping of him or the so-called, I guess, helping of him, I think there was a hurting of the team.”
Baylor’s spring schedule runs through April 22, when it has its annual Green & Gold Game at McLane Stadium. Kickoff for that scrimmage is set for 12 p.m. CT and will be presented by TFNB and aired by ESPN+.