Sports Take: How BU football can bounce back in 2023

Senior tight end Drake Dabney (89) scoots through the end zone after scoring a touchdown during Baylor football's annual Green & Gold scrimmage on April 22 at McLane Stadium. Olivia Havre | Photographer

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

Now that the spring slate is over, Baylor football is on the cusp of summer activities. Head coach Dave Aranda and his staff have a lot to do between now and Sept. 2, which is when the Bears open their 2023 season against Texas State University.

For starters, Aranda needs to figure out who will be leading the offense under center, as an official announcement regarding a starting quarterback has not been made yet. Aranda told reporters after Baylor’s annual Green & Gold Game on April 22 that a decision would be made that following week, but we’re over two weeks removed from that projection. So, there’s no telling whether that decision will be made as early as tomorrow or as late as early fall.

Regardless of who’s named as starting quarterback for the Bears in 2023, Baylor has a long way to go coming off a disappointing 6-7 season that followed a program-best 12-2 season in 2021. Here are five things Baylor needs in order to have a bounce-back campaign.

Improved quarterback play

Even though the offense wasn’t a complete disaster in 2022, there needs to be substantial improvement from the man under center this coming fall. Redshirt junior quarterback Blake Shapen and redshirt sophomore quarterback Sawyer Robertson have been placed in a position battle this spring, and the general consensus is the two of them have really pushed each other from a competition standpoint.

Shapen was named the starter after last spring’s Green & Gold game, as he replaced 2021 starter Gerry Bohanon, who transferred to the University of South Florida after losing the competition. Shapen completed 63.3% of his passes last season and threw for 2,709 yards to go with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

He struggled with his decision-making at times and failed to be a threat with his legs, only gaining 96 yards on 76 attempts (0.79 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. If Shapen is named the starter, he’s really going to have to prove that he’s taking as big of strides as those around the team say he has been this spring.

Presence on special teams

Aranda said he wanted to have the special teams unit as a weapon following Baylor’s season-opening win over the University of Albany on Sept. 4, 2022, at McLane Stadium. Wide receiver Gavin Holmes had a 72-yard punt return touchdown that turned heads and gave Aranda the confidence that the special teams could be an advantage.

That never crystalized for the Bears in 2022, as they ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 in all special teams statistics except for punt returns (third in the conference with an average punt return of 12.6 yards).

Shortly after the team’s 38-27 loss at No. 24 University of Texas, Aranda fired safeties and special teams coach Ronnie Wheat. At the time of the firing on Dec. 1, 2022, Baylor ranked an abysmal 119th in special teams efficiency.

Aranda hired quality control coach Tyler Hancock on Jan. 17 to lead the special teams unit for the upcoming fall. Although it’s a much smaller part of the game compared to offense and defense, it’s clear that the Bears could benefit from a lethal special teams crew for 2023. After all, running back Trestan Ebner proved to be a difference-maker in that regard, winning the 2021 Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year award due to his explosiveness on kickoff and punt returns.

Playmakers need to emerge

It’s easy to keep pointing to that historic 2021 season and use that as the model for success, but it gets to a point where you can really tell what some of the differences were between that strong year and last year’s blunder. Athletes like Jalen Pitre, JT Woods, Terrel Bernard, Kalon Barnes, Raleigh Texada and Jairon McVea were playmakers.

Part of what made that 2021 Baylor defense so tough was that it had men who would come up with the football on multiple occasions. It ranked fifth nationally in interceptions (17) and 14th in scoring defense (19.2 points per game allowed). Obviously, not giving up yards was a big part of keeping the opposition off the board, but forcing turnovers also played a huge role in that.

It’s not every day that you come across NFL talents like Pitre, Woods or Bernard, but the veterans on this 2023 Baylor squad will have to step forward and come up with the football on a regular basis to propel the team to where it wants to go.

Let the tight ends eat

If there’s one group Bears fans should feel ultra confident in, it’s the tight end room. There are arguably three starting-caliber tight ends on the depth chart with even more quality depth behind them. And the exciting part about that is that this comes without Ben Sims, one of the best tight ends in program history.

Sims exhausted his eligibility and has moved onto a potential NFL career, so the reins have been passed along to senior tight end Drake Dabney, who’s expected to be the starting guy in the fall. Behind Dabney comes sophomore tight end Kelsey Johnson and junior tight end Jake Roberts. Johnson saw more action than he probably expected in 2022, as the tight end room was depleted with injuries.

Now those three will sit atop the depth chart while other tight ends like junior Gavin Yates and a pair of true freshmen in Matthew Klopfenstein and Hawkins Polley help round out the loaded room. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes also serves as the tight ends coach, so he likes to get his athletes involved a lot and utilize two tight end sets. Fans can expect to see a ton of that as long as there aren’t a plethora of injuries like the position corps saw in 2022.

Hold athletes accountable

In the very first media availability this spring, Aranda told reporters he was too lenient with some of his athletes last year and gave out too many second chances. He then did a sit-down interview with’s David Smoak and expounded, saying he probably didn’t suspend men who were deserving of that punishment.

Aranda did not specify what was going on, only noting that nothing criminal was happening and that players were taking advantage of his niceness. Hearing the head coach who’s entering his fourth year admit something like that is telling. It’s not easy for a coach to stand in front of the cameras and share something like that.

Several players in the spring have said they’ve seen a different style to Aranda and that he’s a lot tougher, but in a good way. With the team coming off the rough 6-7 season, there isn’t much to be happy about, so if Aranda can weed out those troublemakers, Baylor should be primed for a strong bounce-back season.