After a great start to the season last year, which included a big win over Oklahoma State, the Bears fell apart down the stretch. It isn’t often that you see a team go 6-0 to start the season, and then 0-6 to finish it. But Baylor wasn’t operating under usual circumstances either.
With controversy swirling around the school that we won’t get into here, the Bears were a team in flux a year ago. With a new coach and an mass departure of talent, they were a team short on depth that people were just waiting on to fail. Emotions and attrition got the best of the Bears last season, but they bounced back in their bowl game with an impressive win over Boise State. So, are they a team ready to rebound?
Coach Matt Rhule has now taken over the reins, and you can sense the renewed energy he has brought to the team. So what should we expect from the Bears in 2017? I spoke with our friends over at Sic’Em 365 to find out, and I have to thank Brian Ethridge for provided a great look at the Bears and what fans expect this season.
The Bears have a new head coach in Matt Rhule. What kind of energy has he brought to the program, and do you think the fans are buying in?
“It took his initial press conference for almost everyone to go from who is this guy to we’re getting behind this guy. The fans are buying in, and it seems to be about who Matt Rhule is as a man as well as a coach for the excitement.”
Baylor is a conundrum this year. New coach, new system, they have some talent, but they are also short on depth and lost several key pieces from last year’s squad. First, how do you think this Bears team will differ from what we saw during the high-flying, up-tempo Art Briles’ era?
“There is a new coaching staff in place, but some of the system is still there. The team is running a spread, incorporating some Chip Kelly offense, and also some I-formation smash mouth. Most players in Texas have run at least two of the offenses in high school, so the terminology is the most difficult transition for them.
“The biggest difference will be tempo. Coach Rhule has been on record several times of saying if he’s leading, he’s going to try to keep the ball away and run clock, but will go tempo when he needs to do so. The wide splits and porous defense appear to be things of the past.”
Second, A lot of the offensive fire power that we have come to know is gone. Quarterback Seth Russell along with receivers Ishmael Zamora and KD Cannon are no longer on the roster. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill. How is the QB battle between Anu Solomon and Zach Smith shaping up? And who could emerge as a down field threat?
“The injury to Russell allowed Zach Smith to start several games for the Bears, and lead the team. He threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns in Baylor’s bowl win over Boise State while on an injured ankle which healed right before spring practice began. Currently Smith is running with the first team the majority of the time. If he wins the job, many expect him to have the opportunity to enter the draft early in 2018. He’s the prototypical NFL type at 6’4 235. His arm, which has drawn praise from the staff and team, is also what NFL teams look for in a QB. Solomon is right on his heels though and will push the sophomore to be better or find the bench.
“As for the downfield threat, Baylor is still loaded with speed at receiver. Chris Platt is a speedster in the slot. Blake Lynch is the 6-3 215 receiver with good to great speed. Jared Atkinson, 6-3 210, and Denzell Mims, 6-4 210, are both freakishly fast on the field. Both played as true freshmen in 2016 so they will be asked to step up into a bigger role. Early enrollee RJ Sneed has shown great promise in the spring as well and is getting reps with the first team. Pooh Stricklin has athleticism, but is considered more of a possession receiver in this group despite being a 46’ triple jumper and track athlete in high school.”
Third, Are there any other position groups should we be paying attention to? What will the strength of this team be?
“Baylor lost eight seniors to graduation, two receivers to the NFL Draft early, two offensive linemen and defensive tackle to medicals, and a linebacker to early graduation. This hurt the depth of the offensive line, but the defensive line and linebackers are loaded with talent, depth, and experience. Baylor’s defensive line returns 11 players with starting experience across the four positions. Senior K.J. Smith is the leader of the unit and he’s aiming for the NFL Draft in 2018 with his tenacity and speed. Inside, Baylor returns sophomore Cactus Bowl MVP Tyrone Hunt, junior Ira Lewis, sophomore Bravvion Roy, sophomore Micheal Johnson, and emerging redshirt freshman Will Jones. The other defensive end position has four players fighting over the starting role.
Linebacker returns all but two players from the eleven on campus, and four have starting experience. Taylor Young and Clay Johnston highlight the experienced players, while Lenoy Jones, Jr., Jordan Williams, and Deonte Williams are pushing with youth and athleticism. Deonte Williams could be the best of the bunch by seasons end.
The defensive backfield would have been added but to this list, but they have had nagging injuries all spring. Once Grayland Arnold returns to team with Raleigh Texada, Verkedric Vaughns, and possibly Travon Blanchard, the corners will be fast and physical. Safeties return another four with starting experience, but the hamstrings and muscle tweaks of spring haven’t allowed us true insight into who could be starting.”
Lastly, as I said before, this team is a bit of a conundrum. It seemed like outside pressures/negativity got the best of them when things started to fall apart down the stretch last season. Can they bounce back this year, or will it take a couple of season for coach Rhule and his staff to rebuild this team? Basically, what are fan expectations for the Bears in 2017?
“Many fans felt the staff quit on the team in 2016, but the bowl win should have erased some of those fears.
The team has bought into the new staff. There was a tweet from senior Chance Waz wishing he had more time with the staff and it surprised many people as he was seen as high on the former staff. Matt Rhule and staff have brought the team together in ways the former staff would not have via community service requirements, team building exercises, and more. Saying all that, the next two years could have some ups and downs depending on the installation of the offense and defense, but the players are still there to win games and continue bowl trips.
The fans expectations seem to be hovering near eight or nine wins and more if injuries don’t derail the season.”