This post is going to progress in two parts. Back before spring training started in March, I posed five questions I found important for each of the units: offense and defense. I did it to simplify things heading into spring practice and to emphasize our positions of greatest need. Who would the first QB post-RGIII be? What about RB? Are we destined to have the same two safeties we had in 2011? Who plays MLB? Things like that. I anticipated that the answers to these 10 questions would define the 2012 season in terms of success or failure. If we couldn't find a QB, we'd be sunk. If our offensive line couldn't overcome the loss of Phillip Blake and Robert T. Griffin, it wouldn't matter who we put back there. Without someone, anyone, capable of making an impact on what was an absolute putrid defense in 2011, we might as well put a tent on this circus and charge admission for that.
First, I'm going to go back and answer my own ten questions now that we're a spring, summer, and fall away. Then, I'll post my own biggest questions heading into 2012 (as if some of them weren't glaringly obvious already) and try to predict answers as we currently sit. Along the way, feel free to give me your take.
1. Who plays QB?
Any QB controversy Baylor may have had in the post-RGIII era lasted about a quarter in the first scrimmage. Senior Nick Florence quickly won the job in spring practice and hasn't looked back. In fact, he's actually looked quite good. Combining in two (now three!) fall scrimmage performances to complete 28 of 36 passes for 439 yards and 3 TDs, Florence has proved himself more than capable of running Baylor's high-octane offense. Best of all, he had no interceptions. He's been accurate, he hasn't turned the ball over, and every report about his understanding of the offense and leadership on the field has been overwhelmingly positive. The challenger everyone expected, Bryce Petty, fared less well and looks to be ticketed for a backup job once again this season. He'll get another chance to start next year and hopefully a little valuable experience along the way this season in a few blowouts.
I know every supposedly objective prognosticator thinks we're going to crater without RGIII. Without doing any research on the team at all, it makes perfect sense. He was a special player the likes of which we've never seen. I personally believe that he was the best QB in Big XII history and one of the greats all-time in college football. That said, if I trust any offense to be able to weather such a loss, it is that run by Art Briles. People forget that he's been without RGIII at Baylor before after Griffin was injured in the second game of the 2009 season. In that season, he took a true freshman QB nobody had ever heard of and turned him into (at least for a while) the single-game record holder in passing yards for a Baylor QB. That QB, the same Nick Florence that will now start as a senior, wasn't expected to see a single down of playing time and was suddenly the starter. And he was pretty damn good.
RGIII announced his intention to go pro over eight months ago. Art Briles has said numerous times that his system is married to no player; he will do whatever it takes to make his QB successful. He had about 6 days to do that before Nick Florence was pressed into action in 2009 as a true freshman. He's had 8 months now to do the same thing with a QB who he's been teaching for three years. If there is any one position I'm concerned about on this team, it's certainly not QB. Even with our losses, we have more talent now than at any point in the past surrounding him to make his job easier.
2. Is this the year Salubi establishes himself?
Apparently, yes. Salubi has been named the starter at RB going into the first game of the season (barring a late injury-- knock on wood) with Lache Seastrunk as his primary backup and Glasco Martin seeing time, on the depth chart at least, as the "UB." The way I imagine it will actually work out is that Salubi will play the majority of the time in actual running situations, Glasco will be the short-yardage back as well as a blocker, and Lache will fill the third-down/scatback role that Salubi had two years ago.
I've never been comfortable with Salubi because of his tendency to run sideways. He was also too small, in my opinion, to serve as our every-down back. My hope was that Martin, who much more closely resembles Terrance Ganaway, could usurp the starting role and overcome his own issues with turning the ball over. That apparently didn't happen, despite the fact that Martin reportedly had a strong spring. I don't know why. Lache has improved on his own major foible-- a tendency to take the ball outside rather than hit the hole-- but not enough to grab a starting spot. The good news is that all three fill a difference niche with their talents and should give our offense plenty of options.
3. Who will be the next Baylor center to go in the NFL Draft?
Ivory Wade! Just as I predicted on that day five months ago, senior Ivory Wade moved from right tackle to center in preparation for this season, completing his quest to play at all three OL positions. I've seen a few predictions putting him in the 3rd-4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but I think he'll go higher. There's a bit of uncertainty at this point about his ability to snap the ball consistently and move well enough on the inside to play the center position well. I'm not worried. Our third center in a row will be drafted this year and probably on the second day.
4. How does the rest of the OL stack up?
Wade wasn't the only mover on the OL this year as last year's other starter at tackle, Cyril Richardson, moved inside one spot to left guard. Taking his place on Nick Florence's blind spot was Spencer Drango, the guy I openly championed for a job this season. Jake Jackson and/or Cameron Kaufhold will hold down the right guard spot next to redshirt sophomore Troy Baker, the biggest surprise of the group. Baker has excellent size and pedigree, though he, like Drango, lacks experience. They should be tested and proven by the time we meet what is probably the only elite defensive line in the Big XII, UT's, late in the season.
5. Which untested WR steps up next?
Looks like it will be Jay Lee, the backup at this point behind Lanear Sampson at outside receiver. Lee held off Michigan transfer Darryl Stonum with strong performances in both scrimmages and has ideal size (6-3, 205) and speed to stretch the field and challenge opposing defensive backs. His future at Baylor is bright, indeed.
The other WR everybody is talking about is Antwan Goodley. Goodley backs up Terrance Williams on the opposite side of the formation from Lee in addition to his duties returning kicks. Unlike Lee, Goodley's size is not what jumps out at people watching him play; his outstanding strength and hands are his ticket to playing time in our offense. Reportedly the strongest skill player on the team, Goodley showed both attributes in Baylor's two scrimmages, particularly in one play where he shook off a tackle by Darius Jones in the backfield to go 70 yards for a touchdown. I still wonder sometimes why we don't try him at RB...
1. Who leads the defense at MLB?
Bryce Hager. This athletic freak burst onto the scene at the start of spring practice and hasn't let up since. It may be odd to say that he was "unknown" before this year since he finished last season as Elliot Coffey's primary backup, but he really was. I don't know anyone outside the program who expected the former 2* recruit to emerge as one of the most athletically gifted defenders Baylor has short of Ahmad Dixon. The coaches rave about his skills, his numbers jump off the page, and the 6-1, 235-pound sophomore will now lead a Baylor defense looking to redeem itself. I might be more excited to see him play than anybody else on the field.
2. Where does Ahmad Dixon play next?
The same position, actually. My hopes that Dixon might move backward in the formation to a safety spot have been dashed. That may not be a bad thing, however, as Dixon will be hopefully get the chance to use his size and speed more in blitzing and run support than he did this past season. Look for AD to be on the field for just about every possible defensive alignment, formation, and situation, and for second-year DC Phil Bennett to take advantage of his skills across the field. Now if only he could keep his trash-talking in check on the field...
3. What in the world are we going to do at safety?
Pray? Is that a good answer? Both returning starters from last year have retained to their positions, much to my chagrin, though both are also being pushed hard by an incoming freshman and oft-injured senior. I know it probably seems like I harp on them a lot, but simply put, for our defense to improve significantly in 2012, Mike Hicks and Sam Holl have to be better. A lot better. I think I've said that before a few times, but it's true. Maybe with more consistent pass rush and better coverage on the outside, things won't be so bad. Maybe they'll improve with another year in the coverage schemes Phil Bennett likes to use. Maybe we can take some of the pressure off of them in obvious passing situations with a scheme that brings in another DB. I don't know. All of those things are possible.
Right now, Hicks and Holl are our safeties again and I guess I just have to get used to it.
4. How many potential CBs does one team need?
A lot, apparently! I noted before the spring began our plethora of options at cornerback (10 by my count), and from that list, four likely players have emerged that will get the majority of time. As of this moment, K.J. Morton and Demitri Goodson are your starting corners against SMU with Tuswani Copeland and Joe Williams backing them up, respectively. There's a rumor that Copeland might actually start over Morton, but it's just a rumor. I'm more comfortable with these four given the reports we've read than I have been with this unit in a long time. And unlike last year, when we had to deal with Copeland's injury right before the game against TCU (he was slated to start), we've been relatively injury free (knock on wood!). My hope for these guys is the same as that for our safeties: they've now had another year in Bennett's system and a full offseason to learn his scheme. I expect it to show dividends in how they play.
5. What are we doing for big uglies? (DL-wise)
According to the latest depth chart, we should see a rotation of Nick Johnson, Kaeron Johnson, Trevor Clemons-Valdez, and Beau Blackshear on the inside with the two Johnsons probably getting the most playing time on the inside as soon as Kaeron comes back to practice. Until he does, Valdez will start opposite Nick Johnson with Blackshear playing in reserve. I'm not sure what we'll do for a fourth DT against SMU in 8 days. Suleiman Masumbuko played quite a bit in both scrimmages and is the most likely to see time in Kaeron's absence. This is a decent group but not great. There are no players there that jump out as likely impact performers.
Sadly, the JUCO DT I was hoping could contribute this season, Joey Searcy, never made it to Baylor. In his place we have a limey named Jason Osei, who has only been on campus for a few days and is already probably everyone's favorite player. I'm going to counsel patience with Mr. Osei given his background and the fact that he's supposedly not yet in game shape. He'll probably play some, perhaps not in the first game against a quality opponent in SMU, in non-conference while he acclimates to the American game. We'll see how the coaching staff uses his size inside.
At DE, I'm excited to see Javonte Magee stake a claim to a backup spot behind senior Terrance Lloyd. Along with Gary Mason, Jr. and Chris McAllister, they should help form a DE corps that, while not spectacular, could be the best Baylor has had in a long time. Lloyd, Mason, and McAllister have all started games before and spent significant time in the program, and Magee is no less than the best DL recruit we've gotten in a long, long time. Now all we need is Shawn Oakman's immediate eligibility and I might actually start getting pumped about our defensive ends.
Check back later tonight or tomorrow for Part II, where I'll address the biggest remaining issues going into the 2012 season for your Baylor Bears.