A few days ago I debuted Part I of a miniseries addressing my 10 biggest pre-Spring Training questions for the 2012 Baylor Bears. I believed the answers to those 10 questions, 5 each for the offense and defense, would define this coming season. I intended to do the same thing now that we sit between 5 and 6 days out from the first game against the SMU Mustangs, but to be honest, the task grew too cumbersome. Each query was taking too long to formulate. And it didn't help that another major issue arose today when the news broke about Kaeron Johnson.
Still, the issues themselves are worth covering, even if it is piecemeal, and I've already typed the words. Deciding how and where they get posted is a relatively small task once that part is done.
The first major theme (and I'm referring to them as "themes" here because I'm tired of using the word "question") deals with the running game, a vital key to the success of the 2011 Baylor Bears on offense. How will we weather the loss of Robert Griffin III in our running game?
Non-Baylor fans may be surprised to know that last season, Baylor was the only team in the country to rank in the top-10 in both rushing and passing offense. Though the highlights shown on Sportscenter were mostly of long bombs from Robert Griffin III to Kendall Wright and co., Baylor's offense in 2011 relied extensively on the running game to move the offense and make those explosive pass plays possible. That's how Terrance Ganaway led the conference in rushing en route to the probably the best season in school history for a running back. It's also how the offense set a school record for total rushing yards.
What wouldn't surprise anyone is the impact losing RGIII (specifically, his legs) might have on that running game in 2012. For the vast majority of designed running plays, Baylor utilizes a scheme based on the zone read, which relies in part on the threat of the QB actually keeping the ball. We don't typically line up in the I formation or pro set, and we don't often run a "true" counter, toss sweep, or any of the more traditional ground and pound approaches. We did work a few of those looks in last season, particularly in the red zone, but ours is a zone read running game (we actually don't do the more traditional things all that well). We started doing it in RGIII's freshman year and haven't stopped since. We won't stop in 2012, either. Here is why I think we'll continue to do it well.
I firmly believe that if you asked Art Briles what he considers the most important aspect of his offense, both passing and running, he'd say the tempo, or the pace, at which the entire operation runs. Baylor runs one of the fastest offenses in the country in terms of pace and does so intentionally. He wants to run a lot of plays. He wants to get to the line quickly. And it's not just because it makes lining up more difficult for the defense, though it does that, too. Long ago shrewd coaches realized that the rules only require giving the defense the opportunity to substitute players if you also substitute on offense. If you don't; if you line up with the exact same unit play after play, you don't have to wait for the defense to catch up. If you have versatile players capable of moving seamlessly through multiple offensive sets without substitutions AND you deny the defense the opportunity to huddle by not doing it yourself, you can make diagnosing your intentions extremely difficult. Perhaps more importantly, you keep the same 11 defensive players on the field. That may seem like a relatively small thing and it probably is ... at first. Over the course of 4 quarters, it wears defenses unaccustomed to the rapidity of the tempo down, particularly on the lines. 3-yard runs go for 5. Defenders realize that this is going to happen for 48 minutes. Everyone gets a little slower, starts guessing to offset the loss in reaction time, and then either gets run over and beaten deep. Baylor made an art form out of it in 2011,* and it's one of the reasons our defense was probably criticized somewhat unfairly.**
* The best example of what I'm talking about probably came in the Texas Tech game at Cowboys Stadium. Even with Robert out in the second half, Baylor kept running at exactly the same pace and pounding the football with Ganaway over and over again. Nobody was happier that game ended than Texas Tech's defense.
**I am in no way saying our defense was not worthy of criticism in 2011. I'm making the point that using traditional stats to measure our defensive effectiveness doesn't make sense because pace matters. When your opponent gets 12 possessions, for example, instead of 8, your defense is on the field for roughly 150% (another example) more plays. Advanced statistics in basketball are particularly good at accounting for this aspect.
Of course, running an offense that can basically be described as high-speed siege warfare requires that you have the engines up-front to execute it. That's where improved recruiting over the past few years has paid the biggest dividends. In RGIII's time at Baylor, he played with 5 different offensive linemen that would go on to the NFL-- Jason Smith, J.D. Walton, Danny Watkins, Phillip Blake, and Robert T. Griffin. That was a Baylor record and part of the cause for my next statement.
We might start 4 NFL-caliber linemen this season, 5 if you count Cameron Kaufhold. The average size of our starting OL is 6' 4.8" and 312 pounds. The truth of Baylor's running game last season is that our offensive line was probably the best we've ever had. Miles better than when Briles got here in 2007. And as our offensive line improved over RGIII's career, the need for him to actually run the ball as the primary mode of generating offense decreased. When he got here as a freshman, RGIII's legs were just about our only mode of offensive transportation. Teams that slowed Robert down beat us. But by the time he left, we didn't need him to run so much as we needed the threat that he might. That threat kept the DE from crashing inside on the read option and helped trick linebackers on play action. Following through on the threat was still necessary to keep it effective, but it was no longer critical. In 2008, Robert's first season, we ran for 2300 yards as an offense. RGIII accounted for about 850. In 2011, we added 700 yards to that total as a team and Robert 's individual rushing total went down by 150. We were doing much, much more running the ball even though RGIII was giving us much less. A lot of that was because of Terrance Ganaway, and a lot was due to the best OL in Baylor history ... so far. Call me a homer, slap on the green and gold glasses, say whatever you want, but I think this one could be even better.
Jarred, Glasco, and Lache
As long as I've got those green and gold glasses on, I might as well say that I've talked myself into our 2012 RB corps. No, I'm not 100% with Salubi as the primary back, but I like the combination we have between him, Glasco Martin, and Lache Seastrunk. As I've said before, the three players actually compliment each other quite well. Salubi is the most well-rounded of the three with Glasco as the power back and Seastrunk the speed merchant. On paper, this may be the most talented RB corps Baylor has ever fielded. Combine that with the confidence I expressed above in our offensive line and you have a great recipe for taking pressure off Nick Florence's legs in the running game. Do I wish Ganaway had another year of eligibility remaining? Obviously, he was under-appreciated in his time like no Baylor player before him. I expect, however, that the triumvirate we will use this year will perform quite well in his absence. And they'll do it in no small part to...
As I so love to do, I will start this off by asking a question to which I already know the answer: how fast do you think Nick Florence is? If he ran a 40-yard dash, what would you guess as his time? Give up? He ran a 4.79 in February. Faster than you expected, right? Listen, I realize right off the bat that Nick Florence is not RGIII. Unless something crazy happens, he's not ripping off a highlight-reel run. With Florence under center, we have to find a different way in 2011 to beat Kansas. To the people who believe the RGIII loss will be our offensive death knell, that admission would be the final nail. I'll say it again: Nick Florence is not RGIII. My point in all this is, however, that we don't need him to be. We need the threat that he might run to keep the zone read working. He can provide that threat. The fact that I expect him to be more than capable passing, as well, (because the pass sets up the run in the same way the run sets up the pass) doesn't hurt.
Another section I should have written but didn't would have been (had I done it) dedicated to Art Briles' coaching staff, the masterminds behind the record-setting offensive machine. Trusting Briles as I do to craft an offense tailored to the specific talents of the players within it, I have to believe that whatever schematic changes need to be made will be. He has consistently preached offensive balance throughout his coaching career. He knows how much it means to our offense to have a dominant rushing game. It's horrible logic that I'd never accept from anyone else, but he'll make it work.
So there you have my convoluted reasoning for why Baylor's rushing offense won't take the step back in 2012 that many expect with the departure of RGIII. The combination of our offensive pace, an extremely talented (and large) OL, and a fine stable of running backs will, in my opinion, alleviate much of the dropoff (which will be smaller than people think) from Robert to Nick. Florence won't be RGIII, but he won't have to be. That's the beauty of it.