Every year, in almost every program, players enter with one set of expectations and leave with another. When the delta is extremely positive and the player achieves a bit of notoriety, that player "breaks out."
The breakout players for the 2011 Baylor Bears are relatively easy to identify. Terrance Ganaway came from basically nowhere to lead the conference in rushing and earn himself a draft spot with the New York Jets. Tevin Reese went from athletic speed demon to an electric inside receiver. On the other side of the ball, Ahmad Dixon made good some of his tremendous promise and became Baylor's biggest defensive playmaker. And obviously, Robert Griffin III elevated himself and our program into national prominence en route to a Heisman Trophy and a 10-win season. See what I'm getting at? Breakout players often mean the difference between a season that meets expectations and one that redefines them entirely.
This year, I've identified five players most likely to make The Leap from unknown to known, recruits to playmakers, or mere roster spots to names of national note. On a team with so many underclassmen in prominent places-- Baylor has an astonishing 19 sophomores or freshmen, redshirt and otherwise, on its 2-deep depth chart-- and returners ready to assume bigger roles, it was difficult to limit myself to five. But here they are, my picks for the 5 breakout players of the 2012 Baylor Bears.
1. Jordan Najvar -- TE -- JR
The first entry on the list is both the oldest and probably the one you least expected. Jordan Najvar played an entire season last year as the starting TE for Baylor, so why do I think he'll break out in 2012? Two reasons: usage and experience.
Najvar didn't begin his collegiate journey in Waco under the tutelage of Art Briles. Though Baylor recruited him out of high school, he actually committed and signed with Stanford before spending a year in southern California. Having had enough of the west coast, he then transferred here and sat out a year before starting last season, mostly as a blocking TE that caught a few passes underneath. RGIII's offense didn't really use the TE spot all that much because it didn't have to. With Robert's ability to escape pressure with his legs, the typical check downs weren't all that necessary. With Ivory Wade and Cyril Richardson at the tackles, we also didn't utilize all that many formations where a TE was even present on the field. That's why Najvar "only" caught 15 passes for 146 yards and 2 TDs in 2011.
This year, with Florence's diminished escapability and two young tackles who may need the help, I imagine the tight end position will take on a role of much greater prominence. Now that Najvar has had two full years to learn the offense, we'll see more formations utilizing the TE in both passing and blocking. Florence's relative lack of arm strength (as compared to RGIII) makes me believe we'll see more TEs and IRs targeted than we have since 2009-- the last time Florence started-- with Justin Akers and Brad Taylor. Najvar will be the primary beneficiary of this slight change, and at 6-6, 260 pounds, he will make the most of his opportunity. Already a talented blocker with the size to make a difference against opposing defensive lineman, his receiving numbers will improve markedly this season. I'd forecast 35-40 receptions and something like 500-600 yards. Say 10 TDs.
2. Lache Seastrunk-- RB -- RS Soph
You knew he was going to be on this list. With his pedigree and game-changing talent, how could he not? All he is at this point is the highest-rated RB Baylor has seen since Chuck Reedy's time here, and now that he has the actual chance to show what he can do (thanks, NCAA!) he will impress. Write that down.
Seastrunk begins this season as the putative #3 on Baylor's depth chart, but I wouldn't expect him to see that kind of usage. Coach Briles likes rotating backs depending on the situation and has indicated in the past his intent to use Lache all over the formation. With that kind of pure speed, he'd be silly not to. Seastrunk is the first Baylor RB with the raw speed and athleticism that makes you fire up the band as soon as he sees daylight. I would bet serious money that he scores more touchdowns from outside the 30 than he does from within. There are few players in the country, much less the Big XII, that can stick with him when he breaks into the open.
Of course, his biggest problem to date has been getting there. Both at Oregon and when he first arrived in Waco, the book on Lache said he tried constantly to get to the edge as he did so easily in high school. Even when the play commanded he go inside, he refused. Briles and company have spent a year now working that tendency out of him, and every report I've read from the fall says that work is bearing fruit. At 5-10, 205 pounds, Seastrunk is hitting the hole harder than ever before. There is no reason that progress cannot continue in actual game action, where he will get the chance, probably on third downs and in packages designed for him, to showcase his skills. There may be growing pains, but you will be wowed. Lache Seastrunk is the next great RB for Baylor University.
3. Spencer Drango -- OL -- RS Fr
Two years ago, Spencer Drango was preparing for the first game of his high school season for Cedar Park. One year ago, he walked on campus as a freshman to participate in his first fall practice. This year, he'll start at left tackle for Baylor University. To say that much is expected of Drango is to delight in understatement. Like Seastrunk, he came to Baylor as one of the highest-rated recruits we've seen in years and with untold promise before him. We're going to see that promise made manifest this season from the 6-6, 310-pound stud. He will start the season as an inexperienced OL protecting Nick Florence's back side, and he will end it as one of the premium OTs in the country. He has that kind of talent and the coaching to make it happen. People will know his name not only because it is unique, but because that knowledge will be necessary. Nobody wants to miss the boat.
4. Bryce Hager -- MLB -- Soph
Hager is, quite honestly, the first name I put on this list when I sat down to make it. The reviews are too good. The numbers too eye-popping. The potential too great to ignore. At exactly the position where Baylor will need another playmaker this year on defense -- MLB behind a questionable interior line -- we will have one in the 6-1, 235-pound Hager. He will lead our defense not only in the formation but also in tackles, and he will take pressure off Ahmad Dixon to do whatever the hell it is Ahmad Dixon wants to do.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, of all the players on defense, including the next one on this list, I am most excited to watch Hager this season. He's going to blow up (in a good way!)
5. Javonte Magee -- DE -- Freshman
Take everything I said about Drango, push it forward a year, and translate it to defense. That's Javonte Magee. Baylor isn't supposed to get players of his caliber at defensive end and before Magee, hadn't in about 20 years. He was a 5* talent sought by basically every major program in the country, and he has already shown enough to convince the coaches that he should play this season as a true freshman. By way of comparison, no high school members of the 2011 recruiting class, not even Drango, did the same thing. Well, except punter Spencer Roth. But he's a punter.
Magee's size, strength, and speed will make a difference on the outside of the DL for a team that sorely needs it. The easiest way for our defense to improve from last season to this in terms of actual play will be to get more pressure on the QB. Part of the reason our defensive backs were so bad last season is that we asked them to do far too much, cover for far too long. Magee will make an immediate impact behind junior Terrance Lloyd, and, I expect, earn a starting role by midseason at the latest. He's too dynamic not to. He will be the type of disruptive force we haven't seen from a DE since current freshmen were in diapers. I'm not saying he'll be Clowney, but he'll be Clowney-esque.
So there you have them, my breakout players for 2012 presented in authentic over-the-top homeristic fashion.