Fall practice for the 2017 football season got underway this morning and the excitement is starting to build for year one of the Matt Rhule era in Waco. Media days have come and gone, players have reported to campus, and now the silly season begins as the college football slate inches closer. Obviously, there are a lot of question marks for this year's Baylor Bears that will be answered over the next few weeks leading up to the September 2 opener at McLane Stadium. Here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. Offensive Line Health
I don't think I'm exactly breaking any news when I say that the key to Baylor's season will be the offensive line play. The starting five to open fall camp looks like a formidable and experienced group. Three starters return from last season in Blake Blackmar, Ishmael Wilson and Patrick Lawrence along with Mo Porter who saw plenty of reps in 2016. However, the depth behind the first unit is lacking to say the least. Baylor's numbers were already hamstrung by the departures of several offensive line recruits from the 2016 class following the events of last May. Matters have been made much more dire this offseason as the Bears have lost three scholarship offensive linemen to retirement, including 2016 starter Dom DeSouza. Following the announcement of Josh Pelzel's retirement last week, Matt Rhule said at Big 12 Media Days that any injuries on the offensive line would be a critical blow. There is a new level of physicality that Rhule brings to his practices that wasn't necessarily the case with the previous regime, but it is essential that the big boys up front stay injury free.
2. Quarterback Competition
For the first time since...2012? 2008? The Guy Morriss era? There is an actual living, breathing competition for the starting quarterback position. There are three QBs listed as co-starters on the post spring depth chart but I anticipate that the coaching staff will want to redshirt Charlie Brewer to give him an opportunity to develop and get in the weight room. This leaves Zach Smith and Anu Solomon. Smith of course was flushed into action the last 4.5 games of last season as a true freshman following Jarrett Stidham's transfer and Seth Russell's season-ending injury against Oklahoma. Solomon transferred in from Arizona at the semester break and while he's been injury prone the past couple years, his numbers with the Wildcats were certainly impressive and included a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in 2014. Smith has the edge in height and arm strength but Solomon is more mobile and has been an accurate thrower in his career. My prediction is that Smith takes the field as the starter on opening night but Solomon certainly could be the guy as well. Regardless, I think we'll see plenty of both QBs this season.
3. Defensive Scheme
The Bears return a lot of experience and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball in 2017, but they're in the middle of learning a new scheme under new defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Snow came over with Matt Rhule from Temple along with much of the rest of Temple's defensive staff that orchestrated a unit that was 9th in FBS last season in opponent yards per play. Snow's scheme is much more complex and will show multiple looks, which is a stark contrast with the style of defense that Baylor was playing under Phil Bennett. For a breakdown of what to expect with the defense from a schematic perspective, I encourage you to check out AnEngagedObserver's piece from February. With guys like K.J. Smith, Taylor Young, and Grayland Arnold returning, Baylor has the pieces to put together a real solid defensive unit this season. But unlike previous seasons, the Bears' schedule will put that to the test early in the season. Just in September, Baylor will face a Heisman Trophy finalist in Baker Mayfield (OU) along with a couple of NFL prospects in Mason Rudolph (OSU) and Daniel Jones (Duke). How quickly Baylor adapts to the new philosophy will be a major key.
4. Freshmen Emergence
With depth issues across the depth chart, you can expect to see several true freshmen get an opportunity to step in and play right away. Nowhere is this more evident than on the aforementioned offensive line. It is typically common to want to redshirt offensive linemen in their first year on campus but due to attrition, Baylor does not have that luxury this season. Ryan Miller, Xavier Newman and Henry Klinge III were all listed on the two deep when the post spring depth chart was released. As such, I think you can expect to see all three on the field at some point this season. In addition, the injury to Terence Williams has opened up a spot in the backfield behind JaMycal Hasty. I would certainly expect John Lovett to get some of Williams' workload but don't be surprised to see Tristan Ebner get some carries as well. Two other guys to watch who enrolled in January are RJ Sneed at WR and Jalen Pitre playing the hybrid LB/S position.
5. Ish Wainright
Scott Drew's basketball program has become an NFL factory over the years and Ish Wainright has become the latest project. Rather than following in Rico Gathers' footsteps and going directly into the professional ranks, Ish chose to utilize his one year of eligibility to join the football team at Baylor. And while this seems like a fun little experiment, I certainly think that Wainright could have an impact as part of a red zone package. After all, 6'5 tight ends that can jump don't just grow on trees. Ish showed off his skills when he hauled in a touchdown pass on a fade route in the spring game. You know that Ish will bring a strong leadership mentality to the locker room but It will certainly be interesting to see how he is utilized as part of the new look offense on the field.