Your Baylor Bears take on the Abilene Christian Wildcats in just ten days at McLane Stadium, even if you wouldn’t know it from my postings in preparation. But I’m out to remedy that now and going into this season, which will either mark some kind of a step forward from our 1-11 campaign last year (which Bill C appropriately termed “Year Zero” for the Matt Rhule era in his fantastic preview) or a disappointing maintenance of that status quo, the possibility of things actually getting worse being pretty slim (although it’s always possible that we could lose to Kansas in football, but who does that?).
To get things started around here, I thought I’d bring back an old favorite in the form of a Top 5 list of issues as I see them as we stand here today. Some of these will be position groups, others more related to specific players. I’m sure people will disagree, but that’s the point right? Let’s get the discussion going.
Before we begin, though, I’d note that we don’t have an official depth chart for the first game and probably until the media guide comes out. Even then, Rhule and his staff appear to treat depth charts as more guidelines than rules, and you never really know what’s going to happen. We can address that when it comes out.
1. The Offensive Line
We all knew it would start here. Last season, through a combination of preseason injuries, program attrition, the effects of a recruiting class gutted in 2016, and a completely new scheme different from what our guys had done before, the offensive line struggled, particularly in the running game. We had decent luck during the season of keeping our starting group mostly intact, but that group was led by a tight end-turned-center in Sam Tecklenburg and included then-juniors Blake Blackmar and Patrick Lawrence on the right side and a true freshman in Xavier Newman and senior in Mo Porter on the left. Porter played through injuries and wasn’t as effective as Baylor fans hoped, Tecklenburg was learning the center position basically on the fly, and Newman, as mentioned, was a freshman.
The results of all this were not good. According to S&P+ (available at FootballOutsiders.com, as always), Baylor finished 86th overall on offense, with ranks of 87th and 106th in rushing and passing, respectively (Bill C has it as 98 and 100, respectively, but I feel comfortable saying we were bad without knowing exactly how bad we were). We were absolutely dreadful on standard downs (1st down, 2nd and less than 8, 3rd and 4th and less than 5) at 126th, which put us in a lot of third and longs or just killed drives completely. In Success Rate, which tracks successful plays using the following definition: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down, we were 127th. S&P+ only tracks that kind of offensive stat for 130 teams. According to Bill C’s stats (available at the link above), we were 128th in yards/carry on standard downs, and 130th (which I believe is dead last) in power success rate, defined as the “percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.”
Now, a few caveats: 1) these stats aren’t broken down from Pre-Brewer to BrewerTime (TM), when it definitely appeared as though the offense improved in efficiency, and 2) they’re not broken out by conference vs. non-conference games (which may be a good thing?). Still, not good all around.
Here’s what is good: we are projected to be much, much better this season. Bill C’s model has us at a much more respectable 38th in offensive S&P+ which, while a projection, should be cause for hope. So, too, should be the arrival of Clemson transfer Jake Fruhmorgen, a likely eventual starter though slightly banged up right now, JUCO transfer Johncarlo Valentin, who will provide depth if nothing else. (UPDATE — While I was writing this, David Smoak reported that Fruhmorgen could be out a couple of weeks and Valentin could miss some practice time. Wonderful.) Blackmar and Lawrence are both a year older and more experienced in the system, as are Josh Malin (mostly a backup last season) and Xavier Newman. Tecklenburg now has a year actually playing his position under his belt, as well. This is all good news. Those more in the know than I seem to believe the line will go Malin-Newman-Tecklenburg-Blackmar-Fruhmorgen left-to-right with Lawrence as the sixth man.
Still, the success of the offense will largely be predicated on this group and how they perform, so they get the top spot on my list.
2. Keeping Charlie Brewer Healthy
Again, predictable. He was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year after throwing for 1,562 yards on 139/204 passing (for a stellar and near-nice 68% completion percentage) with 11 TDs and 4 interceptions. He electrified the Baylor offense coming off the bench late in the third quarter against WVU and nearly pulled off the upset after the Bears went down 38-13, relieved Zach Smith early in the Texas game, got his first start and win against Kansas the following week, and started every game after that. Eventually, though, probably due to #1 on this list, he injured his shoulder against TCU.
Let’s take a breather to watch his highlights.
I know I feel refreshed.
Brewer is supposedly healthy now, throwing better than ever before (cue the “best shape of his life” training-camp meme), and almost certainly going to start. He’s also backed up by NC State transfer Jalan McClendon and 4* early enrollee Gerry Bohanon. But this offense will be Brewer’s show, and if we’re going to break back into bowl eligibility—which should be the goal this season—we need him healthy. He’s the straw that stirs the drink offensively.
3. Where My Blake Lynch At
Or, alternatively, what are we doing at safety?
I’ll admit this one may just be a recurring reaction to the debacle that was our safety play last season—I honestly believe that we could have gone with only 10 guys on the field several times and not been worse off—but safety is a primary concern for most Baylor fans. That concern appears to be shared by the coaching staff considering they moved WR-turned-CB-turned-WR/CB Blake Lynch to safety this offseason. There’s no doubt that he has the athletic chops for it, but it’s a position of critical importance that I don’t think he’s ever played before now.
We don’t know yet if he will start or who would start alongside him if he does, but it appears likely to be one of Verkedric Vaughns (a senior) or Chris Miller (a junior). True freshman Christian Morgan could also be in the mix here based on the two-deep released in July. Whoever plays, we need significant improvement from this position group. That much is clear.
4. Can We Get After the QB?
We weren’t horrendous last season at rushing the passer, generally—55th in adjusted sack rate and 58th in sack rate on standard downs—but we weren’t good, either. And on pass downs, we were just bad—87th. That stands in stark contrast to where Temple was the last year that Rhule and Coach Snow were there—3rd, 2nd, and 9th, respectively.
I’m not going to pretend that Baylor can reach the lofty goals of the 2016 Temple defense, particularly since we don’t have a Haasan Reddick on the roster to my knowledge. But we can and should improve in 2018 with Ira Lewis and Bravvion Roy back inside, freshman phenom James Lynch (who really came on at the end of the season) with his first real offseason under his belt, A&M transfer James Lockhart eligible to play his junior season, junior Tyrone Hunt (defensive MVP of the 2016 Cactus Bowl, if I recall correctly) healthy, and sophomore Deonte Williams settling in at rush end. The only real contributors that we lost off the defensive line are Brian Nance (graduation) and Jamie Jacobs (because he’s now a tight end and banged up right now). There are also rumors flying around about Blake Lynch and Henry Black being used in obvious passing situations, as well as wide receiver Jared Atkinson, who has returned to the team. I’m actually looking forward to seeing how all this plays out over the course of the season now that the entire team has a year in Snow’s defensive system.
5. Let’s Talk about the Linebackers
I may be somewhat alone on this (but I doubt it), but I’m a little concerned about our linebacking corps with Taylor Young lost to graduation after approximately 24 years of eligibility. Clay Johnston has been great when healthy, but we lost burgeoning playmaker Eric Ogor for off-the-field reasons and Demarco Artis transferred. As a result, we’re going to have to lean hard on junior Jordan Williams, listed as a starter in July at WLB, and Henry Black, who was just voted by his peers to wear a single-digit number this season, at SLB. Black is a former safety that is apparently spinning down, and this is where you might see Blake Lynch make an impact in certain situations.
I find it interesting that even with these questions at LB and S, Bill C’s projection has us improving nearly 50 spots on defense—from 111th to 63rd. That’s likely because of the depth we have coming back on defensive line and at corner, where we return Harrison Hand, Grayland Arnold, and Jameson Houston, among others.
That’s it. Those are my five. I reserve the right to change things up as we get closer to the season and get more information, but that’s where I am right now. Notice that I didn’t talk about RB, which has J’Mycal Hasty and John Lovett likely leading the way, or wide receiver, where Denzel Mims, Jalen Hurd, and Chris Platt are your likely starters. That’s not because they don’t exist; it’s because they aren’t as big of questions. Give me your thoughts in the comments!
By the way, this took me nearly two hours to write because I’m so out of practice.