Baylor Football starts spring practice this Tuesday March 5th, culminating in the April 13th spring game.
Spring practices are usually simultaneously over and under hyped. Many traditional reports tend to focus on flash-point position battles and regurgitate near-meaningless coach speak. For instance, if you hear an interview where Phil Snow talks about how they “want to get more aggressive,” or “are focusing on creating more turnovers,” he may as well have told you that the team is working hard in the weight room; duh.
But fans can also glean valuable information. One just needs to read the tea leaves. I find it particularly useful to listen to the assistant coach’s interviews, as they are less practiced in coach-speak and often provide valuable insight. The Baylor beat writers, such as John Werner at WacoTrib and the entire team at ESPN 1660 also do a great job.
Here are what I feel are the important questions heading into the 2019 season/spring ball:
Baylor’s Got What They’ve Got
Heading in to 2019, as they did in 2018, Baylor is near the top of the FBS in returning production. Often in spring practice, fans foam at the mouth for the release of the depth chart, but this will not be a particularly interesting reveal for the 2019 Bears as they lost so relatively few starters that the 2019 two-deep should be relatively predictable. I do not mean that there will be zero intrigue; just less than normal.
The other interesting aspect is that often in spring practice there is a hesitation to take anything as set in stone, because impact freshman or junior college players have not arrived on campus yet. I remember in 2014 I had the privilege of watching some spring and fall practices, and I was telling fans “Guys, wait til K.D. Cannon gets here. And when he does, it is not a question of whether he will play, but whether he starts.”
No such situation exists this year. Baylor has holes to fill, to be sure, but the junior college guys or freshman who might fill them are already on campus. Baylor’s got what they’ve got: the answers to the questions are pretty much all participating in spring practice. For example, Baylor lost 2 seniors on the right side of the OL, but between junior college addition Blake Bedier and all of the OL they have taken in the past few years, the guys who will fill those spots are already here. Same with the departures at DL, WR, S, etc.
What Direction Does Baylor Go With Its Defensive Line?
One area where Baylor did lose quite a few contributors was on the defensive line. Gone are starting DE Greg Roberts and starting DT Ira Lewis, along with contributor at DE Xavier Jones. The good news is that Baylor has recruited like crazy on the DL ever since Rhule got here, so he will have plenty of guys to tool around with. However, they are relatively thin at DE after the graduations of Roberts and Jones, along with the transfer of starting DE B.J. Thompson.
What is clear is that he has at least one guy to build around: Junior DE/DT James Lynch. I think watching what they do with Lynch will be a key to understanding their overall philosophy. If Lynch is playing inside at DT (where he probably is most efficiently utilized), this is probably a good sign for what Baylor feels like they have at DE. Senior James Lockhart, junior college transfer Niadre Zouzoua, and Junior (returning from a nasty broken arm) Deonte Williams will need to step up.
I would predict that this doesn’t happen, and that Lynch stays mostly outside at DE. The other option is that Baylor primarily plays in their 3-down defense (3 defensive lineman instead of 4), but Rhule and Snow love to remain flexible and I think they’ll play a lot of both again in 2019, like they have been since they got here.
Does John Lovett Stick at Safety?
I have been clamoring for this move since last year, so I am happy to see that the coaches are reportedly going to tinker with him on the defensive side of the ball. Lovett is a good back, but Baylor is relatively thin at safety (Miller, Woods, Black and Morgan) while stacked at RB (Hasty, Ebner, Sqwirl, Abram Smith, and two new true freshmen). Lovett was a two-way player out of high school, so it will be interesting to see if he makes the switch stick. He could provide a ton of versatility.
He has the size and athleticism, what remains to be seen is whether he has the physicality and intelligence to play the position. I hope it works out. I think it’d be ideal for him to use a 4 game redshirt in 2019, and be primed for a lot of playing time after Chris Miller and Henry Black graduate.
Can Baylor Start To Use Their Tight Ends as Passing Game Weapons?
Since Rhule arrived, Baylor has both heavily emphasized tight end recruiting and upped the rhetoric about wanting to use them in both the run and pass game. This has drawn some ire from fans, as they correctly point out that this is much more talk than action up to this point. I have defended the coaches on this, however, as the TE usage has justifiably been low for two reasons: 1) the TEs on the roster are all very young (the oldest now is redshirt sophomore Tyler Henderson) and 2) the staff inherited a very talented and deep receiving corps, and has been using them accordingly.
Using TEs is not a decision made in a vacuum, there are trade offs. Most notably, if you want to have a tight end on the field, you need to take a WR off. 2 TEs means you take off 2 WRs. Up to this point, it has been much more beneficial for Baylor to operate with 3 or 4 WRs on the field instead of throwing a young TE out there.
Now, Baylor still played with quite a bit of TEs last year. I would estimate that one of true freshman Christoph Henle or Tyler Henderson were on the field for ~50% of snaps. But they were primarily blockers because of Baylor’s OL struggles in the passing game.
Thus, Baylor will have the opportunity to expand on tight end usage for two main reasons: 1) The tight ends are older and more experienced and 2) the OL should be better so that they won’t need as much help in pass protection.
Christoph Henle received the majority of the play in 2018 after enrolling early. In spring ball, look out for redshirt freshman Ben Sims, who I was very high on in the 2018 class.