In college football there are no guarantees, but there are some pretty safe bets. One of the safest bets in 2021 is that Baylor will have a great defense, potentially an elite one. Dave Aranda is safely in the top 3 defensive minds in all of football and defensive coordinator Ron Roberts, Aranda’s old mentor, is soundly in charge of a unit with a ton of confidence. Entering 2020, Baylor was replacing 9 starters on defense and was roundly projected to plummet in defense. The season was uneven largely due to COVID, but when they had most of their critical guys they were a really good defense. Their zenith was holding Oklahoma to their lowest yards per play in the Lincoln Riley era.
Now they bring back 10 starters from that defense, add a true difference maker in Apu Ika, and are in their second year in the Aranda/Roberts system. They feature 3 guys who are reliably 1st/2nd team All-Big12 guys (Bernard, Pitre, Ika) and a slew of others who could reach that level if they play to their potential. I think this defense will reliably be a top 25 unit this year, and probably one of the several best in the conference.
Naturally, the question is whether Baylor can capitalize on this likely dominant defense with a competent offense. Baylor’s offense was a disaster last year — we don’t need to go over this. New OC Jeff Grimes has been hard at work this Spring installing his new offense, and the fruits started to show themselves this Spring. Spring ball is essentially 4 weeks of practice, and with Baylor hosting 3 open practices (including the Spring game), I was able to get a pretty good idea of the progress they’re making. And the progress was evident.
At the first two open practices, none of the QBs looked very good. I thought Jacob Zeno looked the best, but it was by a thin margin. In general, in the first two practices, Zeno and Shapen were too reckless with the ball, while Bohanon was too hesitant and missed on some “gotta have them” throws. True freshman Kyron Drones looked good, but he got way fewer snaps than the other 3 guys, so it was hard to make much out of it. OL coach Eric Mateos was rotating a ton of guys in the first two practices and playing them all over the line. The only consistent piece was Connor Galvin at LT, other than that guys were all over the place.
By the spring game however, I thought the OL looked much better. Most importantly, they were executing the basic plays of the offense much better. The foundation of the new offense is “wide zone,” a running scheme which prioritizes athleticism, technique, and cohesiveness over raw power. It takes a bit for guys to get used to if they haven’t done it before because it’s rather foreign — instead of trying to blast the guy in front of you off the line of scrimmage, you’re instead trying to get lateral and mostly just get in the way. Of course you still want to dominate guys, get their shoulders turned and open up lane, but often you’re just trying to get them on the move.
This play above is the bread and butter wide zone. The LT—Connor Galvin—is sealing off the 4i defensive end lined up on his inside shoulder. The LG—Micah Mazzccua—climbs to the second level while the C—Xavier Newman-Johnson—seals off the 0 nose Apu Ika right in front of him (ideally you’d have the LG reach the 0 nose and the C climb up, but that’s a tough block that you can’t do against Ika. Baylor will do that against most nose tackles this year, Ika is just a different breed). The RG—Grant Miller, a transfer from Vanderbilt—and the RT—athletic freak Elijah Ellis—double the frontside DE and push him into the lap of the linebacker. This creates a clear lane for the RB Abram Smith who doesn’t receive first contact until he is 4 yards downfield. This kind of basic execution is what the OL struggled to produce in the first two practices but looked much better at in the Spring game.
The next element that was great to see was QB Gerry Bohanon executing a base down passing offense. In the previous two practices, on his few opportunities he was missing on some basic throws which have to be made. But when he started hitting throws like this, this is where he can become really dangerous.
And this is where the bread gets buttered. If Gerry can reliably hit base down passing concepts, this offense has a chance to be really good. pic.twitter.com/DyigO5T5Fv— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) April 25, 2021
Next play he hit a hitch route to the field, something that stretches a defense.
Next play, hitch to the field. Gerry needs to his lower half more involved here. This throw is still stronger than what we've had recently, but he has more in the tank here if he gets that lower half involved. Watch Kyron throw to see what I mean. pic.twitter.com/yglfOTRW8Z— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) April 25, 2021
And of course, when you combine this ability to hit basic passing concepts along with Gerry’s running ability, it makes for a solid offense.
Gerry has awesome leg power, he's running through tackles like this. Love this. pic.twitter.com/cT7Bd9vpm1— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) April 25, 2021
It’s obviously not a guarantee that Gerry is gonna be a starter; there is a long way to go! But it was really nice to see his game at play. If Baylor can get a reliable run game going this year—which I think they can—adding his legs to the mix would make it even more dangerous. What remains to be seen with him is how he is on deep concepts. You don’t want to waste guys like Tyquan Thornton and Jalen Ellis who can really get open deep.
As many know by now, QB Jacob Zeno had a rather forgetful Spring game, which hopefully you can chalk up to nerves with him feeling like had something to prove. He’s a good athlete and did some good things on the move. However, he’s been too careless with the ball in the practices that I’ve seen. With Baylor’s dominant defense this year, it should be a huge priority for the QBs to protect the ball and not give offenses easy points. Zeno and Shapen both need to be better about protecting the ball if either want to start this year.
Every fanbase always loves their skill talent, but I do think Baylor—with Abram Smith, Trestan Ebner, Sqwirl Williams, Jonah White, and Taye McWilliams—legitimately has one of the better RB rooms in the conference this year. By the way, I thought Ebner showed real improvement running the ball in the Spring game. Wide zone requires running backs to be comfortable taking the 4 yard gain instead of trying to push it outside into a loss. Ebner was much better about taking those short gains in the Spring game. If he can even become an OK runner, he’ll be a vital asset because of how dangerous he is in the passing game.
First straight wide zone run of the game, going right. The OL does a good job by in large, but Ika is just too much for XNJ and is able to force the early cutback. Great job by Ebner here to just accept the situation and get the available 4 yards, a key attribute in wide zone. pic.twitter.com/UfklF6L0Tn— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) April 24, 2021
At this point, if I had to place I bet I’d predict that Gerry Bohanon is Baylor’s 2021 starting QB. He elevates the running game and looks like he’s getting more comfortable executing base down passing concepts. What remains to be seen is how he does on true passing downs (stuff like it’s 3rd and 8, the defense is coming after you and you have to execute) and his ability to threaten downfield. There is a lot of time left and I wouldn’t put a lot of money on any guy.
More important than the starting QB, however, was the progress of the OL. Baylor has to get a reliable run game this year to reliably get points and protect its defense from playing too many snaps. New OL coach Eric Mateos is doing a great job with these guys, injecting confidence in the group and getting buy in. If they can continue to improve, add a transfer along with true freshman Tate Williams, I think this group could do some real work in the run game this year.
With Baylor’s likely dominant defense, they just need the offense to not get in the way. Of course, if Baylor wants to threaten for a conference championship or be really good they’ll need the offense to be more than just “serviceable.” But coming off such a rough 2020 and installing a new offense in 2021 it is not reasonable to expect greatness from the offense so soon. I think fans are excited to watch a cohesive unit improve. The defense will always be fun to watch. Fans should be excited about the progress of the offense this Spring.