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Football Q&A!

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Y’all sent in some questions, I crafted a few more. Let’s talk ball.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we’re a few weeks past spring ball and I’m getting more and more desperate for football content. When none is provided to you, you simply have to create your own. So here we go, let’s talk some Baylor and Big 12 football. Thanks to all who submitted questions!

I’ll start with a few general things to get things rolling:

My 30,000 ft views of Baylor’s offense and defense

Offensively, by now I think we have all heard the term “wide zone.” New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and new OL coach Eric Mateos are charged with installing it and the results have been pretty good thus far. For those who aren’t as scheme savvy, don’t let your eyes glaze over when you hear wide zone. The principle is pretty simple: “inside zone,” (the other most popular running scheme in football) relies on blasting the defender in front of you backwards, while outside zone instead aims to get lateral and get the defensive front moving sideways so that they can eventually “cut against the grain” when a gap appears.

Here’s an example of inside zone from last year. Notice how the OL are all firing off the ball directly in front of them.

While here is an example of wide zone from the spring game. Notice how the OL are moving laterally and trying to reach the outside shoulder of the DL in front of them:

Especially breaking in a new QB this year, Baylor’s offense will largely go as far as its run game takes them. This is why I think the QB has to be a big part of the run game going forward. Whether it’s Bohanon, Zeno, or someone else, they’re gonna have to threaten the defense with their legs because I don’t think any of them will be ready to operate the passing offense at a high level from the outset.

On defense, I think we can safely expect them to reach that nationally great/elite status. I know some outside fans reading this might be surprised that I think such a high status is a “safe” goal, but at this point I think Baylor has everything they need defensively. Aranda is one of the top 3 defensive minds in all of football, they bring back 10 starters, and add a star transfer with NT Apu Ika. Jalen Pitre, Terrel Bernard, and Apu Ika are all safely 1st or 2nd team all conference guys while guys like JT Woods, Kalon Barnes, and a handful of others have that potential as well. I fully expect them to give Baylor a chance to win every game.

I still have a few big questions defensively, such as whether they can get 4 or 5 DL playing at a Big 12 level instead of just a couple, and whether Christian Morgan improves enough in pass coverage. Overall, though, I think they have what it takes to have a terrific year.

My expectations for 2021

Expectations are tricky. For some fans it’s all about the W-L record; “Get me 8 wins, I don’t care how you get’em.” I tend to be more process based—even though the goal is ultimately W-L, especially early on in Aranda’s tenure, I’m more interested in the inputs for how things build for the future. With that said, while I don’t think any one win total would signify a “success” or “failure,” I think bowl eligibility is a fair and reasonable expectation for 2021. The league should be really good in 2021, so I think Baylor could improve massively but not necessarily show it as a massive improvement in the win column.

Mostly, my expectations are that Baylor should be competitive with everyone they play this year. The roster remains very talented and they have a good coaching staff. Having a first year QB might keep them from having the firepower needed to score with everyone they play, but they shouldn’t look outmatched against anyone. We saw in 2020 that even with an undermanned squad they were able to hold Oklahoma to their lowest ever yards per play which kept Baylor in the game. Baylor’s defense will be that much better in 2021 to keep them in every game.

QB

It depends what you mean by carousel. I would not be surprised at all to see multiple starting QBs. None of these guys are proven, and given what I’ve seen so far they haven’t separated themselves enough to where there is one clear guy. I can definitely envision a scenario where one guy is given the first 3 games or so and Baylor elects to make a change if he isn’t getting it done.

Under no circumstance do I expect a situation similar to what we had with Brewer last year. Aranda inherited Brewer, a senior 2.5 year starter, and the younger QBs didn’t look any better in practice. Baylor doesn’t have that kind of dynamic in 2021.

As for Tyquan, I do. Especially in the first spring practice I attended, they targeted Tyquan downfield at least 5 times. The guy looks good and looks to be at his best weight since he’s been at Baylor. The main question is whether A) the starting QB is a guy who can reliably and accurately throw the ball downfield and B) whether the OL is able to hold up in pass pro long enough to make those shots worth taking. I expect Baylor to take a lot of “max protect” deep shots this year (meaning play action plays where there are only 2 or 3 guys running routes, everyone else stays in to block), and Thornton is clearly Baylor’s best deep threat. The guy is a phenomenal talent and I hope he is able to get work done this year.

Freshman Playing

True freshman playing significant minutes is usually a bad sign. However, occasionally you’re able to sign guys talented enough to where they are one of your better players. Because Baylor brings back so many starters on offense and defense, I don’t expect many true freshmen to get significant playing time with a few exceptions.

The first is the guy you brought up: Tate Williams. Were it not for the emergence of Elijah Ellis this past spring, I’d be hammering hard for him to be the day one starter at RT. I still might think that’s a good idea, but he might just be less needed immediately now. I fully expect him to be either a first reserve, whether it’s at tackle or guard. Hell, I wouldn’t rule out him becoming the starting center. He’s that good. You can read my evaluation of Tate here: https://www.ourdailybears.com/2020/12/19/22190388/evaluating-the-newest-football-signees-part-1

The other two are on defense. Neither do I expect to be starting immediately, but instead are guys to watch in case anybody in front of them getting injured. First is Tyrone Brown at inside linebacker. I think he’ll safely be behind Terrel Bernard, Dillon Doyle, and Matt Jones. But I think he might be the fourth guy. He looked very impressive in spring, and I’ve written about how much of a freak athlete he is. You can find his eval here: https://www.ourdailybears.com/2021/1/2/22210157/evaluating-the-newest-signees-final-edition

Finally, there’s Tevin Williams, who just broke a slew of Oklahoms state track and records. f he plays CB I don’t think he sees the field until next year or later (Baylor is loaded with young guys at that position), but if he plays safety I think he can see the field earlier. I think he’s a safe bet to slot behind JT Woods and take over for him next year.

Baylor’s Run Defense

As I wrote above, I think Baylor’s defense will be borderline elite this year, so I’m not particularly worried about their ability to matchup with any one player. Of course, a great offensive player can always get his, but there’s nothing about Baylor’s defense that makes me think “they’ll be extra vulnerable against this type of offense/player.” All those backs are great. But generally in today’s game, if you’re getting gashed in the run game it’s because you’re actually getting gashed in the pass game and can’t allocate enough resources to the run. I think Baylor’s cover guys will be plenty good enough this year to where they’ll be able to devote enough guys to the run.

Baylor’s Ceiling

This is a tough question, because it depends on how you define ceiling. I mean, you can say that Baylor’s ceiling is Big 12 champions because I think there is a chance that they’re good enough for that to happen this year. How likely? Probably not very. At least not until we see some evidence that they’ll get great QB play this year. The defense will be Big 12 championship quality this year, though, so basically anything they get on offense will help a lot.

Overall, if I were handicapping the season, I’d say the vast majority of results put them somewhere in the 5-8 win range. There are a few disaster scenarios where they’re getting fewer than that, and there are a few “absolutely everything goes right” scenarios where they finish with more wins (which would put them in the conference title game). So yeah, I’d guess it’s fair to say that the title game is their ceiling. But a more “realistic, on high end of expectations” range would be something like going 3-0 in non conference (remember, we play BYU this year), and then getting another 5 conference wins, which usually places you around 4th in the conference.

As for the transfer question, I think that at this point Baylor just needs quality OL and DL transfers if they can get them. The pickings are slim, however. A high quality lineman would definitely make me feel more comfortable.

DL other than Apu Ika

I’m very high on TJ Franklin, who played a good amount under Rhule as a true freshman and then played last year post-COVID and injured. When he’s healthy, he’s on the upper edge of talent for DL in conference. As you mention, Gabe Hall is also a guy to keep an eye on him. If he’s healthy, he’s starting. Right now, I’d safely say that Baylor has one great DL (Apu Ika), and a couple others who are likely Big 12 quality when healthy (Franklin, Landry, and Hall). Also shoutout to Brayden Utley who, because of his smaller frame will probably never be a great player, but has really carved himself a niche and far exceeded expectations as a walk on. What they need is a couple of those 3 to go from replacement quality to very good. And they need some of the other backups to become quality players.

As for sack numbers, probably not. The linebackers get most of the sacks in this scheme. I think Ika will be close to 5, but that’s a big number for a NT.

How do QB Runs work in a wide zone scheme?

This one comes from @penland365 on twitter. I take it as more of him asking me to show work as opposed to an actual question, because I guarantee he knows more about it than I do.

It’s an important point to highlight though, because QB runs, while not necessarily very different schematically, are elevated in a wide zone scheme. The main reason is that the QB run game generally revolves around “optioning” an unblocked defender. Think of your standard “zone-read” play. The OL blocks a run play one way, usually leaving the backside defender (usually the backside defensive end) unblocked. If he crashes down after the RB, the QB keeps the ball and runs in the spaces vacated by the DE. If he stays square and keeps his eyes on the QB, you hand the ball off. I discuss as much in this video:

Why is this “different” in wide zone? Well, it just puts even more lateral space pressure on the defensive front. When you run a zone read off of inside zone, the OL has largely stayed in the same horizontal space that they were when the ball was snapped. Watch this play below. It’s not a zone read, but imagine that the QB is reading the defensive end on the left side of the line of scrimmage.

Now contrast this with zone read with wide zone. In this clip below, notice how the OL has moved so far laterally to their right which makes Gerry running back to the left that much more devastating.

The basic idea of wide zone is that you get defenders thinking about how they have to move laterally which allows for you to play off that and cut behind them. That’s essentially the same thesis of what you’re trying to do with QB run game. Whoever plays QB for Baylor this year will need to be a reliable threat in the run game. They operate as a constraint on the backside of the play to keep defenders from chasing things down from behind. The more they have to worry about the QB, the more that open things up for the RB on the frontside.

Who Starts at QB?

I think that’s about right. Zeno looked better than Gerry in the first two scrimmages, but it wasn’t by much, and I thought Gerry looked much, much better in the Spring game. Zeno still has great physical tools and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win the job. I think Shapen has been too careless with the ball thus far. Whoever plays QB this year will need to protect the ball given how good the defense is.

Will Sqwirl Williams be amazing this year?

This question comes from Travis Roeder. The answer is yes.