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Baylor Football Season Mega-Preview

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NCAA Football: Baylor at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. A year and a half of COVID. A wonky 2020 season with quarter-full stadiums. It’s now time to put all other things aside and get to enjoy the viscerable joy that is football.

When I arrived at Baylor as a freshman in 2011, I was your typical dude who had played high school football (albeit 6 man) but didn’t know much about the game beyond that. As you’ll be unsurprised to learn, I’m the kind of person that tends to go all in on whatever I’m interested in. I loved college football, so I wanted to learn more. As a Baylor fan, I was primarily interested in two things that would make watching the game more fun: 1) knowing more about the players so I could know their strengths and weaknesses when they came in the game, and 2) understanding more of what was going on schematically so I could enjoy the chess match between the coaches.

In furtherance of that, this preview will attempt to help you better understand what Baylor is attempting to do in 2021 and what players they’ll be using to achieve those goals. What are they going to try and do on offense and defense? Who are the players that will be most important for their goals? Where are the weak spots that need to be mitigated to achieve their potential?

This preview is long—almost assuredly way too long. If you can’t get through it in one sitting, I don’t blame you. But it’s titled “mega preview” for a reason—I want it to operate as a single document that tells you all the pertinent things you need to know to best enjoy the Bears this season. I get really into the weeds of the roster analysis, if you don’t care about that as much and just want to get the very abbreviated view and record prediction, feel free to skip to the end. Here’s a table of contents:

  • Offensive scheme and roster analysis
  • Defensive scheme and roster analysis
  • Which Bears make the All Big 12 team?
  • Strengths and Weaknesses of the Bears
  • Record Prediction

The reason the roster roster analysis is so long is because within each position group I not only talk about what you need to know about the guys who are expected to play, but what the scheme requires of the players.

Let’s start with the side of the ball that struggled so mightily last year and is virtually guaranteed to significantly improve in 2021 — the Baylor offense.

OFFENSE

As I’m sure you’re aware, Baylor was very bad on offense in 2020. Nothing worked, there was no vision, and the scheme clearly didn’t cohere. Aranda had his first big moment as a HC and fired his OC and passing game coordinator, replacing them with new OC Jeff Grimes who just led BYU to a terrific 2020. With him, Grimes brought OL coach Eric Mateos who looks ot put together Baylor’s first good OL in a handful of years. The other add was WR coach Chansi Stuckey, who brings a youthful energy and NFL experience to a position that is often about getting guys to fully buy in.

Overall, the vision for where Baylor wants to go on offense in 2021 is pretty clear. The offense revolves around running the ball via “wide zone.” For those who don’t know what that means, it is a scheme that seeks to gain advantages on the line of scrimmage by having the OL move laterally instead of forward. Then, as the RB is also moving laterally, he waits for the right gap to open and then quickly gets upfield.

Here’s an example of what wide zone looks like. Notice how the OL are exploding LATERALLY:

When I say the offense will “revolve” around wide zone, I truly mean it. The vast majority of the passing game will come on play action off of it — everything is integrated. While over the past few years Baylor has led the Big 12 conference in true drop back passing, 2021 will feature very little true drop back and a lot more play action, rollouts, and QB run.

Overall, I’m very much in favor of this offensive approach. I don’t think Baylor has a QB which can lead an elite passing offense in 2021, so having the scheme revolve around the run game with timely deep shots makes a lot of sense to me. I talked in depth about what this could look like in this article: https://www.ourdailybears.com/2021/5/1/22413954/baylor-spring-football-retrospective-the-makings-of-a-good-offense

Quarterbacks

Another move this offseason was moving Shawn Bell from TE coach to QB coach. Hired by Matt Rhule before the 2017 season, Bell has bounced around from offensive analyst in 2017, OL coach from 2018-2019, and then TEs coach in 2020. Becoming the QB coach was always his outward goal, so it was very rewarding to see him achieve that. Expect him to become an OC within the next handful of years.

Every college offense wants an accurate, mobile, strong armed QB who makes the right reads. Any offensive coordinator would take a Joe Burrow or a Zach Wilson. But most QBs aren’t that good, and you need to pick and choose which attributes you favor more in recruiting. In the Grimes offense, mobility is a big deal. The QB is going to be on the move a lot. Not just as a pure runner, which will definitely be the case, but on so many plays the QB will be rolling out of the pocket. The offense really wants a QB who can threaten the defense with his legs and remain accurate while on the move and throwing off-platform. They also need to be accurate down the field because Grimes loves to take deep shots on early downs if defenses allocate too many guys to stopping the run. At the end of the day, every coordinator is just going to pick the best guy and then tweak their offense to help them succeed. But mobility, accuracy on base concepts, and the ability to threaten the field with their arm vertically are key for Grimes.

*Note. Baylor named Gerry the starter last week, but I had already written my QB analysis before that. I’m going to leave my analysis of each guy the same to give you an idea of what I was thinking at the time—it still applies.

Gerry Bohanon – At this point, GB is my pick for most likely to be starting game one. This is for a multitude of reasons but boils down to one thing: I don’t think that any of Baylor’s QBs are going to lead a high-flying passing game in 2021, so GB is the best option for helming an offense based around wide zone, QB run, and play action passing. I don’t think that Baylor will be doing much true drop back passing in 2021 (if they are it’s because they’re consistently behind the chains and they’re in trouble), and I think GB gives Baylor the best option to regularly run the QB 10-15 times per game and take some deep shots.

Gerry is a truly elite athlete at his size — he tests like an NFL linebacker. He will bring a level of athleticism and physicality to the position that will make him a consistent run threat and force teams to always have an additional defender in the box. The big question for him remains how proficient he can be in the passing game. If he can reliably hit the “staples” in this offense—meaning the short to medium concepts that will prevent defenses from completely stacking the box—the O could be really good. He also needs to be accurate enough on the deep ball to take advantage of guys like Tyquan Thornton. At this point, without having access to scrimmages in practice this is tough to say. But given the information we currently have, he is my best guess to start this year.

Jacob Zeno — Gerry’s main competition is Zeno, a 3rd year player out of San Antonio. Always famous for his two big throws in the 2019 Big 12 championship game as a true freshmen, fans have been anxious to see him for a while now. His arm is good enough for a P5 QB, but his release is slow and wonky and has made me unsure with how good he can be regularly throwing on the move. His pocket presence has also been a question. He’s a better athlete than most realize and is actually a pretty darn good runner. He’s built slighter than GB is, but if he starts they’ll have to use him to run regardless. If he wants to start, he’ll need to demonstrate that he’s best QB for reliably making the right reads and not turning the ball over.

Blake Shapen — the third of the triumvirate largely considered in the QB battle, Shapen is a second year player out of Shreveport. Also a baseball star, Shapen has a build eerily similar to former Baylor QB Charlie Brewer, though Shapen has a much stronger arm and is altogether a much better athlete. His main weakness is that he turns the ball over way too much. With Baylor’s figured elite defense in 2021, Baylor will be placing a premium on a QB who won’t turn the ball over to prevent placing their D in a bad position. That and turning the ball over is always bad. Shapen is a real good athlete and also would have to figure heavily into the run game, but you couldn’t use him there as much because of his smaller build. For that reason if he were to start he’d have to be markedly better than the other guys with his arm. We’ll see.

The Young Guys — Baylor has two tremendous young true freshmen in Kyron Drones out of Pearland and CJ Rogers out of Argyle. Drones was a truly A+ prospect (I rated him as such! — you can read my eval of him here) and I have always argued he had a chance to start this year. How much of a shot they’re giving him I’m not sure, but he has the best physical tools of anyone in that room. If Aranda’s first choice or two doesn’t work out midway through this season, look for Drones to get some burn.

Rogers is a walk on, but he’s not your average walk on. A multi-sport guy in HS, he didn’t really focus on football until his senior year. It’s always hard for guys to get traction when they only play as seniors, but especially for QBs where most schools take a guy before their senior season. Furthermore, COVID really hurt him because schools had a tougher time seeing him in person, and few OCs/QB coaches will every sign off on extending an offer to a QB without seeing him in person. Rogers is a legit 6’3, has an arm almost as good as Drones’, and is a really good functional athlete. Watch out for him in the future.

Offensive Line

I thought about going running backs next, but I figured I’d go with the OL since so much of the season rides on their improvement. “Wide zone, wide zone, wide zone” has been the name of the game, and I’m very bullish on some very significant improvement in 2021. For one, they finally have the depth they need to compete. For the past handful of seasons, they’ve consistently had to put guys in who aren’t ready, or guys who are ready but have nobody behind them to push them. Baylor finally has a full room and it is well stocked with talent. It’s now up to new OL coach Eric Mateos to get the most out of them.

Wide zone prioritizes lineman who play with great functional strength and athleticism. On the relative scale, it cares less about the ability to just smash the defensive lineman straight across from you and more about the ability to get lateral and turn defensive lineman’s shoulders by beating them to the spot. Being a great wide zone lineman is sort of like being a great defender in basketball. You’ve got to move your feet and beat guys to the spot. After you beat them to the spot is when you get to use your power and strength to bully them.

The Starting Group — currently, my best guess for the starting group is (from LT to RT) Connor GalvinXavier Newman-JohnsonJacob Gall Grant MillerKhalil Keith. A few of those positions are more set in stone than the others.

Galvin is a lock at LT. He’s bought into the system and with a good season he’s likely a first or second team All Big 12 guy and a late round draft pick. While not elite at any single aspect in his game, he does just about everything well and has always played with great technique.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Baylor
Baylor’s LT Connor Galvin has been a mainstay at the position for several years now.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I think Jacob Gall is a lock to start somewhere, most likely at C (though he played LG at Buffalo). He was a very effective player at Buffalo but he is small for the Power 5, so he has to make up for that with his quickness and know-how. Because of his size, I think C is more likely for him. I really liked what I saw from him reviewing his tape from Buffalo. He’ll be a good player and could be an All Big 12 guy.

Miller started off slowly in the spring but seems to be getting better and better and is very likely to start at RG. He’s not very quick, more of a power guy, but he’s older and knows how to make his way around. In wide zone you really want your quickness at the tackles and center, you can get away with some slower guys at G. Miller will be working with the RT to get things going in the run game.

That leaves two positions—LG and RT— that are most open. I have Xavier Newman Johnson at LG because, while he has spent most of the spring and fall at C, he has apparently emerged as a leader and is playing better on the field. He’s a guy who has positional versatility as he has played G in the past, so sliding him over to LG makes sense. His main competition there is Micah Mazzccua, a redshirt freshman who has a dream build for the position and played very well in the Spring. I expect him to get a good amount of playing time this year and quite possible start over XNJ.

While the Baylor OL room has depth, OT is relatively thin compared to G and C. One guy who could really solidify that position is Khalil Keith, a fourth year player from a tiny high school in Alabama who has had an up and down career thus far. When he’s “on” he’s Baylor best OL, period. His physical ability is unmatched by anyone on the roster other than Tate Williams. He’s 6’5 with long arms,and has really good feet, especially for his size. Technique and motivation have been his major questions. If Mateos can get him consistently firing on all cylinders he’ll be a dynamite RT. Keith’s major competition through Fall camp was Casey Phillips, but he is no longer on the roster. With Phillips’ apparent departure, Keith likely has this job rather set in stone.

The Other/Young Guys

Teams almost never make it through a full season only playing 5 OL, so the backups have to be ready. Most teams will designate two primary backups on the OL—one backup OT and one interior guy. It’s not cut and dry like it is for other positions, there is usually more shuffling around to ensure that the best 5 remain on the field. For instance, if Gall is starting at C and XNJ at LG and Gall gets hurt, they won’t just put in the “backup C” from the depth chart in the game, they’ll probably bring in someone like Micah Mazzccua at LG and move XNJ to C.

Mazz is my best guess to be that “interior backup,” but he’ll be pushed by guys like Mose Jeffery, Gavin Byers, and true freshman Tate Williams. At OT, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Elijah Ellis as the first backup there as he is being groomed to takeover Galvin’s spot after he leaves. True freshman Ryan Lengyel is a guy to watch at OT going into the future. I liked him out of high school and the scheme change with Grimes is an even better fit for him. True freshman Tate Williams is currently playing G but has the athleticism to play OT if things came to that.

Running Backs

RB was a position that, even before the addition of Abram Smith, Baylor had a ton of talent at. The addition of Abram just pushes this group over the top. They have about as much talent here as they have anywhere else on the roster. It’s a great group. They’re coached by Juice Johnson, a young and energetic guy who is also one of the best recruiters on staff.

RB is a position that teams handle pretty differently. Some like to really feature one guy and have one or two primary backups who only come in if the top guy is hurt or really needs a breather. Others like to have a primary “base down” guy (i.e., normal yardage downs) and another who comes in as what has been called in the past the “3rd down back” who is a good pass protector and good pass receiver, though this is more rare in college because teams don’t substitute as much as they do in the NFL. The most common setup in college is to have 2 or 3 top guys and rotate them by drives, usually going with whoever gets the hot hand.

In wide zone, the running back’s primary job is to be a “one cut and go” guy. What this means is that on every play he is going to be patiently pushing the ball laterally, and THEN after the hole begins to open up he plants one foot in the ground and explodes upfield. This is why wide zone can feature running backs who may not be superstar athletes—it first and foremost requires a guy who knows how to run as opposed to a pure height/weight/speed guy. If the running back tries to force things to happen how they want it to happen, they’re gonna have a bad time. It’s very much a “take what the defense gives you” position. And if you take it, the gains are there to be had. For an example, look at this play from the spring game. Notice how Ebner is initially aiming outside and then plants quickly and gets upfield.

The Top Guys — I think Baylor has 3 clear top guys in 2021 — senior RBs Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner, and young phenom Craig ‘Sqwirl’ Williams. What’s fun about them is they all have different skillsets. Smith is my bet to get the most carries and snaps. He’s a really terrific athlete (probably much better than most realize) and has great instincts at the position. He’s your quintessential “one cut and go” guy who can consistently churn out positive runs. The Big 12 has a slew of great RBs, but my expectation is that Abram is one of the handful fighting for an All Big 12 slot and has a good chance of becoming a late round draft pick. He’s just a really solid all around athlete and as one assistant coach told me, he is “tough, tough, tough.”

Trestan Ebner has a very different skillset than Smith. Not a guy that will probably be featured running down to down (he could I just think that goes to Smith at this point), but instead one who will touch the ball in 10 different ways every game. You want to get Ebner on the edge — he hasn’t demonstrated the instincts that Smith has for finding the interior holes. The big thing to watch early in the season is whether he is trying to push everything outside. If he does, he won’t play as much. If he becomes a better runner inbetween the tackles, he could become “the guy” over Smith. Regardless, he will always be a great guy to use on sweeps, speed option with the QB, and will be targeted a ton in the passing game. His floor in 2021 is as a fun and important skill piece that rips off a big play or two every game. His upside is as a fine everydown back who really turns it on with all the extra stuff he can do. Most likely I think he is a secondary runner but is the primary pass catching RBs who finishes with ~30-40 receptions which is a ton for a RB.

Sqwirl is the wildcard. Having torn 2 ACLs since he has been at Baylor, the staff will understandably probably never try and turn him into an everydown back. In my opinion, their goal should be to get him 4-6 touches per game in a variety of ways. You just want to put the ball in his hands. The challenge with him will be to get him on the field without making it obvious that the ball is going to him. If he were to get the ball every time he comes in, it would obviously be a pretty easy key for the defense. He’s a great instinctual runner and looks like a good route runner, though I don’t know about his hands. He’ll be really fun to watch this year. There is probably no bigger wildcard on the 2021 team than Sqwirl—he could take the offense to another level. Here’s to his health!

The Other Guys — As I said previously, Baylor is loaded at RB. Beyond the top 3, they still have a ton of talent. The other primary options this year are gonna be Jonah White from Merkel and and Taye McWilliams from Houston. Both are 6-1 ultra athletes who are big and powerful. Jonah is bigger but has more wiggle to his game — he’s another guy you just want to get the ball in space. McWilliams is lankier and faster, more of a home run threat in a big guy’s body. Qualan Jones has struggled getting a feel for the position, I still think he has more upside as a FB or LB. True freshman Jordan Jenkins already looks the part physically and has a similar game to Abram Smith.

Wide Receivers

The biggest mistake people make when thinking about wide receivers is they don’t ration out the receptions. It’s easy to get caught up in every guy—they all have talent—but in reality, for the vast majority of teams only 5-7 guys receive >90% of the targets. 2020 BYU had 5 guys who received the lion’s share—3 WRs, 1 TE, and 1 RB. Then a few more RBs and TEs receives a handful each. Baylor has more WR talent than BYU does, so I think they’ll have another guy or two, but it’s never 10 guys

This offense really wants the same WRs everyone else does. They want to have a few guys on the roster who play big, physical, and can win 1 on 1 battles in critical situations. They want tall and fast dudes who can threaten the defense over the top. But what is a bit different is how much the offense features the “jet sweep” from WRs, which is when the WR motions before the snap and runs horizontally across the backfield and takes a handoff from the QB. In this offense, the jet sweep acts as a constraint on the backside of the defense. If your base running play is going left, to keep those defenders on the right/backside of the formation from chasing down the play too hard you take a WR from the left and have him motion to the right. Here’s an example of BYU doing exactly that:

So because the offense features so many jet sweeps, they will also want some guys who play with real quickness and are like RBs with the ball in their hand. This usually means shorter guys who have real acceleration.

The Top Dogs — Baylor has a very clear top 2 in Tyquan Thornton and RJ Sneed. Both are relatively complete WRs but fulfill different roles. Sneed has gigantic, reliable hands which has made him a QB’s favorite to target on jump balls. He’s not huge but he’s powerful and physical and capable of winning in traffic. In this offense I think his primary role will be as a guy to target on passing downs and crucial situations when you just need somebody to win.

Thornton is different, tall and skinny with ultra speed, he also has good hands as is quicker than you might realize. He has shown flashes of becoming a dominant jump ball WRs, but I don’t know that he has the hands that someone like Sneed or Mims had. Grimes LOVES to take the top off of a defense on early downs to prevent a defense from stacking the box, so look for Thornton to be targeted deep on early downs. Because of his quickness, he’s also pretty good on screens and can be used in the sweep game. As long as the QB is able to take advantage of him, Thornton is set up for a big year.

While Sneed and Thornton are outside receivers, Grimes’ offense puts a lot of emphasis on the smaller inside receivers, especially in the WR sweep game. There are two clear candidates here: Drew Estrada and Josh Fleeks. Estrada, originally hailing from Argyle, is a transfer from Dartmouth where he had a great career. He’s a tremendous route runner, has good size, and brings a lot of versatility to the position. He’ll be tagged as a “savvy” guy but he’s a dang good athlete in his own right. He just doesn’t have the top end speed of a guy like Josh Fleeks.

Fleeks is a guy who is set to explode in Grimes’ offense. Another “get the ball in his hands” guy, Fleeks is a dream athlete and is tremendously explosive. When Baylor plays with 4 WRs on the field it’ll likely be Sneed - Estrada - Fleeks - Thornton. The big question is when Baylor is playing in a standard 3 receiver set whether Fleeks is starting over Estrada. I don’t think he will, but the competition will only be good for him.

So those are, barring injury, the likely top 4. Other guys will get burn in certain situation, but those 4 above will receive the vast majority of the targets this year.

The Other Guys — Another position where Baylor is stacked, the depth here is really tremendous. Behind the top dogs, there are arguments for all sorts of different guys. I think the primary backups are going to be Jaylen Ellis, Seth Jones, Hal Presley and Javon Gipson.

Ellis was one of Baylor’s top recruits a few cycles back, but he struggled with the past few offenses because he needs a strong armed QB to push the ball down the field. His top end speed is tremendous and he has great acceleration. How well rounded of a WR he has become remains to be seen. Despite him only being 5-11, he’s an outside WR.

Jones is built very similarly to Ellis, but he has more versatility in how he can be used in the sweep and screen game. He doesn’t have the top end speed of an Ellis but he’s very quick, tough, and a good route runner. He probably won’t play much unless Fleeks or Estrada are hurt.

Presley is the real darkhorse here. One of my top 3 or 4 recruits in Baylor’s recent class, Presley is about as ready-made as any WR recruit can be. I don’t think he plays a lot this year unless Sneed is injured, in which case he might become the de-facto starter. Presley isn’t overly fast but he’s big, tough, and dominant on jump balls and tough catches. He’s like Sneed but an inch or two taller. Because he’s the only other WR on the roster that can play similar to Sneed, he probably becomes his replacement if Sneed is ever out.

Gipson is only a true freshman but, as an early enrollee, he has already impressed significantly. While Presley is probably the heir to Sneed, Gipson is probably the heir apparent to Tyquan Thornton. He’s 6-3, long, fast, and shows flashes of being a great route runner. Like Thornton he’ll also be utilized on sweeps despite being an outside guy.

Besides those three, there are guys like Jackson Gleeson who brings tremendous speed to the position but I think is probably behind Gipson and Presley at this point. The true freshmen comprise one of the best WR classes Baylor has taken in recent memory. Young guys like Monaray Baldwin, Cam Bonner are as talented as anyone. Baldwin is a waterbug inside receiver who will probably score some crazy long touchdown in a random game. Bonner has elite top end speed and is a good route runner.

Tight Ends

One of the major changes with the new Baylor offense is how much it will utilize the TEs. Grimes will always have a TE on the field, and I expect Baylor will play a lot of 12 and 13 personnel (meaning 2 TEs and 3 TEs, respectively). A position with fewer guys, it’s a bit easier to preview. While Baylor only has 4 on the roster now, that number will grow by a lot as long as Grimes is here. Because the offense likes to play with so many TEs, the position needs to have some versatility. Everyone wants the TE who is an elite pass catcher and run blocker. But those are rare. What you’ll see over the next few years is Baylor taking a variety of guys at this position that can do different things. Some guys will skew more towards pass catchers, while others will be “do all the dirty work” hybrid TE/fullbacks.

Ben Sims — Sims is the clear top dog here and will be Baylor’s featured TE. He’s not elite at anything, but he’s average to good at pretty much everything. He has good size at 6-4, reliable hands, and enough athleticism to where defenses can’t ignore him. He’s improved as a blocker and will be good in the run and screen game. He’ll never be a guy you gameplan around but he will be heavily utilized this year. College TEs who do “everything well but nothing great” are phenomenal assets. As long as he is healthy he will probably get targeted at least 5 times per game and will almost never not be on the field.

Christoph Henle — Henle came in the same class as Smith and they have different skillsets. Henle is taller but not as good of an athlete, but also has more potential as a run blocker. He’s just not as fluid in the pass game. He’ll be the second TE when Baylor has 2 TEs on the field and probably have a reception or two per game. His primarily job will be to help the tackles out in outside zone and protect in play action.

The Other Guys Drake Dabney and Tyler Henderson are the other two scholarship TEs. Dabney played quite a bit last year and has the most potential of the bunch as a pure pass catcher. He’s a good route runner and very fluid in his movements. He just needs to improve as run blocker and helping out in pass protection. If he can improve there he might pass up Henle this year. Henderson has been around for a while but hasn’t played as much.

Defense

The path forward for the Baylor defense is pretty simple. They bring back basically everyone except for William Bradley-King and add a 1st team All Big 12 guy in Apu Ika at a massive position of need. They were surprisngly good in 2020, especially given the COVID issues they had to deal with, particularly on the DL. Despite bringing nearly everyone back, there are still some good battles going on and not every returning starter’s spot is safe.

I’ve talked a lot about the design of the Baylor/Aranda/Roberts defense in the past and I don’t have the space to do so here, but if you had to summarize it in a few sentences: Aranda’s philosphy is to play with as many versatile players as possible who allow him to interchange their roles to create maximum indecision for the offense. If the offense on any particular play can’t reliably identify who is rushing, who is dropping into coverage, or who is involved in the run fit, they’re gonna have a bad time. Aranda’s preference is to play with big guys up front on the DL, a slew of ultra versatile linebackers and safeties who can all rush the passer, play the run, and drop into coverage, and press man corners who can play on an island while the interior 9 defenders do their thing.

Cornerbacks

I wanted to start with what I believe is probably the best and deepest position on the team this year. The cornerbacks are pretty important in an Aranda/Roberts defense. Aranda loves to have his CBs press and if he has someone who is good enough, he loves to leave one guy on an island so he can deploy more resources elsewhere on the field. Because they require that their guys can press and play on an island, the idea here is to have long athletes with good deep speed. The ability to press is basically all about arm length, and arm length correlates very strongly with height. It’s basically impossible for a 5’8 CB to press a 6’3 WR.

I fully expect this to be a semi-rotational position for Baylor this year, probably rotating in one or two guys along with the starters because they have so much talent.

The Top Two — Baylor brings back their two starters here and they’re both good. Senior Raleigh Texada is a known quantity at this point. He knows what he is, and that’s a bail technique corner who is really good at staying over the top of WRs. Because of his size, he’s not an effective press-man CB which has led to him giving up some underneath stuff in crucial situations, and he’s vulnerable to jump balls. But what he’s good at he’s good at, and he’s effective at preventing big plays.

Baylor main hope for a true press man CB who can lock down one side of the field is Kalon Barnes, a Senior out of Silsbee. Barnes has the size and testing numbers of a 1st round CB and has been getting better every year, but Baylor really needs him to lock it down this year. His major weakness has been in run support where he has seemed a bit ... unwilling in the past. He played last year with a broken hand which really hampered him, if he stays healthy this year the sky is the limit. With a great year it wouldn’t surprise me to see him become a 2nd or 3rd round pick.

The Challengers — There are four guys who are really going to push Texada and Barnes for playing time. Let’s start with Mark Milton, a tall speedster who primarily played WR in high school. He’s a tremendous athlete and looked really good playing CB last year ... all the way until the ball was thrown. He seemed to lack some final instincts for how to play the ball, but I expect that he’ll continue to learn and improve. He has great movement skills and is good in man coverage. I’m curious whether they’ll use him as a 3rd corner in some passing situations. He’s a guy that is very close to putting it all together and if he ever does, he has about as much potential as anyone else.

The dark horse at this position is redshirt freshman Chateau Reed, another guy who has the size and testing numbers of a first round pick. Reed was a WR from Lawton, OK, who has really been impressing in practice and has as much potential as anyone else on Baylor’s roster. At a legit 6-1, he can play press man and plays the ball like a WR. Fun fact, Reed is the only dude who ever really gave Baylor CB Tevin Williams trouble in high school (Tevin is also from OK). I think Reed will be in the CB rotation from day one, but don’t be surprised if he is a de-facto starter by the end of the year, especially against teams where you need to press their WRs.

The other two guys are Al Walcott and AJ McCarty. Walcott is taller, well built, but doesn’t have great deep speed. But he makes up for it by having great hips which allows him to stick on WRs. McCarty is a similarly freaky athlete to Reed, but is an inch or two shorter. He’s still a legit 5-11 and has all the potential in the world.

The Young Guys — What makes this position so special is that behind this top 6 (!!) of great talent, they have even more. Brandon White is a great athlete who has bounced between corner and safety but seems to have stuck at corner now. True freshmen Tevin Williams and Romario Noel are both athletic freaks who bring some different things to the table. Williams is the prototype tall press man corner but without ultra fluid hips, but makes up for it with tremendous speed. He’s at corner now but don’t be surprised if he gets tabbed to take over JT Woods’ spot at FS soon. Noel is tall and lanky and has great hips, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets moved to safety or STAR (I had him pegged as a STAR coming out of HS).

Safeties

While cornerback is probably Baylor’s deepest position, safety could be their thinnest. I still expect that one of these guys at CB could potentially move to S this year, especially if someone gets hurt. The two clear starters, JT Woods and Christian Morgan, have a ton of experience, but the experience and numbers runs pretty thin behind them.

Aranda asks a lot of his safeties. By nature of the position, they need to 1) be willing and active participants in the run defense, 2) be adept in zone coverage and playing over the top of WRs, and 3) able to play man coverage against WRs and not get abused. That’s a tough ask.

Ideally, you want one guy who is more of a coverage player and is great playing “over the top” of the defense. This is your stereotypical “free safety” who is rangy, fast, and makes those interceptions where they come bursting onto the screen at the last second. Your second guy is more of a box run defender who is great robbing routes over the middle. But like I said, you really need guys who won’t get abused in any one aspect.

The Clear TwoJT Woods and Christian Morgan arrived at Baylor together as a clear dynamic duo and have remained a duo pack since. It’s always been fun because they’re such different players. Woods is a tall, lanky speedster from San Antonio who has great ball skills and is a good open field tackler. Despite being so thin, he’s always been a willing defender in the run game. His primary struggles have come in man coverage where, because of his ultra long legs, he’s always going to struggle against shorter and quicker WRs in space. Every body type has a weakness though, and he’s really pretty good at everything else. Woods improved a ton last year and is on his way to getting drafted if he continues to improve in 2021. He’s an All Big 12 talent and should have a great last year.

While playing alongside Woods, Morgan has more to prove. A phenomenal overall athlete, Morgan plays with good overall football intelligence and is a tough SOB. He’s at his best playing in the box or adjacent to it, robbing routes over the middle and getting involved in run support. He’s pretty good playing man coverage on tight ends and running backs. His primary weakness has been when he gets isolated against wide receivers along with taking some unfortunate angles in the run game. I like Morgan a lot, but whether he can improve in those two areas are a big question for Baylor’s 2021 defense. I expect teams to attack him in space early on, it’ll be something to watch to see how he’s doing.

The Backups — Baylor has one backup with a ton of experience in Jairon McVea, a 6th year former walk on from Houston. At this point we know what Jairon is—a tough as nails 5’9 guy who will give you everything he’s got when he’s in there. He’s got more speed than your typical walk on. He’ll probably be Woods’ primary backup this year and continue to be a valuable piece on special teams. Morgan’s backup (and perhaps pushing him for some seriously playing time) is Devin Neal, another superstar overall athlete who plays with a lot of savvy. I really want Morgan to put it all together, but if he struggles early on I wouldn’t be surprised to see Neal get some playing time. He’s a really good athlete and great open field tackler.

Behind these two are some younger guys like Mike Harris and Cisco Caston who won’t see defensive playing time this year barring injuries.

STAR

The uniquely named position that basically every defense now, the STAR is a hybrid safety/linebacker which Aranda utilizes with incredible versatility. Aranda has used different type guys in this position in the past — sometimes he’ll use more of a third corner who primarily plays in coverage and adds the ability to play lockdown man coverage, other times he uses more of a lighter linebacker who primarily plays on the line of scrimmage and can play zone or man coverage if needed. His preference is for the latter (because he really wants this guy to be a threat off the edge) and he had a perfect “first” in Jalen Pitre.

Jalen Pitre — Pitre is a bonafide All American and my pick for preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year. No player truly has “no weaknesses,” but for Pitre he is about as much of a truly great at everything player as you’ll find. At 6’0 197 lbs, he’s a dynamic athlete who is great at multiple things. To name a few: he’s GREAT off the edge in both the run and pass game, attacking with full on terror despite his smaller frame. If you try to block him with a RB or TE it’s absolutely over, and even against OTs he’s good at squirming around them.

Before last season, I expected that Pitre would be great around the line of scrimmage. He’s always been an incredibly savvy player who is around the ball. But after bulking up to 220 to try and play linebacker for Rhule, I didn’t expect how explosive he would become after losing 20 pounds. Despite some subpar testing numbers, he always looks like one of the best athletes on the field. He simply explodes everywhere he goes and is always trusting his instincts.

Where Pitre has really surprised me is in his ability to play coverage. I worried about teams attacking him with fast, agile inside receivers. Or just blowing by him. But he’s so sound and plays with such great technique that he’s become a great pass defender.

So he’s an absolutely animal rushing the passer, playing the run off the edge, and is great in pass coverage. That’s pretty much everything you gotta do as a STAR. That’s why he’s my pick for Big 12 defensive player of the year.

The Young Backups — The primary backup for Pitre is Lorando Johnson, a very intriguing second year player out of Lancaster. Lorando, who goes by the very fun nickname “Snax,” was a highly recruited player who was dropped by LSU late in the process and Baylor very fortunately scooped up. At 5-11 200 lbs, he’s a very thick and explosive athlete who seems to play with a lot of know-how like Pitre does. He’s a former CB and so brings some solid coverage skills to the position. He won’t be as good as Pitre is around the line of scrimmage (which is no insult — Baylor may never have one as good again) but he’ll be really good covering TEs and being physical out of the slot. Obviously with Pitre ahead of him he probably doesn’t play much defensively in 2021, but Baylor’s clearly grooming him to be Pitre’s replacement. (Pro tip: anytime they put a young guy right behind a veteran who is about to leave, you know they think very highly of that young guy.) I do wonder whether they create a third down package with both Pitre and Snax on the field.

Likely behind Snax is Devin Lemear, a true freshman out of Manor. Behind Pitre and Snax, he likely won’t play much anytime soon. But he had a solid spring game. My main question for him is whether he can ever get big enough to play around the line of scrimmage, as he’s sitting in the 170s right now.

Linebackers

Like so many of the other positions for Baylor’s defense, this position is pretty locked down as Baylor brings back both of their starters and even the backups have some solid experience. Baylor is absolutely loaded at LB, even their 3rd stringers are probably more athletic than anybody else in the conference.

Baylor plays with two inside linebackers that are relatively interchangeable. The main difference is that one ends up playing towards the passing strength while the other is more of a box run defender. Both are doing most of their work in the box, however. If I had to pick two traits most necessary for the position: 1) the ability to attack the line of scrimmage with intelligence and not get washed out in the run game, 2) the ability to run sideline to sideline to string plays out and be helpful in the short passing game.

The Top Two — Baylor brings back two very experienced starters in Terrel Bernard and Dillon Doyle. Bernard is another Big 12 DPOY candidate and a favorite among Baylor fans. Like Pitre, he doesn’t test well but makes up for it with terrific instincts. He’s always around the ball. Like Pitre, he’s a tremendous pass rusher and you’ll be in trouble if you try and block him with a TE or RB. He’s at his best working through the trash and getting in the backfield. His main weakness is, as a 6-1 220lb guy, he gives up a lot of size if an OL can get his hands on him. This doesn’t happen often, and it’s why it is so important for the DL to occupy the OL in front him. Easy 1st Team All Big 12 guy in Bernard.

Bernard’s compatriot at inside linebacker is Dillon Doyle, a big and tall inside backer who is a better athlete than you might realize. He doesn’t have great long speed, but he has very fluid hips and is decently explosive in short spaces. Early on in 2020 he appeared to be playing injured and teams relentlessly attacked him in space in the passing game. However, later in the year he seemed to either get healthier or just started playing faster and no longer was a liability. He struggled early last year to trust his eyes and attack the line of scrimmage. If Baylor gets the late 2020 version of Doyle that is playing faster and with more confidence, that’ll go a long way to ensuring that Baylor’s defense has fewer weaknesses to exploit.

The Backups — As said previously, Baylor has terrific depth at inside linebacker. The primary backups are Matt Jones and Will Williams. My expectation is that Jones is the first guy off the bench regardless of whether it is for Bernard or Doyle. Jones has moved around positions a few times in his career but is just a guy you want to get on the field however possible. While Doyle is relatively entrenched, I think Jones could rotate with Doyle to get him some time. Jones could even see some time at JACK again since he played there last year. They just need to get him on the field.

Williams is a superstar athlete who has had trouble finding a position to stick at. He seems to have found a home at inside linebacker. He’s a tremendously instinctive player that just needs to stick at a position for a year or two and really figure it out. You wanna talk about a guy who can fly sideline to sideline and play with aggression, it’s Williams. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s a guy who flies under the radar for most of his career and then absolutely explodes as a redshirt senior.

Behind these two they have some young guys in Brooks Miller and Tyrone Brown. Miller is a second year player out of West Monroe, LA, and is still learning the position but has tremendous athleticism. Brown is one of my favorite recruits in recent memory — he’s just the perfect inside backer prospect. He turned some heads in the spring game.

JACKs

Another position with a special moniker, while the STAR is a hybrid safety / linebacker who is more linebacker than safety, the JACK is a hybrid defensive end / linebacker who is more defensive end than linebacker. While many fans assume that this position is primarily about rushing the passer, for Aranda it is much more about providing overall versatility with playing the run game, rushing the passer, and dropping into coverage. If you can’t drop into coverage, you won’t play JACK for Aranda.

This might be the most wide open position on the team in 2021. The guy who figures to start is Garmon Randolph, a 6-6 260lb athletic dream who made the move from DE. Randolph was also a TE in HS and has better than expected movement skills for a guy his size. He figures to check the primary boxes for Baylor at this position as a guy who can stack and shed in the run game and drop in the passing game. With Apu Ika at NT, Terrel Bernard at ILB, and Jalen Pitre at STAR all being great pass rushers, Baylor doesn’t need their JACK to be a threat as a pass rusher. Anything they can provide in that arena is a bonus. Randolph brings the most upside to this position and figures to start barring injury.

The guy with the most experience at this position is Ashton Logan, a 6-1 238 lb former safety who is a steady presence at the position as a solid run defender. He’s OK dropping in the pass game and doesn’t bring much in the pass rush. But he knows his job and is a solid player to have in your back pocket.

As I said in the linebacker section, don’t be surprised to see Matt Jones here despite him being the primary backup at inside linebacker. He played at JACK for the majority of last year and looked pretty good. Despite never starting, he’s a bit of a veteran and can be trusted to get it done at multiple positions. He’s a terrific lateral athlete.

The other main options are young athletic freaks Victor Obi and Tony Anywanwu. Obi is a junior who is incredibly young for his age and finally filling out his 6-5 frame. If he is healthy I expect him to be the main competition with Randolph this year. Anyanwu is an elite athlete in a much different 6-1 frame than Obi. He brings a lot of power to the position and can create a lot of havoc in the backfield.

Defensive Line

The Baylor DL really played rather heroically last year. The position hit hardest by COVID and injuries, it was a group that looked most different from week to week. Even when guys were available, many of them were playing 20-40 lbs lighter than they would be in a normal year. It was really a testament to coach Dennis Johnson that he had those guys playing at their maximum potential given the circumstances. The goal for 2021 is to go from a passable unit which simply survives to a dominant unit which actually actively makes the defense much better. I think they’re gonna do that.

The thing about DL is, because it’s a bunch of big dudes who have to go all out on every play, there’s less of a line between starters and backups than there is at other positions. You’re really gonna have 6 guys who are playing a ton across 3 positions.

The position is really split up into two positions: a nose tackle who lines up either directly over the offensive center or right adjacent to it, and two defensive ends who typically play on the inside shoulder of the opposing offensive tackles. Then the JACK lines up outside the offensive tackle on one side. Here’s a picture:

Nose Tackles

The nose tackle has two primary jobs: 1) be quick enough to create issues for the OL if they try and block you with only one OL and, 2) be powerful enough to hold your own once they send two guys. The dream is to be great at both, and most are only good at one. If you’re quick but not strong enough to handle the double team you’ll never get to use your quickness. If you’re powerful but slow, the offense will never have any reason to double you.

Baylor has a guy who is elite in both quickness and power in Siaki ‘Apu’ Ika, a 6-4 behemoth who alleges that he is only 350 lbs on the roster. He’s a bit different than most fans might assume because of his body type. Yes, he is incredibly big, powerful, and will be good in the run game. But where he really shines is with his incredibly quick first time and ability to play with ultra strong hands. He’s gonna have 10+ TFL this year and perhaps 4-5 sacks. He’s not just a double team eater, he’s a playmaker in a space eater’s body. 1st Team All Big 12 guy.

Other than Ika, Baylor likely backs him up with Chidi Ogbonnaya, a 5th year player who was a project coming in and has been coming along slowly. The biggest thing that has kept him from being great is learning how to play in his huge body. I think on some level he plays like he wants to be a 6-5 260 lb DE, but he’s a 6-5 305 lb NT. He’s decently quick and has a great frame. He just needs to learn to love that inside game. You don’t want Ika playing more than 40 snaps per game, so Chidi is gonna have to play a lot this year. If he steps up it would really solidify things for Baylor’s DL.

Defensive Ends

At defensive end, you want a long, powerful guy who can hold their ground against double teams and make plays when they’re left alone. A very helpful terminology to know for this position is you want guys who can “stack and shed.” What this means is you want a guy who engage the OL, get their arms extended with a bench press (this is the “stack”), find the ballcarrier with their eyes while their arms are extended, and then “shed” the OL and get after the ball carrier.

Despite bringing everyone back, Baylor is going to look much different at defensive end in 2021. For one, they got one of their starters back from COVID/injury in Gabe Hall, a 6-5 290lb freak who is built like a Greek god. Just from what I can tell from practice clips, Hall looks like he’s “back” and ready to be a force alongside Ika. There might not be a bigger wildcard on the 2021 roster other than Sqwirl Williams than Gabe Hall. If he can become a dominant force, Baylor’s defensive potential goes through the roof. As a tall, powerful guy who can stack and shed, Hall is a perfect fit for a defensive end in Aranda/Roberts’ system.

Starting opposite Hall is likely a competition between TJ Franklin and Cole Maxwell. While Hall is built like a Greek god, Franklin has the more workmanlike frame of a James Lockhart. Franklin plays with tremendous instincts and is really good getting behind the line of scrimmage. He’s your typical “good to really good at everything” with no elite traits. After COVID and injuries last year, here’s a healthy and effective year for TJ in 2021. His main competition is Cole Maxwell, a long and toolsy DE who has battled injuries throughout his career. While not an explosive athlete, he’s got long arms and knows how to use his hands. I think Franklin has more upside, but Maxwell will be playing a lot in 2021 regardless of whether he wins the starting job or not.

So that’s 3, but there are gonna be 4 guys who play a lot in 2021. The fourth guy is Brayden Utley, a former walkon who has earned a scholarship with his reliable play. At 6-1 270 lbs he’s giving up a lot of size to the OL, but he plays with such great leverage and effort that he’s become an effective player. Size is a cruel thing in that it can greatly limit your ceiling, and at his size Utley will never be a dominant player, but he can continue to be a very effective rotation piece who goes all out. He’s particularly good as a “secondary run defender” where he disengages from the OL and chases down a RB from behind.

Other than these top 4 guys, the main pieces are guys like Josh Landry and Rob Saulin. Landry was pretty effective in 2020 but, at 6-1 285, I think has struggled to figure out whether he is a DE or NT in this scheme. Saulin has bounced around at different positions in the past—from OT to TE to NT to DE and is a solid veteran depth piece.

All Big 12 Bears

Here’s my current prediction on which Bears make the All Big 12 teams at the end of the season. There is a 1st and 2nd team, and then anyone else who receives votes is an “honorable mention.” I’m only going to make predictions for the 1st and 2nd teams.

Offense

1st Team: Connor Galvin, OL.

2nd Team: Abram Smith, RB. Ben Sims, TE. RJ Sneed, WR. Tyquan Thornton, WR. Khalil Keith, OL.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

1st Team: Apu Ika, DL. Terrel Bernard, LB. Jalen Pitre, DB.

2nd Team: Gabe Hall, DL. Kalon Barnes, DB. JT Woods, DB.

Special Teams

1st Team: Trestan Ebner, returner.

And of course, Jalen Pitre as the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

Strengths and Weaknesses

So that was 9,000 words breaking down Baylor’s 2021 roster. I’m sorry if it was too much. But hey, you’re here reading. Overall, the strength of the team lies in its defense. I think Baylor has a great chance to put forth their best ever defense (yes, better than 2019). The main questions are whether they can get Gabe Hall or TJ Franklin playing at a dominant level to give them two dominant DL, whether one of the CBs steps up to become a true lockdown press corner (looking at you, Kalon Barnes), and whether Christian Morgan can continue to improve with experience and be less susceptible to giving up big plays. I think Baylor’s defensive floor is something like 25th nationally, their upside is as a top 10 national unit. They have good depth and are relatively resilient to injuries, but an injury to Ika would be a big blow.

Offensively, I’m higher on the unit than basically anyone outside of Baylor fans is. I understand why outsiders aren’t high on a unit that was terrible in 2020 and now has a schematic overhaul. But I don’t think those outsiders realize that the unit was so terrible in 2020 because the schematic vision and coaching was so bad. Baylor’s talent is so much better than they showed in 2020, and even allowing for some hiccups with a new scheme in 2021, they’ll be much, much better than they were last year. If they can become a top ~60 national unit that virtually guarantees a bowl game given how good the defense will be. If they can creep into the top 50 or 40 national offenses, that’s a team that’s right there in the thick of it to make the Big 12 title game late in the year.

I’m a big fan of the offense and I think Bohanon was the right choice at QB. The better Gerry is as a passer, the higher their ceiling. The biggest key for Baylor offensively is to avoid clear passing downs. Gerry isn’t a guy you want having to execute complicated reads on 3rd and 13. If the O can reliably move the chains, they’ll be in good shape. I think Grimes is really going to enjoy using the speed demons Baylor has at WR this year.

Record Prediction?

Right now, my prediction is a Baylor defense that finishes around 10th nationally in most defensive metrics and around ~55 in most offensive metrics. I am always so loathe to provide an exact record prediction because a) football only having 12 games makes things so volatile and b) injuries—both for your team and whoever is out whichever week you’re playing another team—really change everything. However, you can provide a safe “95% of circumstances” range that allows for that variability. I think 95% of the time Baylor finishes somewhere between 5 wins and 8 wins. If they’re at 5 wins, the offense probably sputtered more than expected or there were significant injuries on defense. If they get to 8, then you’re probably getting Bohanon playing as good as feasibly possible and the defense stayed healthy. If things really click on offense, you start pushing that 9-10 range and people are really losing their minds.

The thing to remember about 2021 is that the Big 12 is gonna be good, like really good. Basically every projection system has the Big 12 with two top ten teams in Oklahoma and Iowa State, and then a slew of teams in that 20-50 range with Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU, West Virginia, and Baylor. And it’s not like Kansas State or Texas Tech are likely to be terrible this year either. Kansas is probably terrible again, but under new HC Lance Liepold they’re probably a very well coached terrible like Rhule’s 1 win team was back in 2017. Just by dent of for every win there is a loss, there are likely a couple of plucky good teams this year that only finish with 1 or 2 conference wins.

The nice thing about Baylor’s schedule this year is that they should start 3-0 with games against Texas St, some FCS school, and Kansas. The offense will take some time to hit high gear. After that, they’ll play 9 games in a row where they probably won’t be favored or underdogs by more than ~10 points. That’s a lot of toss ups, so Baylor fans should be grateful for every win, they’ll all come hard fought. It won’t be a year where there are a lot of clear “should wins” or even “should lose” games. Every week will be a battle.

I think Baylor is good enough to escape that plucky bottom and decidedly be in the middle to upper middle in 2021. To get in that middle/upper middle pack, historically you need to finish with 4 to 6 conference wins. For 2021, I’m feeling good and I think Baylor gets to at least 5 conference wins. Let’s go! Sic ‘em.