With all the Position Previews done and preparation for SMU kicking off tomorrow, I wanted to wrap things up a bit this evening by looking at the biggest question marks for Baylor's team at this point in time. Some will relate to positions where battles remain, others where injuries have made things a little bit tougher. The point is to get one last look at How Things Are for Baylor Football seven days out from SMU.
5. Injuries at Wide Receiver
Excitement over their recruitment (and awesome nickname) aside, had I told you in the summer that Baylor might be seriously considering playing all of the Four Horsemen (2014 WR recruits K.D. Cannon, Ishmael Zamora, Davion Hall, and Chris Platt) this season, you would have thought I was crazy. I would have thought I was crazy. I've said for a while that I thought Cannon and Hall would play, but a Clay Fuller broken clavicle and nagging hamstring injuries for Corey Coleman and Jay Lee have apparently opened things up for all four.
No matter how talented our four freshmen are, that fact alone shows that injuries are a bit of a problem. Even if we just play two of them, that's two more than we probably hoped. With Antwan Goodley, Levi Norwood, Coleman, Fuller, and Lee all back, as well as guys like Quan Jones and Lynx Hawthorne waiting in the wings, redshirting all four would probably have been ideal. But assuming Fuller, Coleman, and Lee are all out at this point, Baylor is missing our #3, 4, and 5 returning receivers. That's 1348 out of 3457 returning receiving yards (from WRs), or more than a third.
The good news is that even if you assume those three are out right now, injuries heal. At some point, Fuller, Coleman, and Lee will all return -- Lee probably first -- and our opponents will witness the firepower of a fully armed and operational Baylor offense.
4. A "Rebuilt" Offensive Line
I put "rebuilt" in quotation marks because that's the word we keep hearing about Baylor's offense line going into 2014. I don't personally believe it's appropriate, but that's what's being said about a group looking to replace All-American Cyril Richardson at left guard and longtime contributor Stefan Huber at center. We're also welcoming back three-year starter Spencer Drango at left tackle. He missed the last 4 games of the season last year after his back injury against Texas Tech, and the offense clearly suffered.
I've made no secret of my belief that Baylor's offense line will be at least good, possibly excellent, this season with Drango and Troy Baker at the tackles, Desmine Hilliard at right guard, Kyle Fuller taking over at center, and either Blake Muir or LaQuan McGowan at right tackle. That's a lot of experience returning on the edges to protect Bryce Petty, incredible size across the board, and only one position that is even somewhat in contention. Still, the offensive line is always a concern, even when you don't have to replace your All-American left guard. How this unit gels, and who actually starts in McGowan's stead, are questions in need of answers.
3. Replacing Experienced Linebackers
After what seemed like a decade in the green and gold, Sam Holl finally exhausted his eligibility in 2013. Eddie Lackey, here for only a blink by comparison, did, too. That leaves Baylor looking to fill holes at two of the three linebacker spots on the team.
At Lackey's spot, last year's backup Aiavion Edwards steps in for his sophomore year with redshirt freshman Taylor Young backing/pushing him in practice. At Holl's, senior Collin Brence emerged from the fray to claim a spot and a scholarship, fending off sophomore Patrick Levels and redshirt freshman Travon Blanchard. Interestingly, the two starters bring completely different attributes to their spots; where Edwards is lauded for his sheer athleticism, you hear constantly about Brence's maturity, intellect, and awareness.
With Bryce Hager manning the middle for Baylor as essentially another coach on the field, I can't say that linebacker is a huge position of worry. But until we see how Brence and Edwards react when the metaphorical bullets fly, it is a question. Lackey and Holl were so good last year, and the defense as a whole fed off their experience (from Holl) and playmaking (Lackey). Can Edwards and Brence replicate those things?
2. A Young Secondary
You probably thought this would be #1 until you looked ahead and realized #1 isn't specific to any one position. Read or listen to just about any preview of Baylor for this coming season, and you'll see or hear so much about Baylor's secondary that you might start thinking we're pulling guys off the street. A bit of that is easy overreaction, but a lot is genuine concern; Baylor has to replace its top 3 corners in Demetri Goodson, K.J. Morton, and Joe Williams, and a tremendous emotional and play-making leader in Ahmad Dixon. Baylor took a huge step forward on defense last year, and those four guys were all big reasons why.
This is, without a doubt, the biggest positional concern on Baylor's 2014 team. We're asking a lot of sophomores Xavien Howard and Terrence Singleton, to say nothing of Ryan Reid, Chris Sanders, and Tion Wright, to step in and start at corner after having never done it before. We're in a bit of a better spot at safety with Orion Stewart, since he: A) started two games last year, and B) gets Terrell Burt to play next to him, but the overall point remains. My confidence in them aside, Baylor is extremely young in the secondary for 2014.
1. Heightened Expectations
The successes of the 2013 season have changed things for Baylor and her fans. Where once a Big 12 Championship stood as the goal to which we aspired, now that's not enough. In 2014, Baylor will look go further, repeating as champions of what should be a better conference overall and making the first CFB Playoff ever. Baylor and its fans have to realize that even with all of our talent coming back, what looks to be another record-setting offense ready to go, and plenty of reason for optimism with young guys and on the defensive line, CFB is a nasty business. Our schedule puts a lot of pressure on us to win every single game. That's not going to be easy, but trying should be a lot of fun.
There they are, my five biggest questions for 2014 as of this moment. Things I didn't mention but that could probably be here: special teams, always an adventure with Art Briles teams; running back, where we lost Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin but returned Rashodrick Linwood and Devin Chafin; and tight end, the new domain of uberfreak Tre'Von Armstead and pass-catcher Gus Penning. In the comments, give me your take as we line up to get ready for SMU in just one short week.