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5 Biggest (Football) Keys/Issues for Baylor Football Going into 2016

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With Baylor's 2016 season opener only a week away, it's about time for me to get off my butt and actually write about this season.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Whether you care about the outcome of the Cal-Hawaii game tonight (that could have been Cal-Baylor, but whatever) in Sydney (kickoff is set for 9 PM Central) or not, its existence means one thing is certain: college football is back.  And in more or less exactly one week, there will be a game you care about when Baylor welcomes Northwestern State back to McLane Stadium next Friday evening.  Hopefully, as many of you as possible will be there supporting our Bears.

Before I get to that, a confession: because of everything that has happened around the Baylor program in the last 4 months, give or take another 8 to get ahead of the Ukwuachu news last summer, it's taken me a considerable amount of time to get myself ready for this coming season.  You probably noticed that mostly in terms of its impact on the site here -- I didn't do any kind of real season countdown, I didn't do my normal Position Preview series, and I didn't do any kind of larger season preview scoping out our 12 guaranteed matchups of the year.  For a lot of reasons, I didn't really do anything.  I just watched and waited for that switch to flip on and the impulse to write about Baylor Football again to come back.

It's back now, although due to constraints in my own life, it may not manifest itself the same way it did the first four-plus years of this blog's existence.

I'm starting today with a fairly simple concept, the same one you see before basically every televised football game on any channel: the five major keys/issues for Baylor heading into the 2016 season.  I thought about breaking things up between offense and defense and actually planned to do that.  When I got started, though, I realized that pretty much all of the keys (and definitely the first two) are the same on both sides.  The only difference is the names involved.  So I decided to mash things together into one post that will hopefully generate some buzz among the Baylor faithful going into the last free weekend before Game Week begins again.

1. Depth

Based on my scholarship chart, which I recently updated but did not post, as well as the far more authoritative voice of Heath Neilson on Twitter, Baylor will begin the season with 71 scholarship players on its roster, 14 fewer than a) NCAA scholarship limits allow, and b) most of our opponents will have, give or take one or two.  That dropoff is almost entirely due to two things: 1) the collapse of most of our 2016 recruiting class after Briles' termination, and 2) players leaving the program either by their own will or not.

The good news about the preceding paragraph is that our 2016 JUCOs aside, none of those that left for whatever reason were expected to start this coming season, although some -- like Devin Duvernay or Patrick Hudson, probably -- were expected to contribute.  That means our starting units should be more or less what they would have been, with the obvious exception of the defensive line, which I'll discuss below.  The bad news is that not having those other 14 players, and particularly the JUCOs, will severely impact our depth.  I'll be conflating sections here for a second, but take our offensive line for example.  With Autry and Hudson (and Rami Hammad, whose status is still undetermined followed his stalking charge over the summer) in the fold, Baylor would likely have had 13 scholarship players to rotate through offensive line spots.  If you include JP Urquidez, you have 14.  That's two full units with a couple of reserves, even if it means you have to move guys around or put them in sub-optimal positions.  Without those three or four, we have 10 (including relative newcomer Tyrae Simmons).  That is the total number of scholarship offensive linemen on our team right now.  Of those 10, 8 are apparently involved in active rotations according to Coach Grobe.  If any one of those 8 get hurt, we have a real problem.

Another place where depth could play a serious role is, unexpectedly enough going into the summer, quarterback.  As it stands, our season probably revolves around two things: line play and quarterback health.  With Seth Russell healthy, I'm confident that we have one of the best QBs in the nation at the head of our offense.  Without him, due to the departure of Jarrett Stidham, we have another true freshman in Zach Smith stepping up and no scholarship backup.  I have all the confidence in the world in our coach staff's ability to get Smith ready to play, should he be needed like that, but it's still not a great place to be.  To say we need Russell to stay healthy is to delight in understatement.

2. Line Play

Building off the above, the obvious weakness of our football team going into this season is on both lines, offensive and defensive.  On offense, as I talked about above, we're relying on 8 scholarship guys and, apparently, Seth's brother Daniel Russell, to form the core of our rotation.  On defense, things actually might be a little worse.

Beginning with the offensive line, we have the following players available right now to play just about every meaningful snap, beginning with the starters:

Eligibility Remaining
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
64 Dominic Desouza
JR 6-6/310 LT
72 Blake Blackmar
SO 6-5/350 LG
55
Kyle Fuller
SR 6-5/305 C
57 Tanner Thrift
JR 6-5/320 RG
77 Patrick Lawrence
SO 6-5/340 RT
76
Maurice Porter
JR 6-5/310 RT
68
Ishmael Wilson
JR 6-4/310 LG/LT
50
Tyrae Simmons
JR 6-3/300 RG

To illustrate the problem here as succinctly as I can -- going into last season, Baylor had 94 career starts from the six guys most likely to get playing time with the starters on the OL.  From the 8 guys listed above, we have 27, and all but one of those belong to Kyle Fuller (the other is Blake Blackmar in the Russell Athletic Bowl).  That means 6 of the 8 guys we're going to be relying on to move the offense forward have never started a game for us before.

On defense, the picture is fairly similar.  After DeQuinton Osborne and Jeremy Faulk, Baylor's two JUCO signees on the DL for 2016, either didn't come (Osborne) or got kicked out (Faulk), Baylor was already thin on the defensive line.  Our published two-deep has Ira Lewis at NT, Byron Bonds at DT, and Greg Roberts and KJ Smith at the ends.  Backing up each one was Andrew Morris, Tyrone Hunt, Xavier Jones, and Jamie Jacobs, respectively.  But Byron Bonds is apparently hurt and could miss the entire upcoming season, meaning Tyrone Hunt, the ultra-late unknown that we took in 2015 could be our starting DT in a four-man front.  If he isn't, it could be because true freshman Bravvion Roy is, but regardless which one gets that spot, our entire starting DL will have 12 career starts between them, all from KJ Smith.

Now, part of the "answer," so much as is there is one, to this particular problem is apparently to move predominantly to a 3-man front.  We saw Baylor do it extensively -- almost exclusively -- in the spring, and I don't think that's changed much now.  The intent of that move is fairly simple: alleviate our depth issues on the DL by adding a fourth LB, since we actually have quite a few of those.  But how it actually plays out is much more complicated, because Andrew Billings isn't walking through that door.

3. Wide Receivers

This may surprise you, but after the offensive line (and not including Seth Russell's health), my biggest single concern on the offense is wide receiver, where we will need someone to step up alongside KD Cannon this season to become a primary threat.

The somewhat dirty truth of 2015 is that aside from Corey Coleman's other-worldliness, KD Cannon playing the Robin role to a T when healthy, and Jay Lee's steadfast production, Baylor didn't have a lot going on at wide receiver.  No other player caught more than 11 passes or was even targeted more than 24 times.  We were very limited in our distribution, even though a lot of that may have been due to injuries late in the season.

With Coleman and Lee both gone now, someone else has to step up. The first person I'd look to, Chris Platt, has apparently done everything expected of him in the offseason and could reach his Tevin Reese-starter kit potential sooner than later.  The second, Ishmael Zamora, is currently sidelined (as he absolutely should be) after the horrifying video of him abusing his dog surfaced online.  Lynx Hawthorne could be called upon as both a WR and a WildBear QB, but I actually like him more in the latter than the former.  And behind those three, you have a lot of potential in guys like Quan Jones (JR), Blake Lynch (RS-FR), Pooh Stricklin (RS-FR), and true freshmen Jared Atkinson and Denzel Mims, but very little proven production.  Someone has to step up to be a consistent playmaker alongside Cannon, who has never shouldered the #1 receiver responsibility in his time here before.

4. Coaching Staff Cohesion

In case you've been in hibernation since the Spring Scrimmage ended, I have some news that may surprise you: Art Briles is no longer the head coach at Baylor University.  His coaches are still here, to a man, but he's gone, and it remains to be seen whether the on-field stability of the team went with him or remained.

I want to be clear about something: I have no reason to believe that any of our coaches are doing anything but their absolute best to prepare our remaining 71 to play this season.  From a scheme standpoint, not much should change on offense or defense.  But it's impossible for the vast majority of us to know how things are actually working between Coach Grobe and the staff he inherited behind the scenes, particularly since this team is build completely differently than any he's had before. What's going to happen the first time we face adversity this season, or the first time Grobe's authority is tested (assuming it will be at some point)? I don't know.  We're in somewhat uncharted waters here, coaching-wise, and that's before you consider the likelihood that most of these guys aren't going to be here in five months, anyway.  I have no doubt that they will act professionally and capably while they are here, but I have to believe that will have some impact, somewhere.

5. The Big 12 Schedule

If you haven't taken a close look at Baylor's schedule this coming season, you should.  After our typical lackluster non-conference slate, it's an interesting set of games and a weird pair of byes.  Here it is in chart form:

2016 Baylor Bears Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time/TV
Friday
Sep. 2
Demons Northwestern State Demons
McLane Stadium, Waco, TX
6:30pm CT
FSN
Saturday
Sep. 10
Mustangs SMU Mustangs
McLane Stadium, Waco, TX
2:30pm CT
FS1
Friday
Sep. 16
Owls at Rice Owls
Rice Stadium, Houston, TX
7:00pm CT
ESPN
Saturday
Sep. 24
Cowboys Oklahoma State Cowboys
McLane Stadium, Waco, TX
Time TBA
TV TBA
Saturday
Oct. 1
Cyclones at Iowa State Cyclones
Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA
Time TBA
TV TBA
Saturday
Oct. 8
OFF
Saturday
Oct. 15
Jayhawks Kansas Jayhawks (HC)
McLane Stadium, Waco, TX
Time TBA
TV TBA
Saturday
Oct. 22
OFF
Saturday
Oct. 29
Longhorns at Texas Longhorns
Darrell K Royal - TX Mem. Stadium, Austin, TX
Time TBA
TV TBA
Saturday
Nov. 5
Horned Frogs TCU Horned Frogs
McLane Stadium, Waco, TX
Time TBA
TV TBA
Saturday
Nov. 12
Sooners at Oklahoma Sooners
Gaylord Family OK Mem. Stadium, Norman, OK
Time TBA
TV TBA
Saturday
Nov. 19
Wildcats Kansas State Wildcats
McLane Stadium, Waco, TX
Time TBA
TV TBA
Friday
Nov. 25
Red Raiders at Texas Tech Red Raiders
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX
5:00pm CT
ESPN
Saturday
Dec. 3
Mountaineers at West Virginia Mountaineers
Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, WV
Time TBA
TV TBA

Yeah, you're reading that right.  Between October 2 and October 28, Baylor will play exactly one game -- at home against Kansas. The Big 12 apparently thought enough of David Beaty's progress in his second year in Lawrence to give us a bye week before and after that game.  If you're an optimist, you'd like having so much rest considering our depth, particularly going into the game against Texas on October 29.  If you're a pessimist, it's almost like Baylor will have to play two completely separate seasons.

Another interesting thing I draw from this -- and that I'd expect to hear on broadcasts -- is that before we go to Norman on November 12, Baylor leaves the state of Texas exactly once when we travel to Ames on October 1.  Four of our first six games are at home, and we don't go into what I'd call "hostile territory" until October 29. I think I may have to do a post this weekend, if I find the time, to break all this down even more.  It's a very interesting schedule, to be sure.

BONUS -- Gimme the WildBear!

News of Johnny Jefferson's injury and potential absence has tempered my enthusiasm for the WildBear this season, but only slightly.  I still can't wait to see how and when Baylor deploys it this season, and whether Blake Lynch, in particular, could be a weapon in that role.

*****

In putting this list together, I deliberately avoided going into off-the-field matters, mostly because I know I can't do them justice.  It should be noted, though, that one of the big things this team will have to face this year is regaining the underdog mentality that defined the program for so long.  I don't mean that in the sense that they should think it's them against the world, because circling the wagons is part of what caused our problems in the first place.  I mean it in the sense that arguably nothing will be more important to the success or failure of this football team than their ability to come together as a team again after everything that happened this summer and get all the oars rowing in the same direction.  If they can do that and overcome some of the issues I included above (and with more than a little injury luck along the way), Baylor could have another pretty special season on its hands.  If they can't, or if something terrible happens that brings our lack of depth into sharp relief, things could change quickly and not for the better.  Regardless, I know that the remaining 71 will make us proud on the field again and give us something to cheer for on Saturdays this fall.