As I sat here this morning pondering the future of Baylor Football, I kept coming back to the idea that in order to repeat last year's stunning success, or even build on it in the first year of the new CFB Playoff, we're going to need several young players at key positions to step up. So I put together a list of my top 5 young players, "young player" being defined as a freshman or sophomore, to watch in spring practice over the coming weeks. It's not exhaustive and is certainly up for debate, but here are the five to whom I will be paying special attention, in no particular order.
1. RB Johnny Jefferson | Redshirt Freshman | #2 | 5'11", 200 lbs.
I could just have easily put Rashodrick Linwood, a sophomore, in this space because of our obvious need at RB with both Glasco Martin and Lache Seastrunk departing, but Linwood is, at the very least, a much more known quantity than Jefferson, who spent 2013 redshirting to preserve his eligibility. As far as I've heard, the coaching staff absolutely raves on Jefferson's combination of speed and power, to the point that had our situation deteriorated any further while Lache and Glasco were injured last season, Jefferson would have gotten the call. You have to imagine that Linwood's phenomenal debut in 2013 earned him something of a leg up going into spring practice -- that's why I've listed him as the starter in my depth charts to date -- but the battle for that spot with Jefferson should be one to watch.
2. CB Xavien Howard | Sophomore | #18 | 6'2", 200 lbs.
I included Howard on here as a placeholder for "basically the entire defensive secondary." As our only returning CB with any meaningful playing time in 2013, I've been penciling Howard in as a starter at CB now that K.J. Morton, Demetri Goodson, and Joe Williams have left us. I've also assumed that former Georgia DB Chris Sanders will jump right in from the JUCO ranks. It's possible, however, that Phil Bennett favorite Ryan Reid makes an impact and potentially unseats either Howard or Sanders.
Baylor needs Howard to make a big jump in spring practice to help stabilize our secondary going into next year. He has outstanding size and speed, which could make him Baylor's first real "big corner" in a long time.
3. LB Aiavion Edwards | Sophomore | #20 | 6'1", 225 lbs.
I'm going to drop a bomb on you guys: reports from BearsTruth.com (which I believe is offering a free trial period right now) say that MLB Bryce Hager will miss spring practice due to surgery for the lingering groin issue. The surgery isn't really news, since we knew that would happen. Missing spring practice is. Considering, then, that if the season started today, we'd have 3 new starters, 1 of which is new to the program, at LB/NB, that makes the development of younger guys like Edwards and Kendall Ehrlich extremely important. Not that they weren't important before.
How Edwards plays implicates where Grant Campbell, the aforementioned newbie to the program, fits and vice-versa. It may be that we see Edwards move outside in Hager's absence and Campbell inside, though without the pressure of a game on Saturday to force such a move, it makes more sense to keep them where they will eventually be.
4. NB Kiante Griffin | Sophomore | #18 | 6'0", 215 lbs.
You knew one of our potential NBs, whether it was Griffin, Austin Jupe, or Raaquan Davis, would make this list. Or at least you should have known, because this is my "Thing Seymour Will Talk Endlessly About" this year. Last year it was right guard and The Switch. This year, it's nickelback (the position, not the band).
The easiest solution here is for Griffin to be just fantastic, giving Davis and Jupe, both redshirt freshmen, the chance to learn behind him. He's athletic enough for the position, though a little smaller in height than Sam Holl, as a former WR/S.
5. WR Robbie Rhodes | Sophomore | #3 | 6'0", 190 lbs.
Oh, I'm not quitting Robbie Rhodes. Not even close. Rhodes, still the highest-ranking recruit Briles has ever gotten, was limited by injury in his true freshman year. Healthy once again, he'll have the chance to battle with junior Jay Lee, senior Clay Fuller, and maybe even true freshman Davion Hall, for a job opposite senior Antwan Goodley. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see him take it this spring, especially with how impressive he looked in 2013 preseason practices.
I'm still driving that Robbie Rhodes bus.
BONUS: DTs Andrew Billings / Byron Bonds | #75/96 | Sophomores | 6'1", 310 / 6'0", 275 lbs.
I had to include the Killer Bs because of positional importance, their fantastic debuts as true freshmen in 2013, and the fact that I hope for nothing more than the development of a dominant pair of interior defensive linemen. This could easily be our starting tandem in 2014, 2015, and, God willing, 2016. That's exciting.
Also Worth Watching:
S Orion Stewart | #28 | Sophomore | 6'2, 185 lbs.
S Taion Sells | #26 | Sophomore | 5'10", 185 lbs.
DE Javonte Magee | #90 | Sophomore | 6'5", 275 lbs.
RB Devin Chafin | #28 | Sophomore | 6'0", 220 lbs
And a host of others.
So there they are, my five (plus two) underclassmen to watch in spring practice this year. I'm obviously leaving off quite a few younger players with immense potential (TE Jordan Feuerbacher, WR Davion Hall, CB Tion Wright, and a number of others are absolutely worth of making this list) and not even addressing some of the older guys we're also going to need (CB Chris Sanders, OGs Jarell Broxton and LaQuan McGowan, to name three).
In the comments, feel free to share who you'll be paying a close eye on, under- or upperclassmen, in the coming weeks!