Below, you will find the essential observations that I took away from attending the 2015 edition of Meet the Bears. If you were also there and have your own observations - or if you have questions, concerns, or corrections - head to the comments!
If/when Baylor releases any statistics from the practice, I'll return here to update the post. Here is the link to the open thread where you can find lots of live tweets from the practice.
Observation 1: Meet the Bears is a Waco Spectacle
I arrived at the Highers Athletics Complex at 9:30am, an hour before the public practice was scheduled to begin. At least one hundred people were already there, with a steady stream trickling in behind me. Once start time rolled around, it was standing room only and people were still arriving in droves. Many people chose to forego the practice and begin forming lines for autographs, which seemed a hundred deep each for Coach Art Briles, Shawn Oakman, who had his own table, and the rest of the players.
Members of the crowd haled from sometimes over 100 miles away from Waco and made the long drive to get to this event and have their first taste of football. The crowd was lively and observant, reacting to both large and small moments with appropriate enthusiasm. Meet the Bears has grown in popularity by impressive amounts with each passing Big XII championship, and Baylor is doing all they can to accommodate such large crowds and entertain the kiddos with bounce houses and the chance to take a picture next to Oakman. This event is a signifier for Baylor's continuing rise in the sport.
Observation 2: It Was Just One Practice
Perhaps this is more of a disclaimer than an observation. Some of the things I'm going to say here might alarm some of you, particularly regarding Seth Russell and the passing game. Allow me to put you at ease. It was just one practice, and a public one at that. Neither side was particularly eager to show all its cards, running vanilla schemes and standard play calls. These situations almost always favor the defense, as the offense limits its looks and creativity. So while the offense struggled at times against a stout passing defense, there is no need for concern.
Observation 3: The Secondary Has Swagger
What stood out most during both the 7-on-7 drills and the full team scrimmages was the confidence, physicality, and aggressiveness of the secondary. During the first session of 7-on-7s, junior cornerback Ryan Reid (5-11) knocked away a deep pass down the sideline to senior wide receiver Jay Lee (6-3), and junior cornerback Xavien Howard knocked down a quick slant pass intended for Corey Coleman. Cornerbacks Tion Wright and Verkedric Vaughns, on the 2nd and 3rd teams, respectively, were extremely physical with their assignments, particularly after the catch. Wright was slamming into dudes when they caught the ball underneath, and Vaughns forced a fumble after his assignment made a tough catch.
Junior safety Orion Stewart was frequently roaming from sideline to sideline. He managed to knock a pass away from Coleman that would have snuck past Howard, and he hopped on Lynx Hawthorne's back once after a play was blown dead to wrestle the ball away from him. Stewart was jawing and swaggering the whole practice.
Coverage was tight across the board, particularly from the first team defense. They allowed one deep(ish) pass all day, coming from sophomore quarterback Chris Johnson to redshirt freshman Ishmael Zamora past junior cornerback Terrence Singleton down the middle of the field. It was a great display of Zamora's brilliant combination of size and speed, as well as a testament to the defense's improvements that it was the only such play the passing game could produce.
Junior quarterback Seth Russell, freshman Jarrett Stidham, and Johnson were all frequently forced to check down to the running backs in the flats. The defense took away the offense's first read in most every snap, or at least made the window very, very tight. They managed to pick off Seth Russell once over the middle when he misfired trying to hit Lee on the short cross. The following play, Russell threw a pass high that bounced off his receiver's hands and in all probability should have been a second straight interception. Russell struggled to fit the ball into the tight windows several times, an occurrence due more to the defense than his own inaccuracy.
I'm not sure how many of those passes defensed would have drawn penalty flags in a real game, but it is clear that the Bears are not shying away from their aggressive, physical style of coverage.
Observation 4: Devin Chafin, Shock Linwood, and Terence Williams are All Number One Backs
Baylor's most impressive runner was Devin Chafin. Now healthy after an injury plagued season, Chafin was able to find the edge against the 1st team defense, find gaps up the middle, and show good acceleration in the second level. Where Linwood is a shifty runner who will try to make the defender miss, Chafin is an old school single-cut back. He showed patience and burst through the hole his offensive line created for him. If he can manage to stay healthy, he could be a great contributor to the run game. I expect Linwood will hold onto his starting spot, but I hope Chafin sees snaps aside from short yardage.
Terence Williams, running with the twos, was the only running back capable of making anything happen against the first team defense. He's a big target (6-2) coming out of the backfield and has enough shake and vision to get through some tight holes. Including sophomore Johnny Jefferson (now wearing the no. 5 jersey), Baylor has a glut of talented running backs at its disposal, a helpful safeguard against injury.
An aside, sophomore back Wyatt Schrepfer showed toughness running up the middle on the third team offense. I can't wait for the #SchrepferSiren to sound in the 4th quarter of a couple of blowouts this season.
Observation 5: Can You Say 'Multiple Front Defense'?
With the return of Jamal Palmer, out last season with a knee injury, Phil Bennett will have versatile tools at his disposal to get creative with the looks he shows opposing offenses. The standard defensive line unit (from left to right) was Jamal Palmer, Beau Blackshear, Andrew Billings, and Shawn Oakman, with Blackshear and Billings occasionally flipping spots before the snap. On a few snaps, Bennett changed to a three-man front comprised of Palmer, Billings, and Oakman, with junior nickelback Patrick Levels coming in as the additional defensive back playing on and off the line. In a league as pass-happy as the Big XII, having that extra defensive back could be a huge asset and could allow Bennett to package some exotic blitzes to frustrate opposing quarterbacks. The three-man front only made its appearance against the second team offense (I think), so it's hard to say how confident Bennett is in its viability, but this combination of line talent could be exactly what is needed to hold down the line of scrimmage on their own.
On the second team, Briance Nance showed some ability as a defensive end. He knocked down a Russell pass to the flats and came off both ends of the line, flipping sides with edge rusher KJ Smith a couple of times.
Sophomore linebacker Taylor Young showed a lot of versatility. He blitzed over both of Oakman's shoulders - most often to the inside - and used his athleticism on a diving pass defense. He had trouble a couple of times keeping up with Coleman on short crossing routes, but he looks like he could have a very good season lining up all over the field.
Observation 6: Chris Johnson is the Backup, but Stidham is the Next Starter
Both Johnson and Stidham had their ups and downs, but both looked fine overall. Johnson struggled with his accuracy, especially deep, and Stidham, just a freshman, seemed to stare down his first option far too long on most of his snaps when the coverage was tight. On the plus side, Johnson showed good poise when the pressure came, which was often when he was up against the first team defense, and Stidham had a nice pump fake, shook a defender in the backfield, and showed the ability to fit the ball into tight windows. The upside is visible with Stidham, and while Johnson holds the 2nd string spot right now, the freshman will be a strong candidate for the spot in a year or two.
Observation 7: Shawn Oakman is Refining His Skill
Early in the full team scrimmage, senior offensive lineman Pat Colbert showed visible frustration at being beat by Oakman two plays in a row, once out-leveraged and pushed back into Russell and again on a nice spin move to the inside. Oakman is obviously a physical anomaly, but if he can continue to refine his technique with his hands and feet, he'll be nigh unstoppable coming off the edge.
Big XII quarterbacks beware.
Observation 8: McGowan Can Fill Multiple Roles
That's not a comment on his size. He lined up in multiple positions during practice, sometimes as a fullback in the shotgun formation, a few times on the left side next to Spencer Drango (who only made an appearance with the first team offense after they were finished facing the first team defense), and once or twice off the line as a receiver. Kendall Briles, who called plays from the sideline, will make use of McGowan in just about every possible way this season.
Tre'Von Armstead was certainly the first string tight end, though, and looked solid in receiving most of the day (he did have one bad drop).
Observation 9: Russell Will Be Fine
While he struggled with his accuracy on a couple of occasions, Russell showed a nice balance of attacking tight coverage and knowing when to check down to a running back leaking out of the backfield. It being a non-contact practice for quarterbacks, he didn't often pull the ball down and take off sprinting. Briles likely didn't want to show off too much of the dimension Russell's legs will add to the offense. I am confident most of Russell's limitations today were artificially imposed, the result of a simplified offense and conservative play-calling. He is not as cautious as Bryce Petty was, and that gunslinger mentality will be both a benefit and a deficit during the season. Today was not a great showing for him, but he has a lot more to show than he was allowed to.
Observation 10: Drew Galitz Could Contribute This Season
The freshman kicker/punter stretched his leg on several occasions. He handled the bulk of the punting duties (Russell punted once out of the shotgun, so watch for that on fourth downs this season), and looked sharp doing it. He had good loft, and his accuracy on his practice punts was dead on. He bounced several balls into the 'coffin corner' (inside the 10 on the sideline), and he showed good distance on his field goal attempts, though Chris Callahan appears to remain the incumbent starter. If Callahan struggles for a stretch of the season, though, Galitz could hear his name called.
Those are the essential takeaways I have from today, but I'm sure there was lots more to comment on. I've seen some reports that Coleman was held out, but I almost certainly saw a no. 1 jersey running around on the first team offense and returning punts, so I'm not sure what to make of that.
Other things of note: Coleman and Hawthorne shared punt return duties, Chris Platt showed an ability to find space in the defense, and KD Cannon was held out due to a hip flexor injury.
If I'm missing anything, or if you have your own take on what happened today, share in the comments!