It seems like only yesterday we were watching the Johnny Jefferson-led WildBear offense shred North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl, but today we officially begin the preparation for yet another season of Baylor Football with the first of fifteen spring practices. The Bears will take the field today, probably in shorts and t-shirts (or shell, if we're lucky), for the first time in the 2016 calendar year.
Considering Baylor is losing, by my count, 12 starters combined on offense and defense, there are a number of questions that need answers going into this spring practice. But in making my list below of the 5 biggest questions, I tried to stay away from those where the answers seemed relatively obvious. For example: Baylor lost both of its starting DEs (Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer) to graduation after 2015, opening up two new spots, But both backups (Brian Nance and K.J. Smith) return, making it pretty obvious who will probably step in. That's not really a question worth talking about here.
Without further ado, here's my 5 Biggest Questions:
1. How much will Seth Russell get to practice?
Though much has been made of Seth Russell's expected return from neck injury to some form of practice in the coming days/weeks, we still don't really know what form that will be. Yesterday marked exactly four months from the Iowa State game where he broke his freaking neck, and it's been a little less than that since his actual surgery. Based on that fact alone, I wouldn't expect for Russell to be involved in any meaningful way in contact drills this spring, even if he is cleared to work out with the team. There's just no reason to risk it at this time, considering you know pretty much what you're getting from him, and you're going to really need him to be healthy seven months from now.
If I'm right, that leaves true sophomore Jarrett Stidham, who also missed the end of last season due to injury but is now apparently fully healthy, and early enrollee Zach Smith as your only true QBs in spring practice now that Chris Johnson is officially a WR/TE. I'm excited to see what each of them can do working with the first and second teams, respectively, this spring.
2. Rebuilding the Offensive Line.
Depending on which side you emphasize, it's probably more or less a toss-up on which line, offensive or defensive, has the bigger holes to fill. On the offensive line, we're down 4/5 starters as Spencer Drango, Blake Muir, Jarrell Broxton, and Pat Colbert all graduated. That means the only returner is our center, Kyle Fuller.
How this unit comes together is going to be very interesting to watch. Most observers/prognosticators seem to think that JUCO transfer Maurice Porter, who redshirted at Baylor this past season and has 2 seasons of eligibility left, will get the start at LT. I'm on record agreeing with that and saying that I expect this year's big JUCO addition, Branton Autry, to take one of the guard spots. That leaves the other guard spot and right tackle as the only true areas of contention.
I'm projecting that when it's all said and done, the offensive line will look something like this:
LG: Blake Blackmar
C: Kyle Fuller
RG: Branton Autry
RT: Dominic DeSouza
That being said, expect guys like Ishmael Wilson and Rami Hammad, our pair of former 4* transfers, to have something to say about that considering both played as backups last year, and for some of the younger guys like Josh Pelzel, Patrick Lawrence, and Tanner Thrift to make pushes, as well.
3. Who steps in for Xavien Howard at CB?
I've seen a few people go to safety as the next-biggest question considering the news about Davion Hall, but if I'm being honest, I don't expect a huge impact there simply because we're bringing back experienced players in Orion Stewart, Taion Sells, and Chance Waz.
The bigger question I have is who replaces Xavien Howard opposite Ryan Reid at boundary corner. Howard's early departure for the NFL (which seems to be paying off for him far better than I would have expected, if Twitter is any indication) leaves a fairly huge hole in the Baylor secondary that several players, some of whom aren't on campus yet, will vie to fill before 2016. This spring, I'd expect to see redshirt freshmen Henry Black and sophomore Verkedric Vaughns get most of the work there now that Jourdan Blake is apparently a safety, but don't rule out Jameson Houston or Tony Nicholson, either. This is one spot where things could get really interesting, particularly since this is the biggest chance some of those guys have to make a splash before a few of our heralded 2016 CB recruits like Parrish Cobb and Grayland Arnold get to campus in the summer.
4. Mouths to Feed at RB.
Last season, Baylor had 4 separate running backs rush for more than 500 yards in Shock Linwood (1329), Johnny Jefferson (1000), Devin Chafin (583), and Terence Williams (556). All four return this year, and they will be joined by J'Mycal Hasty, who redshirted. How we distribute the workload enough to keep those five guys happy will be something to watch, particularly with the advent of the WildBear late in the season. With respect to some of our WR corps over the past few years, this may be the deepest skill position group Baylor has had in the Art Briles Era considering our four returners combined for 3,468 yards last season and averaged a combined 6.4 yards/carry.
5. The Defensive Line.
You knew I was going to get to it eventually, and this question is actually a collection of smaller questions. I already addressed the DE thing above, where Smith and Nance should start, but who backs them up? Someone from the quartet of Greg Roberts, Jamie Jacobs, Xavier Jones, and Tyrone Hunt is probably going to have to make a pretty substantial leap here, or depth could be a really big problem. At tackle, we only lost the best DL we've had in years in Andrew Billings, and we will depend on JUCO All-American Jeremy Faulk to step in immediately to replace him. We'll also need Ira Lewis, Andrew Morris, and/or Josh malin to step up behind Byron Bonds, or depth could be an issue here, too. It's not a great situation to be in, but it should get better when DeQuinton Osborne gets here in the summer and some of the uncertainty shakes out.
Like I said at the beginning, I tried to avoid some of the more obvious questions with more obvious answers, like who slides in to replace Jay Lee and Corey Coleman (the odds-on favorites have to be Ishmael Zamora and K.D. Cannon, respectively), and who is our new starting MLB (Aiavion Edwards). But those are also things I'll be watching for if/when we get a new Depth Chart or start hearing practice reports.