Ranking Baylor Football's 10 Biggest Developments in Early Going
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Baylor football is re-writing Floyd Casey Stadium history in its last season before upgrading to the $250 million on-campus stadium next fall.
First-year starter Bryce Petty has proven he is the right man at QB for head coach Art Briles, and the defense has carried over its momentum from the end of the 2012 season. Meanwhile, the only thing stopping running back Lache Seastrunk from more Heisman publicity is the fact that the games have been over at halftime.
In this segment, we'll take a look at the top 10 things we've seen from the Bears after just two weeks of football. These things show this team is a legitimate contender in the Big 12, the BCS, and who knows...maybe even the national championship picture.
Levi Norwood's punt returns could be another source of big plays for the Bears.
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Before we get going with No. 10, it is important to honor the snubs. The following developments have the potential to be huge factors in Baylor's conference title chase, but just miss the cut this week.
- Levi Norwood's punt return game: Norwood is in his third year as the primary punt returner and has done a nice job for the Bears. He hasn't scored as a returner in his career, but it would surprise no one if he brought one back this year. Norwood ranked fourth in the Big 12 with a 10.4 punt return average in 2012.
- Kicker Aaron Jones: Jones re-writes school history with every kick he makes. He owns or shares 16 Baylor records, including points scored, field goals made and 50-plus-yard field goals.
- TE Jordan Navjar: Navjar is an excellent run blocker and red-zone threat. He is a two-time All-Big 12 honoree and has 25 career receptions and four touchdowns.
- Freshmen Robbie Rhodes and Andrew Billings: Rhodes, a wide receiver, and Billings, a defensive tackle, are seen as the two freshmen who could make a big impact in 2013.
10. Running Game Will Be Even Better When Glasco Martin Is Healthy
Glasco Martin led Baylor with 179 carries and 15 rushing touchdowns in 2012.
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Even though he only has nine touches through two games this year, expect Glasco Martin to be a key figure for this Baylor offense.
The thunder to Lache Seastrunk's lightning, Martin has been slowed by an ankle injury so far this season.
Last season, Martin had a team-high 179 carries and 15 touchdowns on the ground.
As cited by Josh Friemel of Sports Day DFW, Martin averaged 44.4 yards per game before Seastrunk took on a bigger role in the Baylor backfield. In the final six games of 2012, with the presence of "lightning", Martin thundered his way to 96.3 rushing yards per game.
Baylor fans can't wait to have Martin back, though.
That is not to take anything away from Rashodrick Linwood and Anthony Webb, who have combined for 234 yards on 36 carries and three touchdowns.
In fact, these two guys are the primary reason why Martin's return isn't higher on this list. Linwood and Webb have proven to be plenty capable of providing productive carries and have helped lessen the blow of Martin's relative absence so far.
Despite the misconception that Baylor is an "air-it-out" offense, the Bears have recorded 99 rushes to 53 passes. Martin's experience and powerful attack will continue to be a nice change up in the running game for the Bears this season.
9. Troy Baker's Return Will Only Improve the Offensive Line
Troy Baker started all 13 games at right tackle in 2012.
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When left tackle Troy Baker went down with an ACL injury in March, Baylor coaches had to make some shifts on the offensive line.
Kevin Palmer, who had been getting some reps at center, moved over to the right tackle spot. Meanwhile, Stefan Huber moved from right guard to center, and Desmine Hilliard took over at right guard. The line has done a nice job through two games, giving Petty plenty of time in the pocket and surrendering just four sacks.
But the return of Baker, who started all 13 games at right tackle for the Bears, will be a welcome addition heading into tougher games as conference play starts.
Baker was initially hoping to be ready by the beginning of October and the home conference opener against West Virginia. But John Werner of the Waco Tribune-Herald has indicated that Baker could be ready for Baylor's next game against Louisiana-Monroe in Week 4.
Baker's presence at right tackle will help solidify an already strong line for the Bears while allowing for more depth at the position as well.
8. Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Defensive Line Depth
Shawn Oakman leads the Bears with 5.5 tackles for loss.
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Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings give the Bears something they have not had for years: quality depth on the defensive line.
Oakman, who sat out last season after transferring from Penn State, measures 6'9" and 275 pounds and is a former Top 200 national recruit. He has already recorded a team-leading 5.5 tackles for loss and is one of the most talented members of the Baylor defense as a defensive end.
Billings, a highly recruited true freshman, will also compete for more playing time behind Trevor Clemons-Valdez and Beau Blackshear at defensive tackle.
As a unit, the current Baylor defensive line is more talented than it has been in recent years, and its depth should provide a big boost to the defense.
7. Wide Receiver Speed and Depth
Antwan Goodley and Baylor's receivers are among the best in the country.
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Since 2011, Baylor has 22 passing touchdowns of 50-plus yards. That's 10 more than any other team in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In Week 2 against Buffalo, the Bears had three such catches. That stat alone defines the speed of Baylor's receivers better than anything else.
Baylor has had some great, speedy receivers in the last few years with guys like Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams and David Gettis. But this year's crop may be the Bears' best yet.
Tevin Reese has showcased his blazing speed numerous times over the last few years, but freshman Robbie Rhodes may be even faster.
Antwan Goodley showed his breakaway speed in the Buffalo game by taking a short pass and taking it to the house for an 83-yard score when it seemed like five different defenders had a good angle to make the tackle.
The depth continues, with experienced players such as Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller, to younger guys like Corey Coleman and Jay Lee.
The receiver position has, perhaps, the most talent and quality depth on this Baylor roster. Stretching the field vertically will, once again, be a key aspect of the Bears offense.
6. "Freak Team" Is Just Getting Started
Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey keyed in Baylor's late-season success in 2012.
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Baylor was the talk of college football in the days after Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports gave the Bears "Freak Team" status. The article points to the work strength coach Kaz Kazadi has done in his tenure in Waco and the kind of athletes the program has been able to bring in the last few years.
That "Freak Team" has been on display in 2013, but there is much more to come. None of the players mentioned—Rhodes, Seastrunk, hulking guard Cyril Richardson, Reese, Goodley, Petty and linebackers Bryce Hager, Eddy Lackey, Kendall Ehrlick and Aiavion Edwards—have played a full game yet.
Once the Bears face some stiffer competition, these guys will see more playing time and have all the more opportunities to make big plays.
If it's possible for teams around the country to still be doubting Baylor, these guys will put those thoughts to rest by the time this season is over.
5. Dynamic Offense Leads the Country
Lache Seastrunk's emergence as a feature back adds another dimension to Baylor's offense.
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Baylor's offense has been in a league of its own so far this season. Coordinator Philip Montgomery has the Bears striking on all cylinders and putting up video game-like numbers in wins against Wofford and Buffalo.
The Bears rank first in overall offense at 736.5 yards per game and second in scoring at 69.5 points per game. Bryce Petty and Seth Russell have combined for 431.5 yards per game in the air, while the team has amassed 305 yards per game on the ground.
The best part of it all? Baylor could do better.
Sports Day DFW's Josh Friemel breaks it down that the Bears scored 56 points and had 501 yards in their seven first-half possessions in the Buffalo game. And they only had the ball for less than 10 minutes.
Luckily for the Bulls, Coach Briles laid off the gas pedal in the second half and pulled the starters. Otherwise, Baylor was headed for triple digits.
The defenses in the Big 12 are likely a little tougher than Wofford and Buffalo, but Baylor's balanced offense won't have much of a problem putting points on the board.
4. The Struggling Big 12 Conference
Baylor is looking for its first Big 12 title in football in 2013.
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I haven't bought into the popular notion that the Big 12 is in a down year and doesn't have a legitimate contender, but I will concede that it isn't as strong as it has been in the past.
Voters shut the conference out of the preseason Top 10 in both polls, but Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are creeping up in the USA Today Sports Coaches Poll at Nos. 11 and 13, respectively. Meanwhile, Baylor and Texas Tech are surging, and TCU and Texas are slipping, while reigning champion Kansas State lost to an FCS team.
No one looks like Oklahoma's 2000 team or Texas in 2005, but a handful of teams have a chance to break through and win the conference.
In short, Baylor football won't find a better time to swoop in and win its first Big 12 title.
All the pieces are in place to make it happen. The offense is outstanding, the defense is improving and there's no better man for the job than Art Briles.
Baylor's main obstacles appear to be the Oklahoma schools. A home date against OU on Nov. 7 and road matchup against Oklahoma State two weekends later could shape the conference race. The Bears get TCU and Texas the last two weeks of the season, but I expect both of those teams to be much-improved by that time.
The schedule is far from easy, but it's looking more and more like it could be a big year for Baylor.
3. Phil Bennett's Defense Has Picked Up Where It Left off in 2012
Phil Bennett's defense has been much-improved since beating Kansas State last November.
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Once the laughingstock of the Big 12 and the whole country, Baylor's defense, under third-year coordinator Phil Bennett, came together down the stretch last year. The last month of the season the defense was in the top three of the conference, according to ESPN.com Big 12 blogger David Ubben and had a plus-nine turnover margin during that time.
Coach Briles has said he believes in Bennett's abilities as a coordinator, and his patience has paid off. Bennett now has his own recruits on the field and system in place. In April, Briles talked about how the defense has been able to improve:
We’re not going to make it hard, we’re going to make it simple on what everybody’s job is, so I think it’s just a combined fact of being in coach Bennett’s system. The longer consistency stays, the better chance you have to be consistent.
After you go through a 2-3 year period, all of a sudden you don’t have to look to your left or right to see who’s standing there. You know who’s there, so we’re getting to that comfort factor from a schematic, athletic standpoint.
The success has carried over into 2013.
It's easy to push aside Baylor's improved defensive numbers because of its opponents, but Baylor's defense does deserve some credit. If you compare games against the two FCS schools Baylor has played the last two years, Wofford this year and Sam Houston State last year, the results are drastically different.
In 2012, Baylor struggled with Sam Houston State, who finished ranked No. 2 in the FCS poll, surrendering 411 yards and trailing at the half 20-10. Against 10th-ranked Wofford this year, the Bears defense only allowed three points and 211 yards, despite being on the field for 77 plays.
Other encouraging stats to throw out there are a nation's-best 13.0 tackles for loss per game, 8.0 points allowed per game and only 298 yards allowed per game.
If Bennett can manage to put together a defense that ranks in the top 70 in the nation, the Bears could be atop the conference come December.
While there is no transitive property in college football, Baylor handled Buffalo much more easily than Ohio State did the previous week. Baylor trounced the Bulls, 70-13, while Ohio State won, 40-20. It will be interesting to see how the Baylor defense fares in Week4 against Louisiana-Monroe, a team that was manhandled, 34-0, in its season opener versus Oklahoma.
2. Lache Seastrunk Living Up to His Heisman Prediction
Lache Seastrunk leads the nation with five touchdowns this season.
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When Seastrunk declared himself the 2013 Heisman favorite last December, no doubt, eyes were rolling around the country.
No one doubted his talent, but it was a mildly presumptuous statement for a guy who didn't even lead his team in carries last year.
After racking up 261 yards and five touchdowns on just 28 carries, so far, Seastrunk has made believers far and wide already this season. He is listed in Heisman watches by CBS, ESPN and NFL.com, among others.
Seastrunk seems to have regained any confidence he may have lost during his short time in Oregon and has made known he believes in himself.
In an article written by Steve Greenberg of Sporting News, Seastrunk said, "I feel like there's no back who can do what I do. I know I'm the fastest back in the country. I know I'm the best back in the country. Nobody's going to work harder."
Seastrunk's "Freak Team" status and ability to be the workhorse for the Bears while power back Glasco Martin is on the mend lands him all the way at No. 2 on this list. A great season by him could be enough to take pressure off QB Bryce Petty and put the Bears in a BCS bowl game.
1. Bryce Petty Has Established Himself at QB
Bryce Petty ranks second in the country in passing efficiency at 249.5.
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Bryce Petty wasted no time showing he's the right guy under center for the Bears.
His 650 yards and four touchdowns through two weeks are good for a 249.5 passing efficiency that is second in the country after two games. Those kind of numbers are just what Baylor faithful are used to after watching Robert Griffin and Nick Florence the past few seasons, and Petty hasn't shied away from those lofty expectations.
Coach Briles shared his expectations at Big 12 media day:
Really, Bryce, a reasonable expectation, first thing that popped into my mind is break every Baylor record there is offensively, which is what we expect him to do and what he plans to do.
I don’t know what expectation anyone would have other than doing that, which equates to winning every football game we step on the field with, which needs to be his expectation along with ours.
The 6'3", 230-pound QB knows what kind of opportunity he has as the leader of the offense:
Being a quarterback in this offense, how electric it is, it’s not hard to dream big. I expect those things for myself. I have since Day One. You want to become a legend at your position, at your school. So that’s what I plan to do.
Petty's big arm and big confidence will bode well for Baylor's up-tempo offense. His emergence is the No. 1 reason Baylor will be a contender in 2013.