February 28, 2011

Baylor ready to make noise in Big 12

Having finally broken out of a slump, the Baylor Bears next want to break the hold several Big 12 foes have on them.

Last season, Baylor ended a streak of 16 seasons without a bowl game appearance and beat Texas for the first time since 1997. Next, the Bears hope to put an end to long periods of futility against Texas Tech, which they haven't beaten since '95, and Oklahoma, which they've never beaten.

Any hopes begin in spring drills with an open competition to find an effective starting tailback. There's also a new defensive coordinator on hand to tighten up a unit that allowed nearly 400 points in 2010.

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: QB Robert Griffin III is a dynamic dual threat who threw for 3,501 yards last season. Backup Nick Florence was a solid replacement when Griffin was hurt in '09. That position is in good hands. The offensive line is, too. Four starters return up front. T Ivory Wade has all-conference potential and Philip Blake now has a year of experience at center after moving from right tackle. The Bears have five receivers who had more than 40 catches last season.

BAYLOR AT-A-GLANCE
Dynamic Robert Griffin returns at quarterback for the Bears.
THE BASICS
COACH: Art Briles
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big 12 South. Lost to Illinois 38-14 in the Texas Bowl.
SPRING DATES: Feb. 28-April 2.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (8): C Philip Blake, QB Robert Griffin III, GRobert T. Griffin , G Cameron Kaufhold, T Ivory Wade, WR Lanear Sampson, WR Terrance Williams, WR Kendall Wright. Defense (5): CB Chance Casey, LB Elliot Coffey, T Nicolas Jean-Baptiste, E Gary Mason, E Tracy Robertson. Special teams (1): K Aaron Jones.
HELP IS NEEDED: A capable successor for departed TB Jay Finley must emerge. Finley rushed for 1,218 yards last season, but no other running back on the roster even managed 300 yards. The back seven of the defense needs retooling, too. Two new starters must be found at linebacker, both safety spots have to be filled and there's also a vacant job at cornerback.

3 GUYS TO WATCH

S Ahmad Dixon: A heralded four-star recruit in '10, Dixon did not play as much as anticipated as a true freshman. He posted 16 tackles and forced a fumble in a backup role. With both safeties spots open, he'll have great opportunity to take over a starting role.

RB Jarred Salubi: Primarily a third-down back last season, Salubi may get the first shot at replacing Finley. He rushed for just 215 yards in '10, but averaged better than eight yards per carry. The coaching staff is high on him.

CB Tyler Stephenson: He impressed as a true freshman and earned his way into the starting lineup for the last month of the season. If he continues to makes progress this spring, cornerback could become a position of strength for the Bears.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

WR Lanear Sampson: He has caught 71 passes in his first two seasons, but Sampson needs to produce more yardage. Only three of his 42 receptions last season gained 20 yards or more and he did not have a touchdown catch. Baylor has good depth at receiver and sophomore Darius Jones, who originally committed to Oklahoma, has vast potential. Sampson could fall on the depth chart if he doesn't show an ability to make big plays this spring.

THE BUZZ

The arrival of defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has caused a stir. Last season, Baylor was ranked 104th in the nation in total defense, produced just 20 sacks and allowed more than 40 points in six games. Yikes. Bennett has supervised good defensive units at Kansas State, Texas A&M and Pittsburgh. Last season, his Pitt defense produced 34 sacks and was ranked eighth in the nation overall. Bennett's defensive scheme is more conducive to stopping the numerous spread systems found in the Big 12 than that of his predecessor's. If he can upgrade the defense this spring, the Bears may be looking at another bowl trip this fall.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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