As the Nebraska football team moves closer towards the start of summer conditioning, Huskeronline.com will begin our day-by-day look at each one of the Huskers opponents coming out of their respective spring practices.
Today we continue our breakdowns with Baylor, which is being labeled by many as one of the hottest up-and-coming programs in the country under second-year head coach Art Briles
While the Bears return a slew of starters from last season, the biggest reason for this year's hype is the return of sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin, who took the Big 12 Conference by storm last year with his blazing speed and play-making ability.
Huskeronline.com caught up with Baylor beat writer Jerry Hill of the Waco Tribune-Herald to get his thoughts and perspectives on the Bears heading out of spring practice.
Despite finishing just 4-8 last year, it felt like Baylor kind of picked up some momentum towards the end of the season. Did that carry over at all into the spring?
"Well, obviously they had quite a bit of their starters returning, and with Briles returning for his second year I think that helped in terms of they were able to hit the ground running when they started in the spring, whereas last spring they were having to learn everything. I definitely think this spring went a lot better than last year just in terms of already having it in place and getting going.
"I think they had a pretty good spring overall. They finished up with kind of a neat deal for the spring game where instead of having it at the stadium and having 5,000 people there in what looks like an empty stadium, they had it on the campus on the practice site. So even though there weren't a ton of people out there, it looked good and there was a good atmosphere."
It's never easy to replace both of your starting offensive tackles, especially when one of them was the second overall pick in the NFL Draft like Jason Smith was. How did trying to fill those shoes go this spring?
"I think one of the biggest deals this spring was with both Smith and Dan Gay graduating. You have to fill those spots. I think they filled one of them with Danny Watkins at left tackle, but the right side is still in the air. That's probably where there are still some questions is on the offensive line.
"Last year, all the blocking schemes were geared with those tackles in mind. Well, this year they've had to kind of adjust some of that and go away from the tackles a little bit and relying particularly on J.D. Walton their center. He's kind of the rock at the center spot, and they're relying more on the inside rather than the tackle spots."
Obviously Robert Griffin broke out onto the scene last year as a freshman. Did he continue to impress this spring?
"He did not run track this year. Last year when he ran track, he actually lost a bit of weight. This year, he had gained like 8-10 pounds with offseason conditioning, and their concern was that he would lose that weight (running track) and have to try and gain that back. He didn't go through any of that track stuff, so he was able to keep that weight. I think that will help him, even though he did make guys miss tackles last year, he might even be better at that and be a little bit stronger. Just going through Big 12 play, it's easy to get beat up, so I think that was the main thing, keeping the weight on him and getting his strength up."
How much do you see his progress being effected by the loss of Smith and Gay?
"Certainly when you don't have a guy like Jason Smith protecting your left side, which is his blind side, I think that can certainly make a difference. You can see why they wanted him to be stronger and maybe be able to handle more hits. I think they like Danny Watkins, and they're pretty solid on the left side."
How are things looking on the defensive side of the ball?
"Of course you've got an All-Big 12 linebacker back in Joe Pawelek, but I think the big addition there was defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a transfer from Penn State. I can't think of when they've had a dominant guy in the middle up front. It would have to be way, way back since they've had a guy like that. I mean, they feel like he's a guy that can be an All-Big 12 player, maybe even an All-American. They just haven't had that kind of guy, so I think that helps a lot.
"Then you've got Jordan Lake back at safety. So at each of the spots they've got kind of big time guy that they're really going to lean on. I think the cornerbacks are still a little bit of a question mark, but I think overall they feel pretty good about the defense."
There seems to be kind of a buzz coming out of Waco right now with the potential of this team. Can you remember the last time people were this excited about Baylor football?"
"It's been a while. Certainly they've had some decent seasons, but really I would say you'd have to go back to maybe the first year if the Big 12 when they were 7-4 the year before and had some optimism going into that season, but it just didn't happen. But I would say just as far as the hope and the buzz and everything, I think you'd probably have to back at least that far to get the kind of excitement they have now. I don't think they've had this since going into the Big 12.
"With the players, I think at the same time there was a little disappointment. They felt like they were better than 4-8. You look at the results, they lost two games by 3 points. They were up on Texas Tech in the second half by two touchdowns and wound up losing that one by a touchdown. They were right there in that game with Nebraska. There were four or five games there where they felt like they could've won any of those games and gone 8-4 instead of 4-8. So I think there was a little disappointment on their part, but I think particularly in the spring there was an excitement over where the team can go."
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