Crossfire Q&A: Baylor

This week, Gary of BaylorFans.com -- one of the best places to find the state of Baylor followers online -- joins us to discuss how Baylor fans are approaching the 2009 season.

RMN: First of all, Baylor seems to have heightened expectations nationally. How has that translated for the fan base, and what do Baylor fans expect in 2009?

Gary: The increased coverage of the Baylor Bears is a direct result of a much more competitive season produced by Coach Art Briles and his players in the fall of 2008. The Bears won only four games (in very convincing fashion), but they were competitive and even had a chance to win four other games during this past season (UConn, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas Tech). Many of the publications and national televised media have seized upon the Baylor Bears as the trendy pick to be the surprise team in 2009, based upon the previous performances of returning players like Robert Griffin (QB), Kendall Wright (WR), Joe Pawelek (LB), and Jordan Lake (FS).

The Baylor fan base is very encouraged by the apparent changes in attitude and performance of the football program and the increase in season ticket sales, the road trip planning for away games, the surge in tailgating plans for home games, and the non-stop chatter on the message boards of baylorfans.com. There is a lot of cautious optimism among the Baylor faithful regarding the coming football season.

While Baylor fans have been conditioned to expect the worst over the last 15 years of play, the Baylor faithful appear to be hoping for a return to a bowl berth in 2009. Most of the chatter on the Baylorfans.com web-site has indicated that the hope is for a 6-6 season and a bowl bid. While there are some fans that still expect to be disappointed (primarily due to injury possibilities that could derail this resurgence - the Bears still have depth issues), most of the chatter among the Baylor faithful indicates the expectation of a continuing upward trend in the performance of the Baylor football team.

RMN: Robert Griffin is certainly feeling the love this summer. After a great, but relatively sheltered (at least through the air) freshman season, what should people expect from Griffin in 2009?

Gary: Obviously, Robert Griffin had a phenomenal freshman season. Griffin carried the ball 173 times for 1,118 yards (a net of 843 yards after subtracting the sacks) and passed for an unbelievable efficiency of 142.00 by completing 160 out of 267 throws for 15 touchdowns with only 3 interceptions. Coach Briles kept the passing offense close to the vest in Griffin's inaugural campaign by using a variety of bubble and slip screens interspersed with some play-action passes and roll outs. Because he was a freshman, Griffin was, understandably, asked to do very little straight dropback plays where he might have to read the entire field.

Coach Briles is on record saying that it is critical to the offensive development of the team that Griffin be able to develop his passing game. Much of the spring work was focused on improving the ability of the offense (and Griffin) to execute the dropback passing game that can work in all ranges of the field (short, intermediate, and deep). In addition, the Bears developed a few exciting wrinkles to add to their screen game.

There is no doubt that Griffin (and the rest of the offense) demonstrated solid improvement in the passing game. The question is whether that improvement is enough to make it possible for the Bears to take the pressure off of Griffin's running to move the Bear offense. Griffin still has a tendency have trouble letting go of the ball. While judicious distribution of the football made it possible for him to limit his interception rate, one of the next steps in his development will be to begin making the throws on time to receivers that are closely covered. Progress was made in this effort this spring, but the proof will be known during the heat of battle this fall.

More questions after the jump!

RMN: Reading a lot of Baylor previews, they make it sound like it’s a one man show for Baylor’s offense. Seemingly under the radar, how much will Jay Finley factor into Baylor’s success? Also, will Kendall Wright, Lanear Sampson, or David Gettis emerge as legitimate weapons for Griffin?

Gary: Baylor seems to be a one-man show because of the fact that they flew under the radar for most of the 2008 season. It was not until the end of the season, when people were able to look back at what really was done by those guys that Baylor began to get noticed. As a result, most of the coverage has centered upon Robert Griffin.

It would be a mistake to see Baylor as a one-man team. Jay Finley is a surprising talent at running back. Even though he gained 895 yards on 149 carries, Finley still seems to be relatively unnoticed by the media. Coach Briles has indicated that another critical aspect of the offensive development for the Bears in 2009 is the development of a running game from sources other than Robert Griffin. Therefore, Finley appears to be set to become an even more significant cog in the Baylor arsenal.

Finley has a deceptive running style with decent speed. Finley is able to create running space out of the smallest of cracks in the defense. He has a surprising ability to "get small in the hole" and burst into daylight. For those defenses that decide to key on Robert Griffin on the "read zone" play, Finley will be able to slither through to make them pay in 2009. He will be supported by the red-shirt freshman from Waco, Jay Salubi and the transfer from the University of Houston, Terrance Ganaway (6', 245).

The Bears will have an improved and very athletic receiving corps for the fall of 2009. Returning starter Kendall Wright is the "bell cow" of that group. Wright caught 50 passes for 649 yards in his freshman season. In addition, much of the action comes after the catch for Wright. He is a dangerous player in the open field. Big XII coaches already know that this young man is a major league threat. Other returning starters David Gettis and Mikail Baker will be severely pushed by red-shirt freshmen Terrence Williams and Lanear Sampson and in-coming freshmen Darius Jones and Josh Gordon. Williams, especially, had a great spring and will see significant playing time in 2009.

One important position change made by the offensive staff was moving sure-handed Ernest Smith (6'3", 200) from outside receiver to inside receiver. In the spring, Smith demonstrated solid ability to find seams and openings in the defensive coverage and will serve as a perfect complement to Kendall Wright on the other side.

RMN: Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake have gotten much deserved love entering 2009, but what can be expected from the defensive unit as a whole? Are there any perceived deficiencies for which Lake and Pawelek will have compensate?

Gary: At the beginning of last season, the Bear defense was severely under-manned. The coaches were still trying to find individual player's best positions and the best fit for the team. Due to that fact, it appeared that Coach Brian Norwood, the Bear's defensive coordinator, chose to play a "bend, but don't break" style that made it possible for opposing offenses to control the ball. The coverage was very soft and this allowed opposing quarterbacks to tally up impressive totals against the Baylor secondary.

By the end of the season and after some position shifting had occurred, the Baylor defensive performance was much improved. The pass coverage had gotten tighter and the Bears were getting more turnovers than they had early in the season. As a result, most people feel that the Bear's defense, while maybe not a juggernaut, will be much improved this season.

One reason for the anticipated improvement is the addition of Penn State transfer Phil Taylor in the defensive line. Taylor will be playing the strongside defensive tackle (3 technique). At 6'4" and 355 pounds, Taylor is surprisingly agile. The Baylor coaches feel that teams that choose not to double team him will pay a big price. The depth at defensive tackle is much improved. Returning starter Trey Bryant will be supported by Nick Jean-Baptiste, Kaeron Johnson, and Jason Lamb (who is projected to move from his starting position at defensive end into the interior d-line).

The biggest question mark for the Bears defensively, is at defensive end. Zac Scotton and Tracy Robertson appear to have won the starting jobs, with Jameon Hardeman being a significant backup on passing situations. While there is some raw depth at DE, this summer needs to be a time of real growth for this position at Baylor.

The entire linebacking corps is returning from 2008 and this group is considered by many to be one of the best (if not the best) linebacking groups in the Big XII. Antonio Johnson (strongside linebacker) is especially productive on the blitz. The top six LBs, are terrific.

The area that made the most improvement in the 2008 season (and still needs a lot of improvement) is the secondary. At the mid-point of the season, Coach Norwood appeared to settle in on the group cornerback group consisting of Antareis Bryan, Tim Atchison, and Trentson Hill. This group of athletic corners showed significant improvement by the end of the season, which leads the Baylor faithful hoping that the defense can improve upon a very poor 3rd down conversion percentage in 2008.

While Jordan Lake is a stud at free safety and an absolute hitting machine, the strong safety position still is a position where improvement is necessary. Returning starter Jeremy Williams will be pushed by Jeremy Sanders (moving over to defense from quarterback/running back in 2008) and juco transfer Byron Landor. If this group can improve its ability to stop their opponents on third down, continue to develop turnovers like they appeared to be able to do from mid-season on, and continue to limit the big-plays, then it will result in increased time for the explosive offense to do some major damage.

RMN: After Mizzou’s narrow escape in Waco and the Tigers’ sheer attrition in the offseason, how do you think Baylor matches up with Missouri, and what kind of chances are Baylor fans giving the Bears to win in Columbia?

Gary: The game in Waco was one of the most exciting games Baylor played last fall. To this Baylor fan, after spotting the Tigers a couple of touchdowns, it appeared that the Bears out-played the Tigers for much of the game, but in the end, the Tigers made the plays when it counted and pulled out the victory on the road.
The Missouri Tigers have lost a lot of terrific players that were key to their success over the last few years. One thing that many forget, though, is that because of that success, the Tigers have been able to recruit quality talent into Columbia. That talent is ready, and probably able, to replace the graduated stars of last year.

Blaine Gabbert, Derrick Washington, Wes Kemp, Danario Alexander, Jared Perry, and Andrew Jones will be primed and ready to execute the Tiger spread offense by the beginning of November. It will be interesting to see what will be the impact of new DC, Dave Steckel.

If this game were played in Waco or on a neutral field, the Bears might be favored . But, the Tigers don't lose many games in Columbia and for the Bears to be able to upset them on November 7th, it would take a magnificent effort by the green and gold.

RMN: Finish the following statements:

Baylor will win if: The Bears must control the ball against the Tigers. If the Bears are able to run more offensive plays than the Tigers run, the Bears win.

Missouri will win if: The young skill position players for the Tigers develop quickly. If the Tiger offense is able to control the ball, the home field advantage the Tigers enjoy will probably be too much for the Bears to overcome.

RMN: Give us your non-binding, WAY too early prediction for the Baylor/Missouri game.

Gary: I might be drinking the "green kool-aid" here, but I see the Bears being able to upset the Tigers in another very tight game – 38-34.

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