Baylor’s promising 2015 season and playoff hopes were derailed by key injuries, but the Bears finished the year with an impressive 49-38 victory over North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Behind an explosive offense and the big-play ability of receiver Corey Coleman, coach Art Briles’ team started 8-0 and climbed as high as No. 6 in the College Football Playoff committee rankings. Injuries took a toll in the toughest part of the schedule, and Baylor dropped three out of its last four regular season games. While the 2015 campaign will be remembered for what-if possibilities had any of the top three quarterbacks – Seth Russell, Chris Johnson or Jarrett Stidham – stayed healthy, the Bears still earned their fourth season of double-digit victories in the last five years. Coach Art Briles has built a program with staying power and one that will be a factor once again in the Big 12 next season.
5 Storylines to Watch in Baylor’s Spring Practice
1. Seth Russell’s Return
Baylor was simply unlucky at the quarterback spot last season, as the top three options suffered injuries late in the year. Seth Russell opened 2015 as the team’s starter and was off to a fast start (29 TDs, 6 INTs) before a neck injury ended his season against Iowa State. Prior to his injury, Russell was well on his way to earning a spot as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. All signs point to Russell returning at full strength for 2016, and he was cleared to participate in partial workouts this spring. Knocking off the rust and getting back into the mix under center is just the first step in Russell’s return to being one of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12 next year.
2. Reloading at Receiver
Corey Coleman was the nation’s best receiver in 2015. In 12 games, Coleman grabbed 74 receptions for 1,363 yards and 20 scores and those totals could have been higher if the quarterback position wasn’t hit so hard by injuries. Coleman isn’t the only loss for coordinator Kendal Briles, as Jay Lee (38 catches for 758 yards) also departs after expiring his eligibility. While Coleman and Lee are big losses, the cupboard is far from empty. KD Cannon (17.4 ypc) is one of the Big 12’s top targets, and the Bears have promising options in the form of Chris Platt (14.1 ypc), Ishmael Zamora, Blake Lynch, Pooh Stricklin and incoming freshmen Devin Duvernay and Tren’Davian Dickson (enrolled for spring practice). The Bears will be fine at receiver but sorting out a pecking order begins this spring.
3. Restocking the Offensive Line
This is the No. 1 concern for coach Art Briles this offseason. The Bears lose four starters in the trenches, including All-American left tackle Spencer Drango and standout guard Jarell Broxton. Center Kyle Fuller is the lone returning starter and provides a good foundation to start the rebuilding effort. Junior college recruit B.J. Autry should provide instant help, and incoming freshman Patrick Hudson (No. 50 in 247Sports Composite) is another name to watch. Mo Porter and Dom Desouza were two junior college recruits in the class of 2015 and did not play last season. They could factor into the mix, along with juniors Ishmael Wilson and Tanner Thrift. The Bears have options – it’s just about finding four solid replacements to build around Fuller in the middle.
4. Reloading on the Defensive Line
Much like the offensive line, Baylor suffered significant losses in the trenches on defense. Ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer and tackle Beau Blackshear expired their eligibility, while All-American tackle Andrew Billings departed early for the NFL. The cupboard isn’t empty, but there’s a lot of work ahead this spring for coordinator Phil Bennett. Tackle Byron Bonds and ends K.J. Smith and Brian Nance are three pieces to build around, with junior college recruits Jeremy Faulk and DeQuinton Osborne expected to help right away. How quickly will the Bears round out their rotation up front?
5. Secondary Issues
Baylor finished 2015 ranked 76th nationally in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 23 passing scores in Big 12 action. There’s room to improve here, but this unit suffered a blow when first-team All-Big 12 cornerback Xavien Howard left early for the NFL. Jourdan Blake and Verkedric Vaughns were listed as the backups to Howard last season and will get a chance to push for more playing time. Jordan Tolbert and former junior college recruit Tion Wright are also expected to factor into replacing Howard. However, true freshman Parrish Cobb – a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing class – will be a name to watch in offseason workouts.
Pre-Spring Baylor Outlook in the Big 12
Baylor returns only nine starters next season, but this team is still positioned to make a run at the Big 12 title. The offense features one of the nation’s top collections of skill talent, and quarterback Seth Russell is on his way back to full strength from a season-ending neck injury. How quickly this team reloads in the trenches will determine just how high the Bears climb in the Big 12. Oklahoma is the favorite to win the Big 12 next season, and Baylor could be the biggest threat to the Sooners if the pieces fall into place up front. Road trips to Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia won’t be easy, but the Bears catch Oklahoma State, TCU and Kansas State in Waco.