Against the odds, Matt Rhule is heading into his third spring session as head coach of the Baylor Bears.
Rhule has attracted the attention of the NFL in the last two offseasons. Instead of bolting for the pros, he has positioned Baylor as a Big 12 dark horse in 2019.
This spring, Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow will get to work fortifying a unit that has yet to live up to the standards they set with the Temple Owls prior to coming to Waco. That’s just one of the Bears' big stories worth following in the next few weeks.
5 Storylines to Watch During Baylor's Spring Practice
1. Charlie Brewer's next step
Brewer put together a strong sophomore campaign at quarterback in 2018, topping 3,000 passing yards with a 19:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In some years, he might be viewed as the top returning QB in the Big 12.
This spring, Brewer will look to continue growing into a more consistent signal-caller. He' a veteran now, no longer a promising youngster, and a more reliable Brewer will help take Baylor’s offense to another level of efficiency.
2. Who steps in with Denzel Mims?
With Jalen Hurd stepping in as part of the Bears' receiving corps in '18, Mims saw his production dip as a junior. Mims seems too talented to let that slide continue in his senior year. A new running mate out wide would certainly help take some of the pressure off him to produce.
Lanky receiver Tyquan Thornton showed promise as a freshman last season, catching 20 balls for 354 yards and three scores. If he's not ready to make the leap in his second year, Brewer might look for burner Josh Fleeks to fill the void alongside Mims.
3. Run defense
Given Matt Rhule's hard-nosed reputation, Baylor’s squishy run defense has been a surprise. The Bears gave up 5.42 yards per rushing attempt last year, the worst mark in the Big 12 and 121st nationally. They actually took a step back from 2017, when they allowed 4.92 yards per carry.
Eight of Baylor's top 10 tacklers return this year, but experience alone won’t keep the Bears from getting pushed around on the ground. Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow either need to tweak the scheme or find some defenders who can stand their ground.
4. Holes on the right side of the line
Baylor lost an experienced combo in right guard Blake Blackmar and right tackle Patrick Lawrence to graduation, creating two openings on an otherwise solid offensive line.
Jake Fruhmorgen likely has the inside track for the tackle spot. Meanwhile, look for Xavier Newman to fill in at guard. Both have enough seasoning to transition in seamlessly in spring ball.
5. Creating havoc
The Bears finished ninth in the Big 12 last season with a measly 5.31 tackles for a loss per game. That included fewer than two sacks per contest.
Along with building a more ferocious run D, Baylor needs to identify ways to give opponents problems behind the line of scrimmage in the fall. That starts with experimenting with pressure packages and scheme tweaks in the spring.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.