In 2017, Matt Rhule's first season at Baylor ended with a 1-11 record. Two years later, Rhule took the Bears to the Sugar Bowl and then rode off to the NFL. Dave Aranda came in and struggled to a 2-7 finish in his initial season in Waco, but in the very next season, he guided Baylor back to the Sugar Bowl, and this time the Bears won.
Granted, the situation that Rhule inherited was quite different from the one Aranda faced, but that hardly takes away from what the current Baylor head coach and his team achieved in 2021. Now comes the hard part ... to do it again. The Bears probably won't be the runaway favorite to win the Big 12, but they will be one of the true contenders.
Related: Spring 2022 Big 12 Power Rankings
Baylor opens up spring practice this week, and the first step towards defending the league crown in 2022 commences. Here are some things to keep an eye on with regards to the Bears.
5 Storylines to Watch During Baylor's Spring Practice
1. Maintaining a dominant running game
The good news is that four offensive linemen that helped pave the way for the conference's top rushing offense return, including first-team All-Big 12 tackle Connor Galvin. But gone is Abram Smith, who ran for 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns. Reserve Trestan Ebner, who rushed for nearly 800 yards in 2021, also is out of eligibility. So developing a running back rotation that can capitalize on the holes opened by the offensive line is a high priority this spring.
2. Can Gerry Bohanon make an improvement?
In his first year as the Bears' starting quarterback, Bohanon was solid. In 12 games he threw for 2,200 yards and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Because of the potent running game, he wasn't asked to do too much, but that could change with the turnover at running back. This will be Bohanon's fifth year in Waco, so it remains to be seen if he can do much more. One nice thing is that, in reserve, the Bears have Blake Shapen, who was sensational filling in for an injured Bohanon in the last two regular-season games and the Big 12 Championship Game.
3. Developing some receivers
Leading receiver Tyquan Thornton is off to the NFL and No. 2 man R.J. Sneed transferred to Colorado, leaving new wide receivers coach Dallas Baker with some huge gaps in his unit. Ben Sims is a dangerous threat at tight end, but the leading returning wideout is senior Josh Fleeks, who had just seven catches in 2022. Fleeks does have 67 grabs in his four years at Baylor, but more is needed at the position. Armani Winfield, a 4-star early enrollee who had offers from Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU, could be a player that makes an impact this spring.
4. Revamping the secondary
The Baylor pass defense was a middle-of-the-road unit both in the Big 12 and nationally in 2021 and must replace four key members of the defensive backfield. The biggest losses will be first-team all-conference hybrid safety Jalen Pitre and safety J.T. Woods, who had five interceptions last fall. There are several players returning that have seen significant time, but they will be taking on added responsibilities and depth has to be developed behind the starting group.
5. Finding more havoc creators
When Pitre went out the door, so too did 18.5 tackles for a loss. Another key loss is linebacker Terrel Bernard, who not only led the team in tackles but also had 7.5 sacks. Baylor finished seventh nationally in tackles for a loss, but Pitre and Bernard accounted for 21 between them. Also, Woods was an obvious ball hawk on the back end, and he chipped with his own 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Baylor still has plenty of talent on defense, but some more difference-makers have to emerge.
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– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.