As good as last year's phenomenal turnaround was — from 1–11 to 7–6 — Baylor coach Matt Rhule's consistent message is that it's not good enough.
"We have to keep elevating our level of expectation," Rhule says. "I think going from one win to a bowl win has shown them, 'Hey, is the standard for last year going to be good enough?' No, it can't be good enough. We have to keep elevating the standard of what we expect."
The expectation this year is to do whatever it takes to make that next step.
Previewing Baylor's Offense for 2019
Connor Galvin, who started the final six games at left tackle as a true freshman, takes it personally that Baylor quarterbacks were sacked a Big 12-high 39 times last season.
"I don't like when Charlie [Brewer] is on the ground," says the 6'7", 295-pound Galvin. "It makes me mad."
Brewer capped off a solid sophomore season with MVP honors at the Texas Bowl, throwing for 384 yards and two TDs and adding a career-high 109 yards and a TD on the ground in the Bears’ 45–38 win over Vanderbilt.
But the Bears have to fix their protection issues if they expect to take another step in 2019. Former Baylor QB Shawn Bell went through a game of musical chairs in his second spring as the offensive line coach. Galvin stayed put, but two-year starting center Sam Tecklenburg shifted over to right guard and former Clemson transfer Jake Fruhmorgen settled in at center.
"Our goal is to find the best five," says Bell, who has Xavier Newman at left guard and either redshirt freshman Casey Phillips or junior college transfer Blake Bedier at right tackle. "We don't care who they are."
Particularly with Chris Platt getting a fifth-year waiver, the receiver position might be the deepest on the field. Denzel Mims needs to return to his sophomore form, when he had 1,087 yards, but Brewer has plenty of other options with Jared Atkinson, Tyquan Thornton, Marques Jones, R.J. Sneed, speedy Josh Fleeks and tight end Christoph Henle.
Mims was overshadowed last year by the emergence of Jalen Hurd, a Tennessee transfer who earned All-Big 12 honors, hauling in 69 passes for 946 yards and four TDs in his one season.
"We already know he’s a good player, a really good player," receivers coach Frisman Jackson says of Mims. "He's got to do that other part. If he can get those guys to run through a brick wall for him, the sky's the limit."
Trestan Ebner, coming off a big-time performance in the Texas Bowl, could be ready to take over at running back. John Lovett has been the team's leading rusher his first two seasons, but he got a look at safety in the spring.
Previewing Baylor's Defense for 2019
Much like sacks allowed is the offense's Achilles heel, forced turnovers are the bugaboo for Phil Snow's defense. With seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries, the Bears were last in the Big 12 in turnovers gained (10) and ranked ahead of only Oregon State (eight) among the 130 teams nationally.
"The big thing is it's got to become a mentality with the whole program," says Snow. "We still haven't gotten over the hump. I always say this: If you want a DB that intercepts the ball, recruit one that does it in high school. If they don't intercept the ball in high school, they're probably not going to do it in college."
Linebacker appears to be the strongest position, with all three starters returning and good depth behind them. Clay Johnston, a two-year starter in the middle who recorded 99 tackles last season, will be flanked by converted safety Blake Lynch on one side and either Terrel Bernard or Jordan Williams at the other. Lynch has played six positions, including receiver, running back and Wildcat quarterback, but "has come a long way as a defender," Snow says.
Depth may be an issue up front, but the Bears have some difference-makers in the line with James Lynch and former Texas A&M transfer James Lockhart at the ends and Rob Saulin and Bravvion Roy at tackle.
"Robbie came in and played as a true freshman," Rhule says of the 6'5", 290-pound Saulin. "He was a D-lineman who became an O-lineman who became a tight end. Not many guys do that. Now, he's 290 pounds, runs fast and is athletic. There's not many guys like him in the country."
The secondary was in flux through most of the spring with safeties Christian Morgan and JT Woods out with injuries, cornerback Harrison Hand transferring and corners Kalon Barnes, Mark Milton and Raleigh Texada doubling on the track. Barnes won the 100 meters at his first two collegiate track meets, clocking a 10.29 time at the Baylor Invitational.
Previewing Baylor's Specialists for 2019
Baylor got a sneak peek into the future at the Texas Bowl, when placekicker John Mayers and punter Issac Power were forced into action because of injuries. Mayers was 3-of-3 on extra points, while Power boomed a 47-yard punt from his own end zone on his only attempt.
Making a similar jump and becoming a Big 12 title contender will be difficult, but the Bears should be good enough to top last year's seven-win total and make it to their ninth bowl game in 10 years.