Jeff Grimes can't imagine trying to install a new offense without spring ball. "We lost most of our spring at BYU last year, but that was my third year there. It was different," says Grimes, who left BYU in January to join head coach Dave Aranda at Baylor as offensive coordinator.
Talk about your perfect storm. As a first-time head coach, Aranda was trying to implement new offensive and defensive systems last year during a pandemic and didn't get one day of spring ball. The end result was a 2–7 finish just a year after playing in the Big 12 Championship Game and Sugar Bowl with current Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.
His confidence not shaken, Aranda says the Baylor men's basketball team's national championship provided a blueprint of the "total trust and shared commitment" that he wants to see from his football team this fall.
"You're seeing team, you're seeing people that are on the same page, that have each other's back and people that you can really depend on," he says. "We've got the people, we've got the talent, it's just a matter of staying together."
Previewing Baylor's Offense for 2021
With a deep receiving corps led by R.J. Sneed, Tyquan Thornton, Josh Fleeks, Gavin Holmes and Dartmouth grad transfer Drew Estrada, Grimes isn't exactly starting from scratch.
The question: Who will be at the controls? Quarterback Charlie Brewer, who ranks second in Baylor history with 9,700 career passing yards, transferred to Utah at the end of the 2020 season.
Their limited experience gives junior Gerry Bohanon and sophomore Jacob Zeno the edge in a wide-open competition that includes freshmen Blake Shapen and Kyron Drones. Bohanon has been more of a running threat, while Zeno made a couple of memorable passes in the 2019 Big 12 Championship Game.
"Every single rep, everything we do in the weight room, everything we do from throwing the ball to handing off the ball, everything's a competition," quarterback coach Shawn Bell says. "It's been refreshing."
Sneed was the team's leading receiver last year. Thornton hopes to provide the big-play threat he flashed two years ago when he averaged 17.4 yards per catch. "He's a legitimate big-play guy," Aranda says of Thornton. "Ty, really as we all did, struggled through last year to get a foothold on what he wants to be and what he wants to do. He has really looked impressive."
Explosive as a kick returner, fifth-year senior Trestan Ebner is coming off his least productive season running the ball, but he's a good fit for Grimes' wide-zone attack.
Connor Galvin, a three-year starter at left tackle, anchors an offensive line that adds Vanderbilt transfer Grant Miller and redshirt freshman Micah Mazzccua.
Previewing Baylor's Defense for 2021
Returning 22 players who got significant snaps last year, defensive coordinator Ron Roberts says the Bears aren't starting at ground zero the way they did last year. "Where we are in comfort level, we're totally different, night and day from where it was," Roberts says. "We have lots of guys that understand what we're doing, that can put us in the right spot and make sure we're in the right situation, the right calls."
A second-team All-Big 12 pick each of the last two seasons, linebacker Terrel Bernard was averaging a league-leading 11 tackles per game when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Former Iowa transfer Dillon Doyle, converted running back Abram Smith and sophomore Matt Jones make the inside linebacker positions the strength of the team.
There's also depth at the outside JACK position, with Victor Obi and Bryson Jackson threatening returning starter Ashton Logan. Jalen Pitre led the team last season with 60 tackles and 13 stops behind the line at STAR.
The biggest area of improvement will likely come up front, where LSU transfer Siaki Ika (6'4", 350) joins defensive ends TJ Franklin, Gabe Hall and Chidi Ogbonnaya.
"For him to be able to not just play off of just pure physicality and pure brute strength, but to play with technique and play within the white lines of assignment and responsibility allows him, I think, to be a real game-changer," Aranda says of Ika. "He could be a real force."
Fifth-year senior cornerback Raleigh Texada and safety Christian Morgan lead a secondary that returns intact. If Kalon "Boogie" Barnes can stay healthy, he will give the Bears the lockdown corner they need.
Previewing Baylor's Specialists for 2021
A second-team All-American and Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year, Ebner returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 32.2 yards per return. Estrada is another return threat after averaging 17.0 yards on punt returns two years ago at Dartmouth. John Mayers has connected on 26-of-34 field goals over the last two seasons, while punter Issac Power averaged 40.3 yards per kick with 11 dropped inside the 20 and only four touchbacks.
Unless the offense makes a significant jump with Grimes as coordinator, the Bears could go bowl-less for the third time in five years. A favorable home schedule, though, should help them inch back up the conference standings and at least be more relevant in the league.
National Ranking: 58
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(Terrel Bernard photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics)