One well respected national publication has the Baylor Bears pegged to battle the University of Alabama in Miami, Florida at the Orange Bowl in one of the national semifinal games in January of next year. Another one has the Bears up against the defending national champs Ohio State University at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas for the Cotton Bowl. If you are one to put stock in what the so-called “experts” are saying, get ready for one helluva season for the team down in Waco. National Championship buzz in Texas on Interstate 35 has been growing over the past few years. That buzz is louder than ever and it ain’t coming from down Austin way.
Coach Art Brides returns a team primed to build off an 11-2 campaign in 2014. It saw them in the discussion for being one of the four teams chosen for the chance to play for the national championship. An October loss to TCU in a wild game that had a total of 119 points scored all but ruined any legitimate shot. “We will win a national championship. It’s just a matter of when” said Briles. “We certainly have the ingredients in place”.
The ingredients may be in the pantry, but the Bears enter the 2015 season with a very inexperienced cook in the kitchen. Gone is two year starter Bryce Petty to the NFL. Replacing him falls squarely onto the shoulders of junior Seth Russell from Garland, Texas. The 6’3″ 220 pound gunslinger does have over 1,200 yards and 11 TD’s to his credit in various “mop up” duties in backing up Petty for two seasons. He brings a little more athleticism to the position than did Petty, so look for him to make plays with his feet, avoiding the rush and getting out of the pocket for huge gains.
The skilled positions return three starters from last season in junior running back Shock Linwood, sophomore receiver KD Cannon and senior receiver Jay Lee. Linwood rambled his way to 1,252 rushing yards and 16 TD’s on his way to All Big XII honors. Depth at the position will come from junior Devin Chafin and incoming freshman 4 Star recruit JaMycal Hasty from Longview, Texas. Cannon and Lee will be joined on the flanks by All Big XII receiver Corey Coleman. Junior Tre’Von Armstead will hold down the tight end position, but look for offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to find ways to utilize 6’7″ 410 pound LaQuan McGowan in games on some H-Back lineup formations.
The offensive line returns all five starters and a veteran reserve who started for two years. The anchor of this unit is without a doubt the preseason All American left tackle Spencer Drango. The 6’6″ 310 pound Drango turned away NFL riches by foregoing the 2015 NFL Draft that would have saw him among the top linemen selected in the first round. A solid group lines up with him in G Blake Muir, C Kyle Fuller, G Jarrell Broxton and T Pat Colbert. Senior G Desmine Hilliard returns from an injury that sidelined him most of last season, which was his second as a starter, to provide much needed depth for the unit.
Like Drango, senior DE Shawn Oakman decided that residing in Waco another year wasn’t a bad way to spend 365 days. NFL scouts drooled over the chiseled 6’9″ 280 pound specimen. An 11 sack season lead to an All Big XII selection along with the inclusion to many All American teams. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett feels Oakman has a chance to be the #1 overall pick next spring. NT Andrew Billings looks to repeat his All Conference performance of last season. The 6’2″ 300 pound run stopper is sure to draw plenty of double teams, opening the path for senior DT Beau Blackshear to make his last season for the Bears a special one.
The loss of All Big XII middle linebacker Bryce Hager and strong side linebacker Collin Brence bring forth some concern for the the coaching staff. Looking to replace them will be senior Grant Campbell and junior Aiavion Edwards. Sophomore Taylor Young from Desoto, Texas finished last season as the starter at the weak side position. The 5’10” 225 pound ball hawk was second on the team with 92 stops. The “Bear” rover ‘backer position will be covered by Travon Blanchard and Patrick Levels on a rotating basis.
The much maligned secondary returns all four starters from last year. Ranked 107th nationally in passing yards allowed, the foursome of CB Xavien Howard, CB Ryan Reid, S Orion Stewart and S Terrell Bart look to improve vastly on that ranking this season. Depth will come from junior CB Terrance Singleton and S Tarin Sells. Kicker Chris Callaghan returns and looks to improve on an inconsistent season last year.
The season hinges on two games. A November 14 meeting with Oklahoma and November 27 against a loaded TCU squad. Come out victorious in both those contests and the chances are great that an undefeated Big XII champion makes one of the national semifinal games the two well respected publications have predicted for the Baylor Bears this upcoming season.