2016 season preview: Baylor Bears
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Baylor Bears football team. After starting the 2015 season an incredibly impressive 8-0, injuries took their toll and the Bears lost three of their last five games. Then the offseason happened. Now Art Briles is out and Jim Grobe is in, and the Bears are preparing to play a 2016 season that is full of question marks.
Let’s take a look at Baylor’s team preview for the coming season:
It’s not a secret that the Bears’ success will be almost directly tied to the success of their offense. They’ve got a new head coach, but he’s gone on record saying that they’ll run the same offense as last year. With the personnel that they still have, it’s the only thing that makes sense. The Bears are led by quarterback Seth Russell (more on him later) and his incredible mastery of the Baylor offense. Everyone knows about the Bears ability to throw the ball and stretch the field with their gigantic receiver splits and half-field routes, but it’s impossible to sleep on their run game. Last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl when the Bears were down to no true quarterback, they ran the ball a ridiculous 83 times for 640 yards. If they can run at that level again this season on top of the passing threat that Russell will add, the Baylor offense could reach video game levels.
Baylor had a fairly underrated defense last season that also ran into some bad luck and injuries late in the season. A lot of high-level talent like Andrew Billings, Jamal Palmer and Xavien Howard have moved on, but there’s still reason for hope.
Two names on the 2016 defense to watch out for are DE K.J. Smith and LB Taylor Young. Smith played limited snaps last season but still recorded 16 total pressures and a +10.4 pass rush grade to go with a +14.3 run defense grade. Young is the highest-graded returning linebacker in the Big 12 this season at +14.5. He has the ability to both rush the passer (21 pressures) and stop the run (10.8 run stop percentage). If a few other names can step up, then the Bears’ defense could help push the team to the top of the Big 12.
There’s no doubt about it. Seth Russell is the biggest star on this Baylor team. Russell only played eight games last season before injury, but he was incredibly impressive in those games. His 10.53 yards per attempt led the entire NCAA last season and his overall grade of +23.1 ranked 26th in the country despite playing roughly half the amount of snaps as many of the players who graded higher. On a per-snap basis, only five other quarterbacks ranked higher. Russell is just a master of the Bears option, with his ability to run the read option and add a running threat making it near impossible to stop when it’s running on all cylinders.
Breakout player to watch
There are a few players from Baylor that people should keep an eye on, but the biggest one is RB Johnny Jefferson. He started last season playing well in limited snaps, but really came on strong to close the year. After injuries took down starter Shock Linwood, Jefferson rushed the ball 75 times for 593 yards and four touchdowns over the final four games. That included his insane 299 yards and three touchdowns on just 23 carries in the Russell Athletic Bowl victory. He averaged 3.71 yards after contact per carry in that span, which would be a top-15 mark if he kept it up an entire season. RB Shock Linwood is the clear starter at Baylor, but don’t be surprised if Jefferson makes his name known early.
When it comes to Baylor’s success this year, so much of it rests on Russell. If he can stay healthy for the whole season, there’s no telling how good this offense could be. The strong rushing game mixed with his arm could wreak havoc on the Big 12. The defense isn’t elite, but it won’t need to be. This is a team that has the potential to be in the mix for the Big 12 championship and even the College Football Playoff by the end of the season.