Thankfully for Matt Rhule, the Baylor Bears start spring practice this week. The Bears can put behind them various off the field issues both by current players, former players, and coaches and focus on football. They need to accomplish a lot these next fifteen practices.
Here's what we'd like to see...
Zach Smith had a coming of age game against Boise State in the Cactus Bowl. Smith, then a true freshman from Grandview, was 28-39 for 375 yards with three touchdowns and just one pick. That performance should galvanize the Bears that they've got the makings of a good quarterback that can pay at a big time level. That game was one of a roller coaster of outings for Smith in 2016. We expect there'll be a full on quarterback battle this spring with Anu Solomon, a grad transfer from Arizona, and true freshman Charlie Brewer showing up on campus.
Solomon is a real dual threat option. He actually matches up more with who coach Rhule's offenses have used at the position in the past. His athleticism will be a plus considering what could be a rather thin offensive line. Brewer's 2016 season at Lake Travis was arguably the best of any high school quarterback in the state. He flipped to the Bears late from SMU. There certainly wasn't a more accurate quarterback in the high school ranks last season.
Rhule has options at the quarterback position. All will be running a new look Baylor offense and all three will be playing behind a thin line, with few established pass catchers. Bet that Rhule and company want the quarterback position to define itself and have someone take the job heading into fall camp.
Depth will be an issue with the nonexistent 2016 recruiting class. Most of what was perhaps the most talented class in Baylor history left last spring and summer after Briles was relieved on his position. The result is a team low on numbers and two-deep depth.
Case in point, Baylor carries exactly seven scholarship offensive linemen on its spring roster. A bad day at practice you could have huge issues up front. Baylor signed six offensive linemen in the 2017 class but those bodies won't be on campus until June.
The Bears must also replace All Big 12 center and three year starter Kyle Fuller. Fuller's graduation leaves a void in the middle of Baylor's line. That coupled with the news that starting tackle Dominic Desouza is no longer on the roster and the thin Bears are replacing two key starters. Tanner Thift should shift over to Fuller's spot but that just leaves a gap at guard.
The line questions won't be answered until at least fall camp, but Baylor needs to take a look at what they have on campus and see who can plug in.
The Bears' top two pass catchers are both moving onto the NFL. K.D. Cannon and Ishmael Zamora were one, two in catches and yards last year and both have declared for the draft.
Cannon has consistently been one of the most explosive players in college football. Zamora was suspended for part of 2016, but erupted upon returning to the lineup. The Bears also lose swiss army knife Lynx Hawthorne who played every skill position on Baylor's roster the last few years, but was primarily a receiver.
Cannon and Zamora combined for over 2,000 yards receiving in 2016, almost a third of Baylor's receiving production.
Look for Chris Platt to step up for the Bears. Platt caught 35 passes for over 500 yards and four touchdowns last year. Platt has real downfield speed to stretch the defense. Blake Lynch will also get a look, he caught 34 balls last season. Lynch had some issue with drops in 2016, but he's a big, athletic target. Behind Platt and Lynch there's a group of unknowns who'll need to provide reliable targets this season.
Culture, Culture, Culture
For Baylor the holding pattern that was the 2016 season is over and the Bears can move ahead with the Matt Rhule era. Rhule's first order of business, as it is with any new coach, is to implement his culture and structure within the program. Rhule seems to understand this challenge, and has worked hard to provide a distinctive change from the previous regime.
He'll have some eager pupils on his roster who've persisted through one of the darkest period in Baylor history. They're as eager as anyone to put 2016 behind them and move on.
This spring marks the first time they'll be in pads, getting coached up by Rhule and the new Baylor staff. It's a critical month for the Bears.