Big 12 spring check-ins: Baylor

Ian Boyd

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I was considerably higher on the Dave Aranda era before the 2020 season than I am now.

It was a perfect storm of bad factors for the first time head coach. He had a pandemic wreck his first offseason, his oft-injured starting quarterback was injured some during the season and would have his arm strength come and go (I suspect his grip strength was inconsistent due to an early hand injury), and the Bears had trouble transitioning to his preferred defensive fronts after turning over the Big 12 runner-up defensive line of 2019 while overhauling the schemes and techniques.

All that considered and it wasn't surprising Baylor struggled as they did. However, some of the developments on the offensive side have me questioning Aranda's ability to oversee a winning program in the Big 12. The pairing of Larry Fedora with Jorge Munoz on offense clearly went very poorly last season. Munoz brought the 5-wide LSU approach to the Baylor passing game, which made at least some sense with Charlie Brewer and his knack for quick, underneath passing vs chucking it deep, while Larry Fedora is an established smashmouth spread guru who's RPO game was probably the best component of the Baylor offense in 2020. But they couldn't run block, Brewer was inconsistent, and they wasted a lot of skill talent.

After the season Aranda cleaned house on the offensive staff AND replaced his strength coach. On the one hand, good on Aranda for recognizing the staff dynamic wasn't working and refusing to wait until a make or break year three to make the classic "fire your offensive coordinator to buy you time" maneuver. On the other hand, the "fire the OC" card is one of the most powerful ones for a struggling head coach to play and he just used it up early. Also, the process of replacing Fedora and Munoz was a bit questionable.

Aranda hired Jeff Grimes from BYU, a wide zone and offensive line aficionado who's role in BYU's offensive resurgence last season may have been partly to get out of the way while BYU's new offensive coordinator directed the offense.

Then Aranda tried to hire Ryan Pugh to help him coach the O-line before having to reverse course very quickly when it turned out there was a photo of Pugh wearing blackface at a party from his days as an Auburn player and student. From there, Baylor just brought over Grimes' offensive line assistant Eric Mateos from BYU.

I broke down the BYU offense some and my hesitations with this approach for Baylor here...


...suffice to say I was a little alarmed by Aranda moving from having quotes post-2019 about recognizing opportunities to score and put pressure on a defense from coordinating defense alongside the legendary Joe Burrow/Joe Brady offense at LSU to hiring a run-centric line coach. When everything is on the line will Aranda fall into the classic defensive coach mistake of playing conservatively on offense and trying to win with defense and field positioning? That dog won't hunt in the Big 12.

We'll see how it goes. Certainly, as you'll soon see, the Baylor defense will be solid enough to make this approach at least appear to be viable.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

As it's been an area of particular relevance across the Big 12, including at Texas, I've been studying up more on what a good outside zone offensive line looks like. My main takeaway has been that quickness at the tackle positions and center is paramount, you'll often see wide zone teams start small, quick guards as well but things can be more flexible there. What's essential is the tackles playing the flank well to set up the play, since the running back's aiming point is typically wide of the tight end, or making the reach on the backside to set up the cutback, and the center having the agility to make the trade-offs blocking work properly.

When I checked out their grad transfer Grant Miller's Vanderbilt film at center I just shook my head. At 6-4, 309 he looked a lot more like Zach Shackleford then Jake Majors as a center. Miller is a sturdy blocker but he lacks the quickness to really make the reach blocks and quick combos work properly inside. However! Baylor appears to be playing him at guard instead, where his experience level is a big plus. The Bears also still have Connor Galvin at left tackle, a quick and highly experienced player who should be another plus.

Xavier Newman-Johnson, the former guard helping lead for Shawn Robinson when he won the State Championship for DeSoto, appears to be locked in at center. XNJ has more of the quickness you're looking for from the center position. Elsewhere across the line the Bears are plugging in a few different candidates and will have to work against Rhule and Fedora's eventual preference for tight zone, mauling blockers rather than agile, dancing bears.

Between the new scheme and all the new faces across the offensive line, I think there has to be a lot of concern for whether Baylor is particularly proficient in the wide zone running game this season.

Then there's quarterback, where my man @travisroeder seems to have Kyron Drones pegged as the most promising player but Gerry Bohanon as the most likely to take the job in the fall. He wrote up a nice piece on the Baylor spring practice reveals which is worth your time and should offer Baylor fans a little more optimism than you're likely to find here.


Bohanon I find to be a very mixed bag. On the one hand, look at this dude throwing the football:


I've scarcely seen a more unnatural, non-fluid looking passer save perhaps for Tyrone Swoopes when pressured. And that's worth noting here with Bohanon, as ugly as this looks (I know the ball got there), this is with his feet set from a clean pocket. Imagine how the timing and mechanics will look when this rebuilt offensive line inevitably surrenders pressure?

Here he is on outside zone-read though:


My suspicion is Bohanon will be a turnover machine against teams who can pressure the Bears, but a value-add in the run game. I also suspect he'll start with the job but eventually lose it, perhaps to Drones. Then the offseason will see a mass exodus from the quarterback room via transfer and hopefully the last man standing is the right man for the job. This is more or less the goal for the Baylor offense this season, in fact. Establish better habits and improve along the offensive line with a real identity and figure out which quarterback you'd want to stay if (hypothetically-ish) everyone else was going to transfer after the season ended.

Running back has Trestan Ebner and a bunch of other dudes, the fit here isn't awesome either. Your ideal outside zone running back is NOT a quick-moving burner like Ebner or Craig Williams, the read and decision-making for the back in this offense is very simple. You want a one-cut runner who will reliably progress through his keys en route to the edge, make the right cut, and then have power to go against the grain on the cutback. BYU's lead back in 2020, Tyler Allgeier, is the ultimate example of the sort of back outside zone creates. He was 5-11, 220 pounds, and was solid but didn't have a ton of wiggle or top end speed. But he made good cuts, ran through contact, and the system set him up to be a consistent producer. Qualan Jones may be the closest Baylor has to that, or youngster Taye McWilliams...or Gerry Bohanon.

The Bears hired a coach who will aim to establish a particularly identity for the offense, which is positive, but it's not the identity the roster has been recruited to embrace.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

Things are much more positive here. One of the biggest factors here is Baylor technically returns every starter but will be able to replace their weakest position group in 2020, nose tackle, with a very good player in LSU transfer Apu Ika.


Yes, the Baylor offensive line probably isn't terribly good, but Ika was playing regularly for the National Champion LSU Tigers in 2019. He's a legit player and notice how fast he's moving and know he checks in at 6-4, 350 pounds. He's going to be a problem for opposing centers this season with such power and should make Aranda's preferred tite fronts come alive.

Behind him they return Dillon Doyle, who was immediately effective executing Aranda's slow-playing tactics for stuffing spread run games without overcommitting safeties. Read more here:


They also bring back Terrell Bernard alongside him, returning from injury, and his back-up Abram Smith who was really effective in 2020 spelling Bernard. The Bears are going to be able to play a host of solid defensive linemen who struggled as the main "point of attack" defenders in 2020 with Ika now and backed by three very good and well trained linebackers for two spots. Very good start for the Bears.

Jalen Pitre was a highly effective nickel and returns along with veteran cornerbacks Raleigh Texada and Mark Milton, up and coming corner Kalon Barnes, and safeties Jairon McVea and Christian Morgan. Their "Jack" outside linebacker to the boundary is probably the biggest question mark. I keep thinking they'll maximize Permian Panther Matt Jones there and Aranda, just as Rhule did before him, keeps wanting to move him to inside linebacker where he seems to be behind Dillon Doyle. More on this later.

Overall the Bears have everyone back who was learning how to play solid defense in this scheme in 2020 and add an impact player in Apu Ika at the nose, so the overall prognosis is good.

Space force speed test: Offense

On paper, the Bears are in terrific shape here. Connor Galvin is highly experienced and solid at left tackle while the Bears return receivers who are far more dangerous than you'd think in R.J. Sneed and Tyquan Thornton. These guys could be tearing it up in another offense around the league with consistent quarterback play and solid pass protection, but the Bears haven't had those dimensions.

I suspect it'll be more of the same here in 2021. The wide zone identity should theoretically help the Bears, as should running lots of mesh, but I'm not sure they'll be able to stay ahead of the chains against good teams. Wide zone blocking can go terribly awry if you can't get the first level right and block athletic defensive linemen and this quarterback room looks messy.

It's possible to waste a good space force if you don't have the infrastructure to launch your satellites and support them in space and my fear for Baylor is they will continue to do so. Watching Bohanon toss the ball wide in clips from their spring game I'm not seeing a guy who can hit the outside option routes on mesh like Zach Wilson did in setting himself up as the no. 2 overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft.

BYU mesh-sit outside option.jpg

It's a long throw out to Sneed or Thornton as the Z in this diagram. Bohanon ain't hitting it, not gonna happen. Someone else will need to beat him out or else Baylor will need some different base concepts in the passing game.

Space force speed test: Defense

Without Matt Jones at the outside backer spot, they have Ashton Logan who was a solid dropper there but didn't have much impact in the pass-rush. They don't have a Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert, Arden Key, or K'Lavon Chaisson on the roster who's a high-impact player coming off the field edge and I suspect they'll work instead on building a team pass-rush with Aranda's blitz package.

Bernard, Pitre, Doyle, etc are all solid blitzers and this staff will know how to set them up for dealing damage. It's sure nice to have consistency coming off the edge though for opposing lines to worry about and to not have to blitz and potentially leave vacancies in coverage in key moments.

Cornerback is maybe the bigger concern. None of Texada, Milton, or Barnes are world-beaters at cornerback, or they weren't in 2021. Barnes has the most upside but he hadn't put it together when we last saw him as he was getting torched by Quentin Johnston. Aranda and defensive coordinator Ron Roberts will work to set these guys up to keep the ball in front of them and tighten up in the red zone but you wonder what the ceiling will be for this defense if they don't have any true weapons in the defensive space force and have to rely on infrastructure.

If the Bears hit .500 this season and bowl eligibility it'll probably be due to someone in the cornerback room stepping up and having a big season.

In summation

The Big 12 looks tough in 2021 and Baylor is completely overhauling their offense with a new system which isn't an ideal fit for the existing roster while likely leaning into defense. How many games does a team like that win in the Big 12 on average? Answer, not many.

This squad reminds me a great deal of some of the recent Gary Patterson teams where they knew how to play solid defense but didn't have a quarterback and perhaps didn't even have an identity on offense. Such as the 2013 Frogs, who were 2-7 in the Big 12, or the 2016 and 2018 Frogs who both finished 4-5.

Baylor fans will object and note the Bears managed to go 2-7 last season with an absolute wreck of an offense and a defense which was likely worse than what Aranda will piece together in 2021. This is true, but the rest of the league will probably be better in 2021 than in 2020, it's a developmental conference, not a talent-driven one as the NFL draft just revealed once again. Everyone else will have a chance to develop their teams more effectively for next season.

Bear fans will also argue the offense can't possibly be worse with a more coherent identity and approach. Of course they can be be worse, for all his flaws Charlie Brewer was willing this team to the goal line at times last season. It can always get worse. It can also get a lot better and still be pretty bad.

If Baylor can just look smart while losing and beat the three teams they should ABSOLUTELY be beating (Texas State, Texas Southern, and Kansas) then they should have a chance to approach bowl eligibility and hopefully find their quarterback of the future. Ironically though, BYU comes to town next season on an October weekend sandwiched between home games with West Virginia and Texas. That'll be the make or break moment of the season in terms of reaching bowl eligibility AND for Baylor fans watching their new offensive coordinator face his old team.
 

travisroeder

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I'm not as concerned for whether Baylor can get a decent wide zone running game going this season. Baylor held open scrimmages on three consecutive weekends and I was at all of them. The first week the OL was hapless and things just looked rough. They basically got nothing going in the run game. By the Spring game, things started to look much more cohesive and to boot, they starting playing some better running backs. They moved linebacker Abram Smith back to RB (he was a 5k yard rusher at Abilene High running a wide zone scheme) and he looked great.

Of course, QB is the huge question mark. I've seen enough at this point to know that QB play almost assuredly won't be very good or great this year. However, I think they can be very passable with a run game and GB, as I argued in my piece. I actually think one of the reasons Bohanon is a better option is because he's not turnover-prone. His biggest weakness as a passer is that he doesn't take chances, he's very safe with the ball. The thing that is killing Zeno and Shapen is that they've both thrown multiple picks in the scrimmages. Now, whether Bohanon starts throwing picks once it's truly live and pass rush is in his face, that's another Q. But that's why Grimes' O focuses on run game and true play action. He won't be executing much true drop back game this year.

I think you're off the mark on the Munoz stuff (my perception is that you think Aranda failed to adapt to what he wanted to do and would've been better going all in with him). Munoz was a disaster, he got negative player buy in and is a terrible WR coach. At games it was so easy to watch him yell at WRs while they stared off into space and paid him no mind. And he failed to understand what his players could do. His system was a terrible fit with Brewer who cannot do more than 1 read per play, while Munoz requires a Burrow like processor who can really diagnose what's going on.

I think people are generally underselling what the Baylor D is going to be this year, Aranda had them as a top 40 unit all of last year (until the final OSU game when they had a massive COVID outbreak holding a ton of guys out). I think it is a very safe bet that they'll be a top 25 national unit this year. They have three guys (Ika, Bernard, Pitre) who are likely 1st/2nd team All Big 12 guys. You're right to point at CB play being an important question, but Baylor is more than fine there. It's probably their best/most talented position on the team. Where I remain worried is at strong safety, where Christian Morgan has proven himself a good box defender but teams picked on him in quarters coverage. FS JT Woods is a likely all conference guy this year.

Of course, you can have a great D and be foiled by a terrible QB and bad offense. I know you think "it can always get worse," but it will be incredibly hard-pressed to be worse than Baylor was on offense last year (around 90th in most advanced metrics). A top 25 D with a 50-60th O is a team that is safely a bowl team, which I think is the reasonable marker for Baylor this year as they figure out QB play.

One random final quibble, I think you have the analysis of the RBs wrong (which is totally reasonable, I haven't a clue of scheme fits for vast majority of RBs in the Big 12). Qualan Jones is by far the worst fit (he has terrible feet and tries to push everything outside). Ebner I similarly don't think is a great fit (but it's cause he's not a good runner in any scheme) but he'll be a valuable piece with all the motioning and passing to the RBs that Grimes does. Sqwirl Williams is an AWESOME fit, he's really a "one plant and go" runner, just in a 5'8 frame. Their younger guys are great fits too.

Basically I think your perception of where your hot or cold on Baylor really just depends on what your expectations are. The roster is still very talented, but because of likely meh QB play this year you shouldn't have super high expectations. But if they can come out of this year with a dominant D, a competent and reliable run game, and then hand the keys over to Drones next year (who is legitimately awesome), then I think you have to be very excited about Aranda going forward. If the D is just pretty good but not great and the O is just bad, that's when you start to wonder if he makes it out of year 3.
 
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Ian Boyd

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He has a long release, is more turnover prone, and similarly seems like a one read and go guy. He's a good athlete on the move but he doesn't bring the same down-to-down threat that Bohanon does in the run game.
Makes sense. None of these guys bring enough value-add right now to be worth playing if they're going to turn it over.
 
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Ian Boyd

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I'm not as concerned for whether Baylor can get a decent wide zone running game going this season. Baylor held open scrimmages on three consecutive weekends and I was at all of them. The first week the OL was hapless and things just looked rough. They basically got nothing going in the run game. By the Spring game, things started to look much more cohesive and to boot, they starting playing some better running backs. They moved linebacker Abram Smith back to RB (he was a 5k yard rusher at Abilene High running a wide zone scheme) and he looked great.
I'm skeptical they have the personnel or the time to get it going at a high level for the season. How do they do against teams playing matchup games or throwing anti-OZ stunts at them?

What happens if/when opponents recognize that stopping OZ is more or less the only major ingredient necessary to stop Baylor?
I think you're off the mark on the Munoz stuff (my perception is that you think Aranda failed to adapt to what he wanted to do and would've been better going all in with him). Munoz was a disaster, he got negative player buy in and is a terrible WR coach. At games it was so easy to watch him yell at WRs while they stared off into space and paid him no mind. And he failed to understand what his players could do. His system was a terrible fit with Brewer who cannot do more than 1 read per play, while Munoz requires a Burrow like processor who can really diagnose what's going on.
I think Munoz's vision was the best but can believe he and Baylor couldn't make it happen.

My concern is mostly the lack of organizational vision or consistency from Aranda on guiding the offense.
I think people are generally underselling what the Baylor D is going to be this year, Aranda had them as a top 40 unit all of last year (until the final OSU game when they had a massive COVID outbreak holding a ton of guys out). I think it is a very safe bet that they'll be a top 25 national unit this year. They have three guys (Ika, Bernard, Pitre) who are likely 1st/2nd team All Big 12 guys. You're right to point at CB play being an important question, but Baylor is more than fine there. It's probably their best/most talented position on the team. Where I remain worried is at strong safety, where Christian Morgan has proven himself a good box defender but teams picked on him in quarters coverage. FS JT Woods is a likely all conference guy this year.
The ceiling is limited if edge and cornerback don't have much more upside to explore than we saw last year. Now maybe they do, but we'll have to see it.
 

travisroeder

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The ceiling is limited if edge and cornerback don't have much more upside to explore than we saw last year. Now maybe they do, but we'll have to see it.
CB and OLB are two of the deepest positions on the team. CB features Barnes, who could be a day 2 guy this upcoming year if he stays healthy (see Eric Stokes). At OLB they moved Matt Jones back to ILB because they were so deep there. Victor Obi and Anthony Anyanwu, the likely two deep at that position, are two guys who barely played last year cause it was their first year in the system but have massive upside (and are much more athletic than the guys who played there last year).

I understand a hesitancy to predict it before you see it (I'm much the same way), but it's a position where if things fail to materialize it'll be on the coaching staff, not the players. I'm much more concerned about safety and DL play than I am CB and OLB. And as you have rightly mentioned before, Aranda doesn't rely on one heavy hitter as an outside pass rusher. He has a bunch of dudes who get 4-6 sacks. Even Chaisson at LSU was dropping more often than not on base downs.
 
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Ian Boyd

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CB and OLB are two of the deepest positions on the team.
Big difference between having lots of guys on the roster who are listed at a position and having NFL-caliber athletes at those positions though. For instance, isn't Ashton Logan still the starting Jack? So then the guys behind him are presumably people who aren't currently better than Ashton Logan?
CB features Barnes, who could be a day 2 guy this upcoming year if he stays healthy (see Eric Stokes).
Day 2? That would be a massive leap to go from "athletic but not particularly good" to 2nd round selection."

This is my point. It's not that Baylor doesn't have guys who can play those positions, it's that these are positions where you can get major upside from fielding elite players and Baylor doesn't haven't elite players at those spots. So the upside for the overall defense is somewhat limited, even though the infrastructure figures to be substantially improved.

None of that matters if no one can cover Quentin Johnston or whomever else outside, it's still an area where the Bears can get caught.
 

travisroeder

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Big difference between having lots of guys on the roster who are listed at a position and having NFL-caliber athletes at those positions though. For instance, isn't Ashton Logan still the starting Jack? So then the guys behind him are presumably people who aren't currently better than Ashton Logan?

Day 2? That would be a massive leap to go from "athletic but not particularly good" to 2nd round selection."

This is my point. It's not that Baylor doesn't have guys who can play those positions, it's that these are positions where you can get major upside from fielding elite players and Baylor doesn't haven't elite players at those spots. So the upside for the overall defense is somewhat limited, even though the infrastructure figures to be substantially improved.

None of that matters if no one can cover Quentin Johnston or whomever else outside, it's still an area where the Bears can get caught.
As I said, Ashton Logan isn't gonna be in the two deep this year at JACK. He might be listed that way on the depth chart because he's old, but the top two guys are Victor Obi and Anthony Anyanwu.

As for Barnes, we'll just have to put a stake in this thread for this upcoming season. I'm not a guy who blows smoke about Baylor guys, I'm pretty harsh on guys I don't think have it. Barnes ran a 10.04 100m and a 20.55 200m in high school at a solid 6'0. And he played almost all of last year in a broken hand club. Baylor hired a great CB coach and he looked really good in the spring from what I watched. Wouldn't surprise me at all to see him get drafted high when he's a 6'0 CB who runs 4.40 after a great season.
 

matt103455

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This state produces a large number of quality QBs and Baylor is right there with TCU in screwing it up. Drones has a lot of talent, but him having to play early isn’t good.
 

Ian Boyd

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As I said, Ashton Logan isn't gonna be in the two deep this year at JACK. He might be listed that way on the depth chart because he's old, but the top two guys are Victor Obi and Anthony Anyanwu.

As for Barnes, we'll just have to put a stake in this thread for this upcoming season. I'm not a guy who blows smoke about Baylor guys, I'm pretty harsh on guys I don't think have it. Barnes ran a 10.04 100m and a 20.55 200m in high school at a solid 6'0. And he played almost all of last year in a broken hand club. Baylor hired a great CB coach and he looked really good in the spring from what I watched. Wouldn't surprise me at all to see him get drafted high when he's a 6'0 CB who runs 4.40 after a great season.
We’ll see how those younger jacks look, as well as Barnes whom I’ve written on promisingly in the past.

Mostly when I’ve seen promising notes on Baylor’s D it’s been about the return of starter moreso than the emergence of young players. If all these young guys hit it’s a different conversation on defense.
This state produces a large number of quality QBs and Baylor is right there with TCU in screwing it up. Drones has a lot of talent, but him having to play early isn’t good.
Texas produces a lot of guys who can execute a good spread system, but then you have to put such a system in. Usually this means having a run game to support RPOs and play-action and that’s where programs often fall short. TCU is an exception because they’ve had the run game but were a mess at quarterback.
 

travisroeder

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Baylor’s line getting wrecked on their own goal line THAT badly. No doubt he’s good, if that happened in a real game though it’d be a massive highlight for years.
Another replay makes it more clear that this was either a midline option or just a massive miscommunication from the second team OL (I'm less certain this is midline option now, prob a miscommunication).
 

Abe Lemons

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Texas produces a lot of guys who can execute a good spread system, but then you have to put such a system in. Usually this means having a run game to support RPOs and play-action and that’s where programs often fall short. TCU is an exception because they’ve had the run game but were a mess at quarterback.
What would you say are the most important assets of a QB to succeed in Grimes’ wide zone O? What constitutes the ideal fit?
 

Ian Boyd

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What would you say are the most important assets of a QB to succeed in Grimes’ wide zone O? What constitutes the ideal fit?
Man, I’ve seen so many different dudes thrive in that system. Benjamin Solak of draft network noted Zach Wilson isn’t even really an ideal fit for the offense and obviously he killed in it.

I guess the wide zone creates a horizontal/flanking stress on the defense and then your QB just needs to have some method for punishing it on the backside with movement on keepers or rollouts or vertically with play-action.
 
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