Bryce Petty will be one of five returning offensive starters as the Bears begin five weeks of spring practices. Their spring game will be April 5.

Staff photo— Rod Aydelotte

After winning its first Big 12 championship, a new aura surrounds the Baylor football program as it opens spring drills Friday afternoon.

Baylor is no longer that team trying to win and earn respect. With a conference title to defend, the Bears will be the target every other Big 12 team will be trying to knock off.

“When Big 12 teams are looking around, they’re looking at us,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “Now we’ve got to make sure we know how to prepare and practice with a price on our head and a target on our backs. There’s a responsibility to it.”

The Bears will hold 15 practices over the next five weeks and complete spring drills with an April 5 intrasquad scrimmage at the Highers Athletics Complex practice fields.

Following last year’s breakthrough 11-2 season that ended with a 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, the Bears return five offensive starters and four defensive starters.

Briles is excited to head into spring drills with an established quarterback. After going into last year’s spring drills with very little experience, senior quarterback Bryce Petty should be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate after earning all-Big 12 honors last fall.

“This will be only the second time in seven years we’ve had a returning starting quarterback, so it’s a big deal and it’s critical at that position because he’s the catalyst of your football team,” Briles said. “From a status standpoint, that guy has got to be special and a great team player, and productive and intelligent. Bryce fits all those categories.”

Petty enjoyed a spectacular junior season as he passed for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with just three interceptions while also running for a team-high 14 touchdowns. However, Briles believes Petty can perform at an even higher level.

“We have to do a great job as a coaching staff to keep accelerating his growth as a player,” Briles said. “We’ve got to find different ways that allow him to help our football team win and showcase his skills.”

Lache Seastrunk, the school’s first two-time 1,000-yard rusher, decided to forgo his senior year to enter the NFL draft, and senior power runner Glasco Martin is also gone. But Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin both showed great promise last year. Chafin rushed for 881 yards and eight touchdowns while Chafin rushed for 295 yards and four scores.

Replacing IR Reese

The Bears will also miss Tevin Reese, one of the fastest receivers in the country. But it still might be the deepest position on the team with Antwan Goodley, Levi Norwood, Clay Fuller, Robbie Rhodes, Jay Lee and Corey Coleman returning.

Following his all-Big 12 junior year, Goodley will be one of the top returning receivers in the country after making 71 catches for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

“Even though Antwan was all-conference, he has so much more in front of him,” Briles said. “That’s what excites us about all our receivers. Last year, they were a young crew and now they’re all experienced, and we have a chance to really utilize them.”

Many of the best position battles will be on the offensive line. With senior center Stefan Hubert gone, Hawaii transfer Blake Muir, Kyle Fuller and Tyler Edwards will battle at that position. Tackle Spencer Drango will miss the spring following back surgery, but Troy Baker and Pat Colbert will be on the field.

Junior guard Desmine Hilliard returns while 6-6, 385-pound junior LaQuan McGowan and junior college transfer Jarell Broxton should also battle for playing time at guard. Tre’Von Armstead and Gus Penning are Baylor’s top tight end prospects with seniors Jordan Najvar and Jerod Monk gone.

Not only does Briles expect the offensive line to be a strength, he’s confident that the defensive line will be outstanding.

Shawn Oakman has a chance to be one of the fiercest passing rushing ends in the Big 12 while ends Jamal Palmer and Javonte Magee have tremendous potential. Magee returned to school this semester after missing last fall for personal reasons.

Beef on defensive line

The interior defensive line also looks strong with Andrew Billings, Beau Blackshear, Suleiman Masumbuko, Byron Bonds, Trevor Clemons-Valdez and Terell Brooks returning. Defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, who redshirted last season after transferring from Boise State, will miss the spring due to pectoral surgery.

“We met with the defensive line by unit and I thought, ‘Wow, this might be the best we’ve ever had,’ ” Briles said. “They’re going to be the strength of our defense. We’ve got some guys who can really play.”

Starting inside linebacker Bryce Hager will miss the spring following a groin injury that kept him out of the last four games. Sophomore Aiavion Edwards will see a lot of time at inside linebacker in the spring while Kiante Griffin and redshirt freshman Raaquan Davis will get a shot at nickelback.

One of Baylor’s biggest tasks will be replacing all-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey, but the Baylor coaches hope Bakersfield College transfer Grant Campbell can step in.

“Eddie was as good of a player as we’ve been around in a while,” Briles said. “Grant brings the same qualities. He’s explosive and quick, and has a great upside for us.”

The Bears will have plenty of seniors to replace in the secondary including all-America safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks Demetri Goodson, K.J. Morton and Joe Williams.

Briles is hoping senior cornerback Tyler Stephenson will be a strong contributor after redshirting last year. Sophomores Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid and Amarillo College transfer Tion Wright will also be in the mix.

Returning starting free safety Terrell Burt and Eastern Arizona College transfer cornerback Chris Sanders will miss the spring following shoulder surgeries. But Orion Stewart, Taion Sells, Terrence Singleton, Alfred Pullom and Patrick Levels will be among the players battling at safety positions.

All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth is back for his senior year while freshman Chris Callahan will get most of the spring reps at kicker since Kyle Peterson is out with a foot injury.

Briles is anxious to see how his team responds in its new role as Big 12 champions.

“Things are different now because we’ve become the hunted,” Briles said. “We’ve got to learn how to accept that responsibility and flourish toward it because it can make you better. If everybody is always trying to get after you and beat you, it can make you step up your game.”