When Baylor opened spring football drills Friday afternoon, it was easy to see the fruits of the program’s recent success.
Boldly adorning the outside wall of the Allison Indoor Practice Facility are the words “2013 Big 12 Champions.”
Across the Brazos River, McLane Stadium is getting closer to completion for the Bears’ 2014 season opener against SMU on Aug. 31. The Bears would love to christen their new $260 million home with another Big 12 title.
“Everybody has thought about how cool it will be to be the group that closed out Floyd Casey with the Big 12 championship and then to open up the new stadium with a Big 12 championship,” Baylor senior receiver Levi Norwood said. “That would definitely be pretty awesome.”
The Bears understand opponents will see them in a different light after winning last year’s title. But they like the challenge of defending their first Big 12 title, and believe they have the talent to beat anybody.
“This is what we came here for – not just one of them, but multiple (titles),” Baylor senior quarterback Bryce Petty said. “So it’s about defending that, knowing that the target is on our back now. People know about us, people have been talking us all spring. That’s where we want to be, so it’s definitely motivation for us to make sure that we come out with all T’s crossed and I’s dotted.”
Baylor won’t be as experienced as many Big 12 teams since it returns just five offensive starters and four defensive starters.
But with Petty and All-America receiver Antwan Goodley back, the offense has a chance to be one of the nation’s best once again. Though the defense lost All-America safety Ahmad Dixon and all-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey, younger players like defensive end Shawn Oakman, tackle Andrew Billings and safety Orion Stewart are eager to get their shot at leading roles.
“We lost a lot of big-time players, but we’re looking forward and trying to build,” Stewart said. “We have players who can step in and fill their roles. We’ve got to keep moving on and getting better.”
As memorable as last season was for the Bears, it ended on a bad note as they dropped a 52-42 decision to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. After finishing the regular season with an 11-1 record and a No. 6 national ranking, Baylor went into the BCS bowl as heavy favorites.
But Central Florida piled up 556 yards total offense behind the superb play of quarterback Blake Bortles, who is projected to be a high NFL draft pick. The Bears finished with 550 yards total offense, but hurt themselves with 17 penalties for 135 yards.
The Bears have had two months to mull over the loss in their first BCS bowl appearance.
“It’s a pretty bitter aftertaste, but it’s something that’s needed,” Baylor defensive tackle Byron Bonds said. “A little embarrassment doesn’t hurt anybody. It keeps you alive and knowing you’re mortal and not invincible. It was tough, but if you lose you have to learn from it.”
The Bears will use the loss as motivation as they build toward next season. After playing well most of last season, the Baylor defensive players particularly want to show they’re much better than they were against Central Florida.
“We’re hungry for sure,” Oakman said. “You are going to see in these practices how we get after the offense. This defense I have the feeling is going to be a different kind of defense. We’re going to bring the mentality that we are the best and we’re going to bite your head off.”
The Fiesta Bowl was the Bears’ first game after clinching the Big 12 championship against Texas in the final game at Floyd Casey Stadium. Baylor coach Art Briles believes his team better get used to having a target on its back.
“We certainly learned a good lesson down in Phoenix, and that’s what it’s like now that we are the hunted,” Briles said. “Other Big 12 schools are talking about what they can do to beat Baylor. That’s what we need to understand.
“The way we are going to approach it is that we’re going to fight our tail off to be even more formidable,” Briles said. “We have the belt around our waist and it’s buckled up pretty tight. It will be a struggle to get that sucker off, I can promise you that.”
The Bears won’t have their full team available during spring drills with linebacker Bryce Hager, safety Terrell Burt, receiver Clay Fuller. offensive tackle Spencer Drango and defensive end Sam Ukwuachu getting time to heal from various injuries and surgeries.
But the spring will allow a lot of players to develop and show their skills.
“Guys get hurt in the season and they have to get fixed up, so you let them mend and let them go in August,” Briles said. “It will give other guys an opportunity, but we’ve got a lot of guys who need opportunities anyway. It just opens up a couple of more doors, but it will all take care of itself.”
BEAR FACTS: Navarro College offensive lineman Maurice Porter has re-committed to Baylor, and plans to be part of the 2015 signing class. Porter originally signed with Baylor in the 2013 class out of Fort Bend Marshall High School, but was an academic non-qualifier.