Art Briles calls true freshman Robbie Rhodes “the best receiver in America.” Rhodes has made an impression during training camp.

Staff photo— Rod Aydelotte

That $260 million jewel on the Brazos keeps rising every day, beckoning the Baylor football players.

They can see the construction of the new stadium across the river as they push themselves through the August heat on the practice fields at the Highers Athletics Complex.

But before they move into their new home next fall, they want to make school history by reaching a fourth straight bowl game. They’d like to cap their final season at Floyd Casey Stadium with their first Big 12 championship.

Saturday’s season-opening game against Wofford College is only six days away. After finishing three weeks of preseason camp, Baylor coach Art Briles liked the energy and progress he saw on both sides of the ball, and his players are eager to move into game-week mode.

Here are five major developments that came out of this year’s camp:

1. Defense on the rise: After showing considerable improvement at the end of last season, Baylor’s defense had the swagger a confident group throughout camp. With eight starters returning, this is the most experienced, deepest and talented crew defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has worked with in three seasons at Baylor.

Some of the best competition was at defensive end, where seniors Chris McAllister and Terrance Lloyd were joined by sophomores Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer. Though the 6-9, 270-pound Oakman missed the early part of camp with a hamstring issue, he was back for the final week and should be a force up front.

The cornerbacks also showed some good signs with seniors Demetri Goodson and K.J. Morton back from injuries and senior Joe Williams looking to build on last season. Redshirt freshman cornerback Xavien Howard will also be a key player.

“We’re ahead (of last season) without question,” Bennett said. “But every day we’re looking for consistency and we’ve got to develop our depth. We’re starting to see some of our redshirt freshmen show up in the two-deep.”

2. Bryce Petty settling into groove: It’s no easy task following two of the most prolific passers in Baylor history.

But after watching Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence put up record breaking yardage the past two seasons, Petty is eager to show what he can do after three years as a backup in Briles’ offensive system.

Petty looked more in sync with his receivers as camp progressed. Though he’s still trying to develop more consistency throwing the long ball, he certainly has the arm to make deep passes a large part of Baylor’s arsenal.

He’s also got one of the best collections of receivers in the Big 12 with veterans Tevin Reese, Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood joined by young players like Robbie Rhodes, Corey Coleman and Jay Lee.

“Bryce is getting better every day,” Goodley said. “I feel comfortable with him. Leadership is the main thing. He’s taking charge and he has a great arm. He has a stronger arm than Nick (Florence), but they’re both fantastic.”

3. Offensive line developing: The Bears suffered a major blow when starting right tackle Troy Baker tore his ACL in the spring. He isn’t expected back until October.

But Baylor’s reconstructed offensive line has looked strong and cohesive throughout preseason camp. With senior Kelvin Palmer switching from center to right tackle, senior Stefan Huber moving from right guard to center and sophomore Desmine Hilliard taking over at right guard, Briles has been impressed with the development.

The left side of the line should be one of the best in the Big 12 with second-team All-America guard Cyril Richardson and returning tackle Spencer Drango.

“We look for effort and attitude, and these guys are experienced and are doing a great job,” Briles said. “When Troy gets back, we’ll go from there.”

4. Rookies making impact: Since before the start of preseason camp, Briles has said Fort Worth Southwest receiver Robbie Rhodes and Waco High defensive tackle Andrew Billings have the best shot to play as true freshmen.

They certainly didn’t hurt their cause in the last three weeks.

Rhodes enjoyed a spectacular camp as he constantly showed what made him one of the best high school receivers in the country. Great speed, precise route running and good hands are just part of the package. He’s also got a tremendous work ethic and a willingness to learn.

“Robbie has been fabulous,” Briles said. “He’s farther along than we thought he might be. . . . We said all along that he’s the best receiver in America and we haven’t changed our mind on that.”

While Billings missed a week due to a broken nose, his strength and tenacity have been impressive. Since sophomore Javonte Magee was absent much of camp, Billings and Navarro College transfer Terell Brooks added much needed depth to Baylor’s defensive interior line.

5. Glasco Martin on the mend: After suffering a broken ankle in the spring, Glasco Martin spent most of the first two weeks of camp rehabbing.

But he started to work into more drills in the final week, and Briles expects him to be ready for the season opener. With Martin and Lache Seastrunk returning, the Bears should feature one of the most explosive running games in the country.

“Glasco really is the man,” Seastrunk said. “He’s the guy who gets it on third and fourth down. That’s who people really feel.”

Martin’s injury allowed redshirt freshman running backs Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin to get more reps during preseason camp. With their rugged running styles, they both showed Baylor’s ground game is in good hands in the future.