Robert Griffin III was the most gifted quarterback in Baylor history and has a Heisman Trophy and a statue outside of McLane Stadium to prove it.
Nick Florence was whip-smart with a deceptively strong arm and quick feet. Bryce Petty was a natural leader who combined a powerful arm with a deft touch.
Next in line to take over the reins of the Baylor offense is Seth Russell. Exactly what stamp he will put on Art Briles’ attack remains to be seen, but he’s got all the tools to lead a team seeking its third straight Big 12 championship.
“He’s got a tremendous amount of talent,” Briles said. “He’s got a tremendous amount of drive. He’s a guy that I really respect his work ethic, his attitude and his take on how he needs to perform. Those things are pretty clear.”
Russell also has a firm grasp of the quarterback legacy that he’s carrying on. He was already committed to Baylor during Griffin’s 2011 Heisman season, redshirted when Florence led the Bears to a Holiday Bowl win over UCLA in 2012, and was Petty’s backup during the two Big 12 championship seasons.
He’s seen them all perform and has studied them in detail. Now he’s ready to show college football that he’s ready to be the quarterback of the nation’s most explosive offense.
“There are some big shoes with the past quarterbacks, and to step into them is going to be fun,” Russell said. “Being able to watch those guys grow and watch how they lead on and off the field, I can definitely take bits and pieces here and there and apply it to what I can do.”
Though Briles is confident Russell can handle the job, he wants to make sure he doesn’t feel extraordinary pressure. With eight returning offensive starters and a load of talented players behind them, Russell doesn’t have to carry the whole load.
“The thing we’ve got to do is make sure that he doesn’t feel like he’s got too much pressure on himself to perform,” Briles said. “You don’t have to be great. You’ve just got to be predictable, and that’s what we’ll expect out of him, especially early until we get a feel. Then we’ll turn him loose.”
Russell’s teammates have been around him long enough to know he’s got all the qualities to be an exceptional quarterback. Not only does he possess a strong arm, he’s got the mobility to get outside of the pocket and create plays.
Russell has also improved his touch on passes, which will benefit his deep group of receivers. Though Russell is entering his first season as Baylor’s starting quarterback, he’s already earned the respect of his teammates.
“Seth is one of the greatest guys I know,” Baylor receiver Corey Coleman said. “He has a good heart and is an amazing athlete. He has the whole package. He’s not going to do anything wrong. He’s faithful to the program and he’ll do nothing to jeopardize the team.”
Both Coleman and KD Cannon were 1,000-yard receivers last season while Shock Linwood was a 1,000-yard rusher. Those players are just the tip of the iceberg of the Bears’ offensive talent, and Russell knows he just has to get the ball in their hands.
“They are some big talents and knowing what they can do helps out a lot,” Russell said,. “They’re going to help me out. I know what they can do and I just have to give them the opportunity. I’ve gotten stronger, faster and hopefully intellectually smarter on the field. I feel that leadership-wise I’ve grown and hopefully that will play out on the field.”
When Petty stepped in as Baylor’s quarterback in 2013, he had thrown only 10 passes. By contrast, Russell has completed 74 of 128 passes for 1,231 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions during the last two seasons.
After Petty suffered a back injury in last year’s opener against SMU, Russell started the next week against Northwestern State and passed for 438 yards and five touchdowns in a 70-6 blowout.
Russell believes the experience he’s gained in the last two years has given his teammates confidence that he can take over the starting role.
“I feel it’s going to help me in the long run,” Russell said. “Anytime you can get on the field it builds confidence. The guys can look up to you and know that I’m going to make the right read. The team knows what you can do. With a raw guy they’re kind of skeptical.”
Even with his talent and experience, Briles believes there will be a feeling out process with Russell during nonconference play.
“Quite honestly, I felt like I knew Bryce just a little bit better,” Briles said. “What his abilities were, how his mind worked, and I thought how he would perform. With Seth, it’s still kind of a process where we’re trying to fill out exactly how you coach him, what motivates him, what his strengths are, and make sure we give him opportunities to be successful.”
Now in his fourth season as Baylor’s starting left offensive tackle, All-American Spencer Drango believes Russell will naturally step in his new role as a starter. He doesn’t expect much of an adjustment period.
“Seth isn’t really brand new to us,” Drango said. “He will be the third quarterback that I’ve been fortunate enough to block for. He’s a lot like Nick (Florence). He likes to get out of the pocket and can run. It will be different but not that different.”