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College Football Preview 2022: 17. Baylor Bears

Dillon Doyle, Baylor

17. Baylor Bears

The breakthrough 2021 was no fluke; they're well-coached, have the right personnel, and a path to another Big 12 Title

2021 Review
Following a 2-7 mark during the COVID-shortened campaign, Baylor entered 2021 with modest expectations. A month in, they looked ready to surpass those expectations, as they finished September 4-0 before losing in early October on the road to Oklahoma State. The loss didn't derail Baylor's hopes, as the Bears won their next three before a surprising upset loss to Chandler Morris and TCU, their worst defensive performance of the 2021 season. Again, the Bears responded, winning their next three regular season games to earn a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. They avenged their previous defeat against Oklahoma State, winning a thrilling Big 12 Championship to secure their first conference title since 2014. The bowl game continued the momentum, as the Bears easily dispatched the Matt Corral-less Ole Miss Rebels in the Sugar Bowl, finishing 12-2 with a Big 12 Title and New Year's Six victory on their resume. Naturally, head coach Dave Aranda became a hot name on the coaching market, but he was rewarded with a handsome extension, keeping him in Waco for the foreseeable future. After such a breakthrough, can Baylor keep it going? Despite heavy losses on both sides of the ball, Aranda has the ingredients to once again win the Big 12.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes was one of the best hires, regardless of position, in college football last offseason. The former BYU OC re-energized an offense that was lethargic throughout much of 2020, engineering a group that finished third in the Big 12 in scoring and 10th nationally in rush offense. He potentially could have left for another job this offseason, but instead decided to stay put and run the show once again.

Grimes and the rest of the Baylor offense will operate this fall with a different quarterback under center. Last year's starter, Gerry Bohanon, lost a heated quarterback competition in the spring and promptly transferred to South Florida, opening the door full-time for sophomore Blake Shapen. Bohanon did a fine job leading the Bear offense, but Shapen is likely an improvement. He completed his first 17 passes during the Big 12 Championship Game win and finished 2021 with 596 yards and a 5-0 TD-INT ratio. Shapen missed the bowl with a shoulder injury, but was healthy throughout spring and should be good to go to open 2022.

Shapen will be asked to do more than Bohanon, primarily because of who Baylor loses at tailback. Abram Smith put together the quietest 1,600-yard season in all of college football last year, but there's no denying how big of a loss he is. Smith was the lifeblood of the offense and a super reliable ball-carrier, averaging over six yards per carry. It doesn't help that the man that backed him up, Trestan Ebner, also graduated, leaving the Bears looking elsewhere in the backfield.

Expect junior Taye McWilliams to get the first crack at feature back duties in this offense. McWilliams only ran the ball 17 times in 2021 but sure made an impact, as he tallied 181 yards (10.6 yards per carry!). He's not the workhorse Smith is, but is a dynamic threat in the open field who could add some much-needed explosiveness to this Bear offense. Junior Craig Williams and converted receiver Josh Fleeks are also expected to feature into the running back rotation, which should provide some nice balance.

The losses are heavy at receiver as well, with four of Baylor's top five pass-catchers from 2021 departed. The most significant departure is Tyquan Thornton, who went in the second round to New England after totaling 948 yards. Also gone are R.J. Sneed and Drew Estrada, and Ebner was a real threat out of the backfield as a receiver, as he had 28 catches for 284 yards. That leaves the Bears relying on an unproven cast, one with plenty of upside, but without any signature stars. Senior Gavin Holmes has been in the program for several years and notched 244 yards back in 2020, but his time in Waco has been defined by injury. If he can stay healthy, he has the talent to be a clear No. 1, but a safer bet may be either Monaray Baldwin or Hal Presley, who both had one single catch back in 2021. Keep an eye on freshman Armani Winfield, one of the gems of this year's recruiting class. The Texas native has game-breaking speed and could form a really scary combo with Shapen's arm.

With all the departures at wide out, senior tight end Ben Sims is actually the team's top returning receiver. He was a sort of security blanket for Bohanon and this offense a year ago, with 31 catches for 361 yards, plus six scores. He could be one of the best tight ends in the Big 12 this season. Junior Drake Dabney is also returning; two of his ten catches last year went for touchdowns.

The offensive line is likely the offensive group with the least amount of questions heading into the fall. Three senior veterans anchor the unit in tackle Connor Galvin, center Jacob Gall, and guard Grant Miller. Junior Gavin Byers has also seen a healthy dosage of action during his time with the Bears, while sixth-year senior Khalil Keith is set to slide into a starting role at right tackle. This is Grimes' position group, so it shouldn't be too difficult for him to get the most out of a veteran-laden group.

Normally, a team losing its quarterback, star tailback, and four of their top pass-catchers would be cause for serious concern. However, Shapen could end up being an improvement over Bohanon under center and the RB and WR situation has time to sort itself out. Anything is possible when you have a strong line and good coaching, so I don't suspect a major step-back. 

Defense: Gone are the Art Briles days when Baylor didn't play one lick of defense. Instead, Aranda and defensive coordinator Ron Roberts have built the Bear defense into something to be feared, a disciplined, well-rounded group. They were a Top 10 unit nationally in scoring defense and thrived off turnovers, with the top margin in the Big 12 in 2021.

There's some losses on this defense, but a reason to still feel good about it? Look no further than this loaded defensive line. Former LSU transfer Siaki Ika was an All-Big 12 selection last season and anchors the heart of the unit at nose tackle. He's flanked by capable ends Cole Maxwell, Gabe Hall, and T.J. Franklin, a trio that was played a bunch of ball during their collegiate careers. Hall is the team's top returning leader in sacks, notching five a season ago. Add to all of this Tulsa transfer Jaxon Player, one of the most underrated transfers of the offseason. Player was a two-time All-AAC selection with the Golden Hurricane and was a constant presence in opposing backfields, with 15 TFL in 2021. He shouldn't have any difficulties adjusting to the Power Five level and should play a hefty amount of snaps this fall.

Behind the defensive line, the linebacker corps is interesting. They lose a program staple in Terrel Bernard, who led the Bears in tackles and sacks last season, but there's still plenty of talent in this position group. Former Iowa transfer Dillon Doyle has a chance to assert himself as a household name in 2022; he's notched 145 tackles the last two seasons, including 90 a year ago. He's come on offensively and helped out in goal-line situations, with one rushing and one receiving touchdown last year. Expect Baylor to utilize him in all sorts of ways this season.

Doyle is the unquestioned starter at middle linebacker, but Baylor will likely see some competition elsewhere in this position group. Juniors Matt Jones and Will Williams are battling former LSU transfer Josh White for playing time at outside linebacker. Jones was fifth on the team in tackles and added 7.5 TFL, but he's been banged up throughout spring and into fall camp, potentially opening the door for the other two. At the "JACK" linebacker spot, a hybrid end/outside linebacker spot, junior Garmon Randolph appears to have the edge, although he'll have to battle others to cement the job as well.

The Baylor pass defense was their weak spot in 2021, ranking sixth in the Big 12 and 65th nationally, allowing nearly 228 yards per game. It won't get any easier this fall, as the Bears must replace two of their top players, Jalen Pitre and J.T. Woods. To call Pitre a huge loss is an understatement; the former linebacker converted to defensive back and was the unquestioned leader of the secondary. He was a Jim Thorpe Award finalist in 2021 before being selected 37th overall by the Houston Texans. How does Baylor replace his impressive, diverse skillset?

Baylor will hope for even more from the veterans in this unit, while disguising some of the youth set to play important snaps. Seniors Al Walcott and Christian Morgan are two of the most important pieces on the entire roster. Walcott picked off three passes in 2021 and looks ready to be the team's unquestioned top corner, while Morgan was helpful in pass defense, with six pass deflections. Expect Mark Milton, who has been in the program for a number of years now, to get a crack at the corner spot opposite of Walcott, but the safety position and "STAR" are real question marks.

The trio of Bernard, Pitre, and Woods was a special group. They went through a lot of ups-and-downs during their time in Waco and left as Big 12 Champions. There may be growing pains without them, but I suspect Aranda and Roberts won't have too many difficulties reloading. They're still incredibly strong in the front seven and although the secondary is a question, there is some experience there. A Top 10 scoring defense may not happen in 2022, but I don't envision a massive step-back either.

Special Teams: Special teams is a strength for Aranda's team, as they return both their kicker and punter in Isaiah Hankins and Isaac Power. Hankins went 14-20 on field goals in 2021 and didn't miss an extra point, while Power averaged 45 yards per punt. He also happens to have a truly exceptional name for a punter. The return game is a question, as Ebner handled most of the team's punt and kick returns and took one to the house last fall.

Bottom Line: Predicting Baylor's fortunes over the last decade has been a difficult experiment. They reached their peak during the Art Briles years, then experienced a real rough moment in their history, as the fallout from his tenure mounted. Matt Rhule built them back but left for the NFL, then Aranda pitched a 2-7 debut during the weirdest year in college football history. 2021 was not only a banner year, it was the type of season that can cement your belief in the positive direction of the program. Aranda has been willing to evolve during his short tenure in Waco and his ability to connect with and develop players has already been on display. The positivity surrounding the program leads me to believe 2022 will be another success, even with some of the heavy losses on both offense and defense. There's still a well-built core at the center of the roster and the offense might actually improve with Shapen leading the charge. Add to that the fact that the Bears are playing in the most wide-open Big 12 in recent memory and a second consecutive league title doesn't seem like an unrealistic goal this fall.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Head coach Dave Aranda is a great story of perseverance in the coaching ranks. Despite a strong performance as Hawai'i defensive coordinator way back in 2011, a fully dismissed staff left Aranda unemployed with three children under the age of six. He landed a job at Utah State as DC under Gary Andersen, where his family lived in a university-provided house with little money to spare. A decade later, Aranda was awarded with a handsome contract extension and on an upward path in Waco, after several years of running elite defenses at Wisconsin and LSU. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes has also made his rounds on the coaching carousel; his work as LSU O-Line coach earned him the BYU OC job, which he then parlayed into the same position at Baylor. The defense is run by Ron Roberts, a former head coach at Delta State and Southeastern Louisiana who spent 2018-19 with Louisiana-Lafayette. He was hired away by Aranda and engineered a top-flight defense in 2021.

Recruiting Breakdown
The Bears did a solid job on the recruiting trail, bringing in the 37th-ranked class in the 247Sports Composite. The gem of the recruiting class is four-star wide out Armani Winfield, a good bet to play right away with Baylor's losses at receiver. The 6'2", 180 pound Texas native looked like he was set to become a Longhorn before the Baylor coaching staff stole him away. He'll be joined by three-star receiver Jordan Nabors, who doesn't have the hype coming into school but is a bit more versatile with what he can bring to an offense. On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears bring in a number of pieces who should have bright futures in Waco. Defensive end Kaian Roberts-Day was one of three four-star recruits to sign with the team (including Winfield) and could play outside linebacker at the collegiate level. Safety Alfonzo Allen, a major get from the Miami area, and linebacker Jeremy Patton are two others to highlight on this side of the ball.

2022 X-Factor: Gavin Holmes, WR
As big of a departure as Abram Smith was at running back, even more concerning for this Baylor offense is all the pieces that left at receiver. Blake Shapen is a talented signal-caller, but he will need help from an unproven cast of characters. That is, beyond senior Gavin Holmes, who has been with the program since 2017. After a productive freshman campaign, Holmes has suffered injury after injury, costing him all of 2018, 2019, and 2021. When he has played, Holmes has displayed dangerous open-field speed and reliable hands, which would add a much-needed element to this offense. Can he stay healthy in 2022? Baylor doesn't need him to be a superstar, but getting a steady veteran back like him would be a real game-changer for the program.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projections: 9-4 (7-2 Big 12, Lose Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Blake Shapen
Defensive MVP: LB Dillon Doyle
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Taye McWilliams
Impact Freshman: WR Armani Winfield

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