WACO, Texas -- Baylor practiced for about two hours in full pads on Tuesday, the second practice in two days after a week-long intermission for spring break. It was their fifth of 15 spring workouts.
The big story at Baylor on the field is the progress of its defense. And based on the early returns, it has a good ways to go. Most of the practice was spent in team drills, both in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11. They were constantly beat over the middle, on the outside and over the top and running backs gashed the defense in the middle.
Keep in mind, however, that the Bears' offense has been at it awhile and is also one of the Big 12's best. The defense under Phil Bennett is in practice No. 5. The depth chart is still fluid, and every player on the roster is getting a chance to run with the first or second team at some point, according to Bennett. That accounts for some of the mistakes, surely. Their work is clearly cut out for them, but they've got the rest of spring and fall camp to make it happen. The talent and athletic ability are there, and the only guys getting beat physically were the corners. Most of the other mistakes looked like mental ones that Bennett and new linebackers coach Jim Gush were animatedly trying to correct throughout the practice.
For now, it looks like there's a lot more thinking than playing going on, but that's to be expected five practices in. I'll be writing more about the defense on Friday, but I do think Baylor fans can take some encouragement in the progress made in just one season by Texas A&M. The Baylor coaches I talked to aren't so sure about that comparison, but it could happen. Texas A&M's defense in 2009 was a lot worse than Baylor's in 2010.
A few other observations:
Robert Griffin III continues to throw one of the league's most accurate deep balls. He was on all practice. It's probably not too encouraging how often guys were wide open, but don't worry about him regressing in 2011. If the defense helps the Bears win a few more games and they get to 8-10 wins, don't count out Griffin as a possible Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. No team in the Big 12 is more reliant on one guy to do so much, but he fills those duties well. The defense couldn't contain him as a runner, either. He's made a lot of progress in his zone read fake. At least a few times he had the defense completely shifted to cover the running back while he went the other way for a 3-on-2 with his receivers blocking corners on the outside and safeties committed to the running back, who didn't have the ball.
Former left tackle Danny Watkins was back on campus. The likely first- or second-rounder in next month's draft took in the practice, and his presence, along with others who preceded him in heading to the NFL, is a welcome sight. "Everybody wants to go pro, but the reality is, a very, very small percentage of guys do go pro," Griffin said. "So when you see Danny, Phil [Taylor], [No. 2 pick in 2009] Jason [Smith], guys that have been up there even since I've been here, it's great. You see them up there. There we are, guys. We can make it. There's nothing holding us back. If you help this team win, it makes all of us shine and it helps all of our chances at making it."
Former blue-chip recruit Ahmad Dixon looks like he's progressing nicely. I like his chances at winning a starting spot this year. He practiced a bit during 11-on-11 drills at nickel back, and looked like a good fit, but he also looks like he's got a nose for the ball that makes a great safety. On at least three occasions, he went around a receiver to slap a ball away without making too much contact that would draw a flag.
Heads up for Josh Gordon. I'll be writing about him for Friday as well, but I didn't realize just how big he was until I got a good look at him up close on Tuesday. I thought he was a bit lankier just from seeing him come onto the scene this year, but he only had one catch as a freshman and I get a chance to see him up close during the season. My original thought couldn't have been further from the truth. He comes in at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, compared to Jeff Fuller at Texas A&M, who is 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. Griffin had a lot of interesting stuff to say about him. He feels really comfortable throwing him a jump ball in the red zone after last year. Fuller made his big leap with his first 1,000-yard season as a junior last year. Gordon is a junior this year. With a year of real experience in Baylor's offense behind him, we might see a similar breakout year from the big guy in 2011. Among actual contributors from last year, no receivers in the league are bigger than Fuller and Gordon.
Other guys to watch: wide receiver Darius Jones and running back Terrance Ganaway. Most know Ganaway as the guy who picked up that onside kick and ran it back for a touchdown against Texas Tech while a few Red Raiders loitered nearby. This year he's competing for a starting job with Jarred Salubi. I think they'll end up splitting carries, but Ganaway's got quite a bit of pop to him. He was running people over and seeing the way Big 12 teams defending big backs in bowl games last year, that could be a pretty valuable asset to have. Everybody in the league seems to have a back like Salubi. Not many have one like the 6-foot, 240-pound Ganaway, who's got decent speed, too. Jones, meanwhile, is a burner. He caught just two balls last year, but he was everywhere on Tuesday. Maybe it was just one good practice, but he was getting open in the slot, open behind the linebackers and in front of safeties over the middle, and burning guys deep. Griffin already has a ton of established weapons in Kendall Wright, Gordon and three other receivers who caught at least 40 balls last year, as well as a tight end with 26. Everyone but Taylor, the tight end, is back. Has he found another reliable receiver? It's pretty clear at this point: Baylor's skill position talent from top to bottom is as good as anyone else's in the country. That's a credit to Art Briles' recruiting and development. Now everything else just has to follow suit. The offensive line has been pretty good, but as I mentioned early, if the defense can it pick up, it could turn Baylor into a real contender.
I can confirm that after a year in the program, the other Robert Griffin goes by "Big Griff" and Robert Griffin III goes by "Griff."
Kendall Wright, by the way, has let his hair grow out and is sporting a solid, sizable afro. Two thumbs up from this blogger.