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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
A fast finish made Baylor running back Jay Finley wish that the 2008 season could have lasted a few weeks longer.
Finley capped 2008 with 100-yard rushing efforts in the Bears' final two games, finally showing the potential he had longed to meet since arriving at college.
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|Jay Finley averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season and rushed for seven touchdowns.|
The closing spurt started with 116 rushing yards in the Bears' impressive victory over Texas A&M and was followed with 105 yards in Baylor's season finale against Texas Tech.
"I have confidence that I can keep doing it and going into the offseason, those games have made me work extra hard," Finley said. "We were rolling and I hated to see the season end."
Finley's late charge came after he made a conscious decision to relax in the backfield, waiting on his blocks rather than attempting to blast through holes that weren't there.
"To tell you the truth, it was just the case of trying to be more patient and letting my blocks come to me," said Finley, who finished with a team-high 865 rushing yards to finish fifth in the conference. "It's made me work hard in everything I'm doing. I'll keep working hard. My personal goal is that I want to be a 1,000-yard back this season."
That aim appears doable as Finley enters his junior season as the Bears' featured back. But his supporting cast will be much stronger with the arrival of transfer Terrance Ganaway, who rushed for 550 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2007 at Houston in Art Briles' final season coaching there.
Briles' arrival at Baylor has transformed the Bears' attitude into a more blue-collar rushing team, emphasizing the run after several seasons of neglect.
Finley and other Bears chafed at the lack of rushing production in 2007 under former coach Guy Morriss. It made Finley, a 5-foot-11, 205-pounder from Corsicana, Texas, feel like he was being used as much as a receiver and pass-blocker as a rushing threat. The Bears ranked 113th nationally in rushing that season, averaging a paltry 3.13 yards per carry.
That philosophy was transformed last season as Briles emphasized a physical nature in the trenches. The result was that the Bears finished the season with an average of 195.8 yards per game, good for 21st nationally.
In the process, the Bears improved their yards per carry by 1.75 yards per tote from 2007 last season. And Baylor's rushing improvement of 117.9 yards per game rushing from 2007 to last season ranked as the nation's second-biggest jump behind only Army's 154.0 yards-per-game rushing improvement.
"I think it will be more of the same this year," Finley said. "We were able to grind it out when we needed to, but still have our receivers and a passing game when we needed them, too."
Any improvement will come despite the loss of former starting tackles Jason Smith and Dan Gay, who both are on NFL rosters.
"Our line will be physical and we'll be able to do everything we did last season," Finley said. "It's going to be hard to replace guys like Jason and Gay, but I'm confident in the new guys that we have. During the spring, it doesn't look like we've missed a step."
Some of the confidence comes because of the return and continued development of sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin, who rushed for 843 yards and 13 touchdowns and passed for 2,091 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
Despite a promising career in track and field, Griffin has concentrated on football this spring in hopes of leading his team to a bowl for the first time since 1994.
Finley can see a difference in Griffin's approach and in his command of the Baylor offense after concentrating on football this spring.
"Robert already works harder than anybody," Finley said. "And he's just doing what he did last season, only better."
After working together during the spring, Finley said that the Baylor offense is more productive and confident.
"Our rhythm is faster and we're moving faster," Finley said. "You can tell a difference in what we're doing."
Finley and the rest of the Bears have been conducting informal workouts with preparations for the start of training camp in early August.
That early work hasn't been any vacation for Finley or his teammates over the past several days, he said.
"It must be about 120 degrees out there," Finley said after another blistering practice earlier this week. "It's really hard to stay focused because of the heat and the conditions. It's hot out there."
Those blast-furnace conditions have only intensified Finley's determination to lead his team. He exhibits that attitude with a quick needling for his teammates during their work.
"You've got to keep people motivated," Finley said. "I've always found you forget you're tired if you're laughing. That's what we're trying to do to get better is come out and work hard to get ready for the season."