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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
WACO, Texas -- It's supposed to be the thought that keeps Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin awake at night: Who will be protecting his blind side from the headhunters playing defensive end in the Big 12?
Griffin developed a level of comfort and confidence in his freshman season when he was protected by Jason Smith and Dan Gay, two experienced players who combined for 73 starts in their careers with the Bears. They were the bookends who helped Griffin produce 2,934 total yards and 28 touchdowns last season, including 843 rushing yards that led all Big 12 quarterbacks.
His concern might be intensified considering that Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in the most recent NFL draft, will be replaced by a player with more experience putting out fires and playing hockey than withstanding bull rushes from defensive ends.
If Griffin is worried that Danny Watkins, a 23-year-old native of Kelowna, B.C., with barely two years of experience playing American football is taking over, he isn't letting on. In fact, Griffin is confident that Watkins and another new starter at right tackle are ready to withstand the challenges of playing in the Big 12.
"I trust those guys," Griffin said. "I know if they make a mistake in one game or one play, they'll recover and make up for it on the next. It's not a problem like I'll be looking over my shoulder on every play to check and see somebody is coming."
The two new tackles will be the Bears' biggest offensive question marks and perhaps the biggest determining factor in whether Baylor can break a 15-season bowl drought that ranks as the longest in the conference.
Baylor coach Art Briles realizes the magnitude of the personnel losses at the tackle positions. But he is confident in his incoming tackles after watching them develop over the spring.
"We lost two great tackles," Briles said. "Jason was the No. 1 tackle in America. Without a doubt he was the No. 1 lineman in America last year. Can you replace that? On paper, probably not."
But the tenacity of the new players has convinced Briles that the losses at tackle might not be as grievous as some are expecting.
"With effort, attitude, teamwork, cohesiveness drive and determination, we've got a shot, mainly because we have to," Briles said. "It's rise up time for them."
Watkins claimed the job at left tackle during spring practice, when he was repeatedly tutored by Smith in the intricacies of the position. And redshirt freshman Cameron Kaufhold has an early lead over junior Chris Griesenbeck and junior college transfer Marquis Franklin at right tackle in a battle that will play out during the rest of camp.
The offensive line has bonded early, when 16 of the 17 players at the position all got Mohawk hairstyles to develop camaraderie.
The biggest question mark remains Watkins, who said the talent level in the Big 12 was the biggest reason he decided to pick Baylor after playing at Butte (Calif.) Community College. Watkins had scholarship offers from schools like Arkansas, California, Hawaii and Marshall.
"I think it's good for me because it set such a high standard for me coming here," Watkins said. "I've known that since even before I got here. It was definitely in the back of my mind when I was getting up at 5:30 a.m. with the guys running and lifting, knowing there is somebody out there who is training and lifting as hard as we are to get ready for the season."
Watkins has added 25 pounds since arriving at Baylor and maintained his quickness at 310 pounds. Briles counts on him to learn quickly and be able to shoulder the huge fill-in job to replace Smith.
"I'm excited Danny is on our football team because I love his mentality," Briles said. "I love his demeanor and his work ethic. When you spell the word man, it starts with an 'M.' And with him, it starts with a 'capital M.' He is the real deal."