Art Briles, Baylor not worried about replacing 237 starts up front

WACO, Texas -- Art Briles proudly predicts Baylor is about to have its most competitive spring practices yet. And the Bears’ biggest battles will involve their big men.

Losing five offensive linemen and four defensive linemen who combined for 237 career starts is kind of a big problem, especially when you have College Football Playoff aspirations.

So why isn’t Briles panicking?

“You’ve got good depth, you’ve got good people and you’ve got good competition. It all adds up. We’ve got all three,” Briles said. “We’ve got some guys that can play that have been waiting to play. Guys that wait to play seem to be pretty anxious and hungry, and I like that. I like having a hungry football team.”

The players don’t sound any less confident. Sure, NFL-caliber talents like Spencer Drango, Andrew Billings and Shawn Oakman are gone. But a lot of talent has accumulated behind them duringthe past few years.

So who's next? The new leaders of the defensive line are end K.J. Smith and tackle Byron Bonds, two veterans who’ve combined for 19 starts.

Smith started most of Baylor’s Big 12 slate in 2014 as a redshirt freshman after Jamal Palmer's season-ending injury. Bonds logged seven starts as a true freshman in 2013 and has played in 32 games. They’re certainly not inexperienced.

“Anybody looking down on those guys is making a big mistake,” linebacker Aiavion Edwards said.

Smith doesn’t care what the perception is of Baylor up front. He knows what he can do.

“I never really worry about what everybody thinks about what we’re gonna do,” he said, “but I love the opportunity to come out and prove myself and for everyone else on the D-line to make a name for themselves.”

Teammates say junior defensive end Brian Nance has a chance to impress as an elusive 6-foot-3, 245-pound playmaker off the edge, and juco import tackle Jeremy Faulk is already on campus and working hard to prove he can help right away.

Center Kyle Fuller is all that’s left of Baylor’s dominant 2015 starting offensive line. He’s no youngster -- Fuller has started 26 consecutive games for the Bears -- but a grand total of 132 career starts walked out the door after the bowl game.

He admits it’s a little weird walking into O-line meetings now and not seeing Drango, a 48-game starter and All-American during his time in Waco.

“He was the person I always knew was there,” Fuller said. “He taught me a lot of things.”

Now Fuller is the leader in a room that’ll feature sophomore Blake Blackmar, three juco transfers (Mo Porter, B.J. Autry and Dom Desouza), ex-transfers Ishmael Wilson (Texas A&M) and Rami Hammad (Texas), and, when he arrives, top-rated freshman guard Patrick Hudson.

The players aren’t sure how the battles for those four open jobs will shake out. They trust Randy Clements, one of the nation’s top offensive line coaches, will put the right pieces together.

“They’re young but athletic,” Smith said. “Hungry like the D-line is. It’s all competition. You’ve got to earn your spot. We’ll be all right.”

Briles sees an offensive line with eight or nine guys capable of playing and playing well, and seven or eight players on the defensive line. He knows Baylor has enough depth.

It’ll be hard to top the star power that Drango, Billings, Oakman and others offered. That’s not the mission. The new guys, however anonymous they might be right now, just have to play up to the standard.

“If I tell you that we can be better, you'd think I'm crazy,” linebacker Taylor Young said. “But it's a very big possibility.”