Baylor is already on the practice field, set to begin its Big 12 title defense. Below is a preview of what to look for from the Bears during their spring practices:
Offensive returner ready to take next step: Playing time was hard to come by last season for freshman wideout Robbie Rhodes. On top of competing in a loaded rotation, Rhodes injured his knee early in the season and gradually drifted out of the rotation. But Rhodes, the nation’s No. 3 WR in the Class of 2013, has the talent to be an elite pass-catcher in the Big 12, and he should have opportunities in his second season.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: DT Andrew Billings. Last season, Billings signed with the Bears despite a strong recruitment by Texas, and immediately contributed as a freshman. With the bulk of Baylor’s defense gone, the time has come for him to elevate his game. And all signs point to Billings, who has the talent to be the best defensive tackle in the entire league, being ready for the challenge.
Redshirt freshman to watch: Even though the Bears lost their top two running backs in Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, they bring back a clear-cut starter in Shock Linwood. The coaching staff, however, has been waiting in delighted anticipation to see what Johnny Jefferson can do on the field after redshirting last season. Jefferson had offers from the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame and UCLA coming out of high school, and he has the blend of speed and power to command a role in the offense.
Most significant position battle: With four of five starters gone from its secondary -- and that one starter back (Terrell Burt) out for the spring with shoulder surgery -- the battle for time in the defensive backfield is wide open. The spotlight will be on cornerbacks Tyler Stephenson, Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tion Wright, as well as Orion Stewart, Taion Sells, Terrence Singleton, Alfred Pullom and Patrick Levels at safety.
Key midterm enrollee: The Bears face the task of replacing All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey, but they’re hoping Bakersfield College transfer Grant Campbell can step in and take his place. Other than Bryce Hager, who is out this spring with a groin injury, the Bears have little experience at linebacker. Campbell filling a major hole will be a huge step forward in coordinator Phil Bennett retooling his defense.
Question that could be answered: The Bears should have a feel after this spring about who will be their primary playmakers. Even with Seastrunk and receiver Tevin Reese gone, the Bears should boast plenty of offensive firepower next season to surround All-Big 12 quarterback Bryce Petty with. Rhodes, Jay Lee and Corey Coleman should be able to fill out Reese’s production, while Linwood, Jefferson and Devin Chafin could give the Bears another prolific combination at running back.
Question that won’t be answered until fall: The Bears had one of the best defenses in the Big 12 last season, but it could be a while before Baylor discovers what it has defensively in 2014. Billings, Beau Blackshear and Shawn Oakman have the talent to field the best defensive line Baylor has had in years. But the back seven is a major question mark, with Hager and Burt being the only incumbents.