Briles' offense built around each QB
WACO, Texas -- Seven weeks into the 2013 season, No. 12 Baylor leads FBS schools with an eye-popping 714.4 yards of total offense per game.
The Bears are averaging a Football Bowl Subdivision-best 63.4 points per game, and until last week's 35-25 win at defending Big 12 champion Kansas State, they had scored at least 69 points in every contest.
Here's the really amazing thing: The Bears have done it without the use of a playbook.
Baylor coach Art Briles abandoned the playbook several years ago, and he and his assistants teach their players the fast-paced spread offense through countless repetitions in practice and by watching hours of film.
"When I was at Houston, the first thing everybody wanted was the playbook," said Briles, who coached the Cougars from 2003 to '07. "A guy's not going to read or study it. Kids play video games, so we show them the plays on video. Everything is on an iPad, and we label it and number them. A playbook is something we don't do.
"I'm a visual learner, and people learn differently. If you can see something, you remember it. If you read it and try to interpret it, it's a little different. We do a lot of repetition on the field so guys can learn it."
That's one of the reasons attributes like intelligence, comprehension and maturity are as important as arm strength and athleticism when Briles and his assistants begin to evaluate quarterbacks on the recruiting trail. Many of the Bears' starting quarterbacks since Briles arrived on campus in 2008 weren't highly recruited because of their lack of size or other concerns, but they were each able to absorb the nuances of his high-octane offense and flourish.
"I don't think there's a single trait that you look for," Briles said. "I think it's a combination of passing, personality and intellectual capabilities, along with the leadership qualities that it takes. I think it's more of a feel with their type of personality. If it were one or two traits, it would be simple. There would be a lot of can't-misses."
While traditional powerhouses such as Florida, Notre Dame, Texas and Southern Cal have struggled at the quarterback position recently, the Bears have been able to plug in one quarterback after another and not miss a beat on offense. After Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, his replacement, Nick Florence, threw for more passing yards last season (4,309 to Griffin's 4,293 in 2011).
Junior Bryce Petty replaced Florence as Baylor's starting quarterback this season, and he ranks No. 2 among FBS signal-callers in Total QBR with a 95.1 rating, trailing only Oregon's Marcus Mariota (97.0). Petty has completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 1,680 yards with 13 touchdowns and an interception going into Saturday night's home game against Iowa State.
It's nothing new for Briles, who has a history of identifying the right quarterbacks for his offense, developing them and then pushing the right buttons.
"[All of the traditional powers] have talent," Petty said. "They always bring in the top-tier quarterbacks every year. It's nothing against their coaching and what they've got going on, but I think it has everything to do with Coach Briles and [offensive coordinator Philip] Montgomery. They're just constantly putting us in positions to be successful."
While coaching at Stephenville (Texas) High School from 1988 to '99, Briles guided his teams to four Class 4A state championships with four different quarterbacks. Each of those quarterbacks -- Branndon Stewart (Tennessee/Texas A&M), Glenn Odell (Houston), Kelan Luker (SMU) and his son Kendal Briles (Texas/Houston) -- played major college football.
"Honestly, it might be a cliché, but they don't fit the player to the system," said Florence, who is pursuing an MBA at Baylor this year while working in the athletics department's development office. "They fit the system to the player. They look at each quarterback and say, 'This is what he's good at, so this is what we're going to do.'"
Briles has had as much success developing quarterbacks in college as he did in high school. He left Stephenville after the 1999 season to join Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech. After three seasons with the Red Raiders, Briles was hired as Houston's coach, where he recruited quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum, who both played in the NFL.
It didn't hurt that Briles and his staff had previous connections to the Houston quarterbacks. Kolb attended middle school in Stephenville when Briles coached there and became the Yellow Jackets' starting quarterback while Montgomery still coached there. Kolb was originally committed to play at Oklahoma State but changed his mind after Houston hired Briles. Keenum also lived in Stephenville and was Briles' neighbor; Keenum's father was a football coach at the local junior college.
A four-year starter at Houston, Kolb passed for 12,964 yards with 85 touchdown passes and 31 interceptions. He threw for 3,000-plus yards in three of his four seasons and in his senior season in 2006 had 30 touchdown passes to four interceptions. When Kolb was selected in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, his career passing yards were the fourth-most in Division I history behind Hawaii's Timmy Chang, BYU's Ty Detmer and NC State's Philip Rivers.
Keenum, who played high school football in Abilene, Texas, was even better after earning Houston's starting job under Briles as a freshman in 2007. Keenum finished his college career under current Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and was the NCAA's all-time leader in career passing (19,217 yards), total offense (20,114 yards), completions (1,546) and touchdown passes (155) when he left after the 2011 season.
"I like guys that are competitive and guys that are fearless and smart," Briles said. "I like guys that are mature. Each of those guys had their own story."
Even Griffin, the No. 2 overall pick by the Washington Redskins in the 2012 draft, wasn't a sure thing at quarterback. A lot of Big 12 schools recruited him to play wide receiver or defensive back. But Briles wanted him as a quarterback, first at Houston, then at Baylor.
"He was just a tremendous athlete and had a burning desire to win and was really competitive," Montgomery said. "He could throw the football. As soon as we saw all of those things, there was no doubt what we wanted to do with him. He was a quarterback all of the way for us and never talked to him about anything differently.
"He has great leadership abilities, and everybody knows what he can do from an athletic standpoint. But that burning desire and the eagerness to get better every day made him a very coachable kid."
Petty and Florence said the system works because the Bears don't ask their quarterbacks to do too much. Because the offense plays at such a rapid pace -- averaging 76.6 plays through Baylor's first five games -- quarterbacks aren't required to make as many pre-snap reads as some teams. Oftentimes, the running back or tight end reads the defense and calls protection.
"We don't put too much pressure on quarterbacks to have to make reads and decipher defenses," said Kendal Briles, Baylor's passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. "We allow them to be comfortable and know where the ball should go in coverage instead of having to read a lot of things before a play. They're not having to read a lot of things on the run."
Art Briles said the less a quarterback has to think, the faster he can play.
"I think we're a little unique in that we do that," he said. "We try to ease the load on the quarterback. I've always felt like that guy has enough stuff going on without trying to slow him down. I'd rather free him up and let him play fast. He's got a lot on him already."
Like carrying on the tradition of Briles' quarterbacks.