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Baylor has had a rough 2017 season up to this point, but things have started to look up on the offensive side of the football since they entered Big 12 play. Baylor’s two Big 12 performances against Kansas State and Oklahoma looked significantly different than their three non-conference matchups to start the season. Mike Gundy even mentioned in his press conference this past Monday that he and his coaching staff haven’t paid any attention to those first three games, and they’ve only focused on the last two.
So, what’s changed for the Baylor Bears offense these past couple of weeks? Well, they had a few injuries and suspensions to start the season, they’ve got TWO new offensive coordinators and a new head coach which can cause some growing pains, and, most notably as of late, they now have a different guy lined up behind center than the one they started the season with.
That guy, is true sophomore quarterback Zach Smith. Even though Smith is a true sophomore, he did have several starts under his belt as a freshman due to an injury to then starter Seth Russell. But, all we really saw out of Smith in his first five starts (four in 2016 and Duke in 2017) is that he could throw a great deep ball, and that he also threw a lot of interceptions. He threw 10 total interceptions in those five games. As I mentioned above, he was not the day one starter for the Bears as Arizona transfer quarterback Anu Solomon held the QB1 spot to start the year. After two sub-par performances from Solomon and some injury concerns, the Bears turned to Smith to jump start their offensive attack. And, after some initial struggles against Duke, the 6’3, 225lb gun-slinger has looked impressive throwing for an average of 377 yards per game, five touchdowns and only one interception in his last two starts.
Now, not all has gone great for the Baylor offense recently, they’ve still had trouble running the football, but through the arm of Zach Smith, their passing game has come alive.
So, let’s find out what’s been working…
When you think of Matt Rhule, Baylor’s new head coach, and the teams he led at Temple the past four years, you think hard-nosed, tough and physical football… a powerful defense and a solid rushing attack. What you don’t think is the wide-spread, four receiver plus sets that you associate with a Baylor offense. So, how exactly are Rhule and co-offensive coordinators Glenn Thomas (former Temple OC with Rhule) and Jeff Nixon (last coached tight ends for the 49ers under Chip Kelly) running this Baylor offense?
What we’ve seen so far is a “multiple” style offense. This means that they run a lot of power, inside and outside zone to setup the play action pass, but they still look to spread defenses out as we see so often in the Big 12. They will work in a variety of different formations to keep the defense honest. This offense is comparable to the Chip Kelly led Oregon teams of past years with a lot of similarities to past Baylor offenses. They will utilize a lot of Run/Pass Options (RPO’s) in their play calling, as many teams do nowadays in college football. You will see some wrinkles brought in from Rhule and Thomas’s Temple offense, which are more NFL style concepts, but a lot of their passing game similar to how it has in recent years.
But back to the question at hand. What we’ve seen that’s been different in recent weeks for this offense is a combination of becoming more familiar with the new offensive schemes and cleaner execution, minimization of wide receiver drops which have plagued this offense early on, and the coaches putting Zach Smith in the position to make quick, one-read passes. I’ve noticed a lot more spread type sets for Baylor’s offense, which I believe Smith feels more comfortable in.
Now let’s take a look at some specific plays…
As I mentioned above when discussing RPO’s, the Bears utilize the wide receiver screen in hopes that their speed on the outside can gain significant yardage after the catch. On this play, the Bears lineup in a four-receiver set, but you can see the wide receivers aren’t quite as wide as they’ve been in the past. Specifically, the inside receiver on the top side of the screen. In their old formation he would line up outside the hash marks.
Here’s a look at their 2016 offense:
Compared to how they lineup in the video below:
Here it is again. Same look and similar result. They weren’t having any success at all running the ball against OU, only 60 rushing yards total, so they utilized the bubble screen as a substation for a running play.
However, sometimes it can turn into a big play. Here we see a different set against Duke, and this time the pass goes to the track star, #14 Chris Platt. Platt’s nearly impossible to catch once he gets going, and after one nice block, he kicks on the jets and he’s gone for six.
We won’t see this play on Saturday with Platt, as he injured his knee and will miss the rest of the season, but Baylor has plenty of receivers who can contribute in the screen game.
One big issue they’ve run into this season, which Oklahoma State will hopefully exploit, is poor blocking on these bubble screens. It was a noticeable problem at times against the Sooners, as shown in the play below.
So, you may be wondering, “What is Denzel Mims? Is that some special formation that Rhule implemented?”. No, it’s not, it’s the name of Baylor’s go-to wide receiver. And, since the injury to Platt, Smith has looked for his big guy on the outside even more. The 6’3 200lb sophomore is currently tied for second in the nation in receiving touchdowns with seven, and has been an absolute nightmare this season for opposing secondaries.
Although he’s been a touchdown machine, early in the season he wasn’t much of a volume receiver. It was really just one or two big plays per game, which isn’t a bad thing, but with the injuries Baylor has had this year, they needed him to make more of an impact. And that he did. Against OU, Mims caught the ball 11 times for 192 yards, compared to seven total receptions in the three games prior. He then went out again and had a great game against Kansas State with seven receptions for 127 yards. This guy is an absolute freak.
Here you see him lined up as the outside receiver to the top of the screen. The inside receiver breaks towards the sideline as Mims crosses past him on the post route. He just flat out beats his man and Smith makes a solid throw for a Baylor score.
I call this one the “James Washington” … I don’t think any further explanation is needed.
And this one, late in the game against the Sooners, is Smith just having complete trust in his wide-out, and Mims making him look smart with an amazing circus-like catch.
And it wasn’t just against OU, he’s scored on everybody.
Oklahoma State can’t let Smith and Mims find a rhythm, or they could both have big days against the Cowboy corners who have been shaky at times this season.
To the Sideline
Smith and his receiving corps have found a lot of success recently on the outside. Not just Mims, but Stricklin and #13 Tony Nicholson have made plays as well.
Since we’ve been talking about him, here you see Mims on a comeback to the bottom side of the screen. The Bears lineup in a four-receiver set, no fake this time, and as Mims breaks his route, Smith rifles one to the big wideout.
Here’s a similar route on the outside, but this time it’s Stricklin on the receiving end.
I can’t mention Nicholson and not show him in a video. Here you see him line up in the slot to the top of the screen, he runs just a quick little 5-yard out route, and he’s got the speed and agility to pick up the first down.
And, I know I keyed on the outside, but as you saw in Mims’ highlights, they’ve also found success over the middle with he and Nicholson out of the slot. So, if the Cowboys take away the outside, Smith isn’t afraid to hit the man in the middle of the field.
After all that good-looking offense, there’s a reason Baylor has started the season 0-5. Here are some of the key factors.
- Since I already mentioned this one, I’ll start with it… poor blocking on bubble screens. As I noted earlier, the bubble screens on the RPOs are a big part of Baylor’s game plan, especially since they haven’t been able to establish the run. If you run something a lot, but can’t execute it properly, it doesn’t usually work out for the best.
- Blocking in general. Baylor has allowed 19 sacks already this season, good for 35th in the nation. Opposing defenses bringing extra pressure on the blitz has been a big issue for the Bears. Along with that, due to injuries, Baylor has been using two freshman running backs (Lovett and #25 Trestan Ebner) who just haven’t been cutting it in protection.
- Wide receiver drops. This hasn’t been as much of an issue as of late, but early in the season there were plenty of drops from the Bears receivers.
- And finally, the absence of a running game. You need the run to setup the pass, and Baylor just hasn’t been able to get anything going on the ground. In their last three matchups (Duke, OU and K-State), the Bears have averaged only 80.7 rushing yards per game, and only have one rushing touchdown. Against K-State, they had 84 total yards, and 74 of them came on one play for John Lovett!
- This being said, I’m not going to go into extensive detail on their ground game, but I’ll show a few examples of what they like to do.
You may have noticed, but Baylor uses a lot of pre-snap motion. Specifically, the fly sweep motion from their inside receivers. They will use it as a decoy to keep the defense guessing, but they also like to give it to Tony Nicholson and let him work.
Next, you’ll see the “Power” running play. On the “Power” all of the lineman except the backside guard will block towards the opposite direction of the run. The backside guard will pull and become the lead blocker for the back, which is #7 John Lovett on this particular play. The guard gets a good block to open the hole, and Lovett breaks it for a 15-yard gain.
And reminiscent of the Baylor teams of old, they will spread you out and run it. In this case, it turned into a huge play for Lovett and the Baylor offense.
Along with their normal running scheme, they also burned the redshirt of true freshman quarterback Charlie Brewer against Kansas State. Brewer is a dual-threat QB who the Cowboys could see in certain packages on Saturday.
As I mentioned, young running backs have been seeing a lot of snaps for the Bears, but after some injury issues and disciplinary troubles, the Bears expect to have former 1,000-yard rusher Terence Williams and speedster JaMychal Hasty back for the Cowboys, so I look for them to try and establish the run early with four healthy backs in rotation.
In conclusion, Baylor’s offense has looked significantly better in recent weeks, but they still have a good deal of issues they need to correct. And it doesn’t help that they recently lost a part of their offensive line rotation for disciplinary reasons. Even though Baylor’s running back corps is the deepest they’ve been all season, I still haven’t seen enough from their offensive line to make me think that they can establish a solid ground attack against OSU. In addition, I don’t think a one-dimensional offense from Baylor is enough to beat the Pokes. I believe the Cowboys can stifle this Baylor attack enough to come out victorious this homecoming Saturday.