Baylor's bowl hopes rest on speedster QB Griffin's arm, legs
As a freshman, Baylor's Robert Griffin emerged as a versatile QB and track star
After a year of experience, he's looking to end Baylor's 14-year bowl drought
The disciplined, driven QB must overcome Baylor's biggest hurdle: its mindset
He's one part Edwin Moses, one part Pat White. He's one of the nation's best young hurdlers and one of its most intriguing college quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III's world is one defined by obstacles -- 10 hurdles and 11 defenders, 400 meters and 100 yards -- obstacles he's proving he can clear at accelerated speeds.
After enrolling early at Baylor last year and going through spring football practice, Griffin joined the Bears track team. A few weeks later he'd become an All-America in the 400 hurdles. Once football season rolled around, he rushed for a school-record 217 yards against Washington State in just his second start. Said Cougars coach Paul Wulff afterward: "that quarterback makes everybody look slow."
Now Griffin, arguably the fastest quarterback in Division I-A history, faces a different kind of obstacle, one that has been hanging over the Waco campus since the centerpiece of coach Art Briles' reclamation project was preschool age: leading Baylor to its first bowl game in 14 years.
For Griffin, it's a welcome challenge. "We've only been here one year, so it's only a one-year drought for us," Griffin said, "and we're looking to end that quickly."
There were signs last season, the Bears' first under Briles, that Griffin's bowl-game expectations might not be as ludicrous as they seem for a program that has amassed a paltry 13-43 record since joining the rough and rugged Big 12 South in 1996. Baylor lost three games by a touchdown or less in 2008, and the three point losses to UConn and Missouri and the seven point loss to Texas Tech were the difference between a 4-8 season and bowl eligibility. What's more, Griffin made quite an impression on the conference, earning honors as the Big 12's top offensive newcomer of the year.
Despite the forward progress, challenges remain. While the Bears return eight offensive starters from last year's squad, they must replace both of their starting tackles, including Jason Smith, who could be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. And while the defense returns nine starters from '08, including first-team all-Big 12 selections LB Joe Pawelek and S Jordan Lake, the unit ranked 84th or higher in six different national categories in '08, including 103rd against the pass.
Briles, however, said the team's most glaring challenge will be altering perceptions, not replacing personnel and overcoming deficiencies. "The biggest challenge is changing the mindset and changing the culture of Baylor football and how people outside the program and how our people view us," Briles said. "But it's easy talk and a tough task."
Especially when you consider the Bears' 2009 schedule includes matchups with eight teams that played in bowl game last season, including three divisional rivals -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas -- that could figure prominently in the national championship race. That'll provide the Bears a razor-thin margin of error for reaching their first bowl game since the 1994 Alamo Bowl. "We want to be a bowl-eligible football team. That's one of the goals we've laid out," Briles said. "It's vital we take care of our non-conference schedule to put us in [the position]."
The Bears open at Wake Forest and then host UConn, Northwestern State and Kent State before beginning Big 12 play against Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and the Sooners. The burden of getting out of the blocks quickly (to borrow from Griffin's track vernacular) will rest largely on Griffin and the developing offense.
While the Bears ranked 21st nationally in rushing last season (195.7 yards per game), they struggled mightily through the air (92nd), despite Griffin setting a freshman record for most pass attempts to start a career without an interception (205). In '09, the pressure will be on Griffin to take over games with his arm rather than his legs -- which, coincidentally, is exactly why Briles was drawn to him in the first place.
When Briles recruited Griffin out of Copperas Cove (Texas), he wasn't consumed by the speed that allowed Griffin to set Texas records in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles and prompted many coaches to view him as an "athlete" rather than a quarterback. "The thing that I was impressed with was the way he throws the football," Briles said. "He's naturally a good thrower. When you put that together with his discipline, you've got an absolute stud and that's what we've got. Robert is a stud."
Griffin initially committed to join Briles at Houston, and when the coach left to take over at Baylor, Griffin followed. He considered Kansas, Stanford and Tennessee, but opted to follow Briles to Baylor, where he saw an opportunity to play early. Griffin graduated high school in December and enrolled at Baylor in time to compete during spring ball with returning starter Blake Szymanski, who set a slew of records as a 10-game starter in '07, and Kirby Freeman, who started seven games at Miami before transferring.
More College Football
College Football Truth & Rumors