Floyd Casey Stadium's new Prestige System playing surface, which is similar to the rubber infill fields used by several Big 12 schools, was a big hit during spring practices as the Bears raved about the turf's softness.
But to a man, Baylor players promise that the synthetic surface is the only thing that will be softer in 2004. Baylor made strides in Guy Morriss' first season in Waco, upsetting Colorado and trading punches with several Big 12 heavyweights. In year two of the Morriss regime, the Bears vow to completely shelve their "soft" reputation.
"We made progress, but we still weren't tough enough to finish games," senior linebacker Justin Crooks said. "Some people still look at us as pushovers, but we'll be tougher mentally and physically. We're not afraid to let people know we're shooting for a bowl game."
That may still be shooting a bit too high. But with 14 returning starters and a tougher persona, the Bears could certainly be in position to win more than three games for the first time since 1996.
OffenseIn order to move out of the cellar of the Big 12 South, the Bears need more playmakers to emerge.
Baylor has plenty of options at quarterback, as Aaron Karas and Shawn Bell return after starting games last season. Redshirt freshman Terrance Parks was solid in the spring and junior college transfer Dane King could be the answer after leading the NJCAA in passing (310.8 yards per game) and total offense (322.3).
While Baylor must replace 1,000-yard rusher Rashad Armstrong, the Bears possess two productive tailbacks in seniors Anthony Krieg and Jonathan Golden. Both Krieg and Golden have played in 32 games during their careers and have served as featured backs.
Morriss believes the Bears may possess a couple of big-play receivers in Trent Shelton and Marques Roberts, while John Martin is an outstanding possession receiver.
Junior college transfers Evan Stone and Yancy Boatner could also solidify an offensive line that surrendered a Big 12-worst 46 sacks.
DefenseThe Bears feature a pair of impressive, athletic bookends on the defensive front in Khari Long and Montez Murphy. Sophomore tackles M.T. Robinson and Quincy Jenkins should also be improved after starting as freshmen.
Baylor is grooming Crooks, who accounted for 72 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss, as a defensive leader. But aside from Crooks, there are not many proven performers at the linebacker spots.
The good news in the secondary is that free safety Maurice Lane is a tackling machine. The bad news is that Lane was far and away the leading tackler (129), making too many stops in the secondary. But Lane and outside safety Willie Andrews (67 tackles) provide the Bears with one of the best safety tandems in the Big 12.
As good as the safeties are, the Bears need better play from their cornerbacks to improve a unit that finished 11th in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense.
SpecialistsMorriss could alleviate some concerns at linebacker by using Daniel Sepulveda, the younger brother of former middle linebacker Stephen Sepulveda. But Daniel is much more valuable on special teams, and Morriss does not want to risk the possibility of injuring a punter who averaged 43.1 yards per kick last season.
Senior placekicker Kenny Webb must be more consistent than last year, when he converted 53.8 percent of his field goal attempts.
Final AnalysisUnfortunately for long-suffering Baylor fans, the Bears' progress is probably still being measured in baby steps as opposed to leaps and bounds. To have any chance of winning two conference games for the first time since the creation of the Big 12, the Bears must start quickly and gain some immediate momentum. The non-conference schedule isn't grueling, but the Bears did lose to both UAB and North Texas last season. A 1-2 start, which is a possibility, would be difficult for such a fragile team to recover from.
Baylor has some leaders and playmakers on defense in Crooks and Lane, but the Bears need some offensive skill personnel -- particularly at quarterback -- to step up in a big way.