HALL OF FAME GAME: JETS-BROWNS PREVIEW, PICK
Never mind that franchise quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson won’t sniff the field Thursday night, the annual Hall of Fame game provides starving fans with live football – and a chance to get in a little action for themselves.
The Cleveland Browns are the “home” team for the preseason kickoff event against the New York Jets in Canton, Ohio, with kickoff scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
The Jets have held steady as 1.5-point favorites, and given the heightened expectations, kicking off the preseason with a victory would provide a little extra spark. The line has held steady at BetMGM, where New York has drawn 53 percent of the spread-line bets and 59 percent of the handle.
The Browns have been the more popular play on the moneyline, drawing 59 percent of the total bets at +105, while the Jets have been backed by 53 percent of the money at -125 after opening at +100.
Out of the primary markets, we’ll take the Jets -1.5 points.
BATTLE OF BACKUP QBs
Zach Wilson hasn’t instilled much confidence in Jets fans through his first two NFL seasons, but he will get the starting nod in the preseason opener while Rodgers sits out. Rogers hasn’t taken a preseason snap since 2018, and it’s possible that his first snap for the Jets could come in the Sept. 11 season opener against Buffalo.
Meanwhile, the Browns are going even deeper down their quarterback depth chart with plans to start Kellen Mond, who is battling for a roster spot. Cleveland won’t play starter Deshaun Watson or backup Joshua Dobbs, instead splitting playing time between Mond and fifth-round draft pick Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who is expected to debut in the second half.
Mond was a third-round draft pick in 2021 by Minnesota, where current Browns coach Kevin Stefanski used to be the offensive coordinator.
“I think Kellen’s done a great job,” Stefanski said. “There was a period of just getting to know him early in the season last year. So he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. I’ve been very impressed with him both in the meeting room and on the practice field. And the fun part for our players, as you know, is to play these games. So I think Kellen’s excited about the opportunity.”
NAME TAGS, PLEASE
With both teams having longer training camps and an extra preseason game, the Jets and Browns are expected to take cautious approaches with their starters. The second half could look more like a USFL all-star game than an NFL contest.
The Browns will make their sixth appearance in the Hall of Fame Game, with former All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas being enshrined into the Hall on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Jets will make their first appearance since 1992 with cornerback Darrelle Revis and defensive lineman Joe Klecko also headed for the Hall.
This will be the first game with the new rules that places any fair catch off a kickoff or safety at the receiving team’s 25-yard line. NFL owners agreed to a one-year trial of the rule, the same as the one used in college since 2018. Players can still return free kicks in an attempt to get beyond the 25-yard line, but the rule’s goal is to reduce injuries suffered on those plays.
THEY SAID IT
“I’m really good when it comes to the cerebral side of football and being able to grasp a playbook, go out there and execute. But this is my first time having to call plays in the huddle, having to get it in a headset and being able to spit it out, and we don’t have the shortest of play calls, so that’s probably the number one thing I’m going to be focusing on for sure. Making sure I can get guys lined up and making sure that everybody’s on the same page.” — Thompson-Robinson on his NFL debut
JAGUARS WR CALVIN RIDLEY CHANGES CLEATS, ALLEVIATES TOE SORENESS AND PRACTICES IN FULL
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Calvin Ridley switched cleats Wednesday to alleviate toe soreness.
Coach Doug Pederson initially said Ridley would be limited in training camp because of his achy toe, but Ridley found a solution by wearing different shoes. He responded by taking part in every practice drill, although he dropped at least four passes.
Ridley left practice early on Tuesday, took off his shoulder pads and shoes and chilled on a metal bench. The Jaguars provided no update on him until Pederson addressed reporters before practice Wednesday.
“Just sore. He’ll be fine,” Pederson said. “We were sort of cautionary with him (Tuesday). He’ll be back out there today and we’ll just monitor him and limit the amount of running he’ll do.”
Ridley was the clear star during Jacksonville’s first week of camp. He made crowd-pleasing catches every day and showed little rust after nearly two years away from the game, first to deal with his mental health and then because of a yearlong suspension for gambling on games.
The Jaguars traded for him last October, counting on Ridley to return to form and help build one of the best receiving corps in the NFL.
He caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020 despite dealing with a broken left foot. He had 31 receptions for 281 yards and two scores before sitting out the final two months of the 2021 season to focus on his mental health following a home invasion he detailed in an article for The Players’ Tribune.
Jacksonville limited contact for rookie right tackle Anton Harrison (shoulder soreness) and safety Andre Cisco (hamstring tightness).
CHIEFS AND QB PATRICK MAHOMES WILL BE LEANING ON NEW BUNCH OF UNTESTED WIDE RECEIVERS
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs allowed wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman to walk away in free agency, and in their place they signed a couple of relative unknowns while taking a gamble on an injury-prone talent and unproven draft pick.
The expectation this season is that Patrick Mahomes can make it work, just as he has for so many years.
It helps that All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce is still producing at a level that few wide receivers can match, and the Chiefs return a deep backfield led by Isiah Pacheco, Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It also helps that the interior of their offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, which should help give Mahomes time to find all those new options.
Now it’s up to them to catch some passes.
SAINTS’ ALVIN KAMARA EXCUSED FROM PRACTICE TO MEET WITH NFL COMMISSIONER GOODELL
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints star running back Alvin Kamara was excused from practice on Wednesday so he could meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York to discuss a recently settled criminal case stemming from a February 2022 fight in Las Vegas.
“It shows initiative on Alvin’s part to want to get out ahead of this and get his side of the story out in terms of visiting with the commissioner,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said after practice. “We felt like, and he felt like, it was the right thing to do.
“I don’t want to really get into all the details,” Allen continued. “We’ll let the process play and then we’ll react to whatever decisions are made.”
Allen and general manager Mickey Loomis have said the Saints have yet to receive an indication of if, or when, the NFL could decide on whether to discipline Kamara, who has been among New Orleans’ leaders in yards from scrimmage since 2017, when he was selected as the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The NFL on Wednesday declined comment on Kamara’s meeting with Goodell or any timeline for potential discipline.
Kamara played throughout the 2022 season while the NFL waited for a resolution to his court case, which also involved cornerback Chris Lammons.
The two players were accused, along with two other defendants, of beating Darnell Greene Jr., of Houston, unconscious following an altercation that spilled out of an elevator and into a hallway.
Kamara and Lammons pleaded no contest on July 11 to misdemeanors and agreed to each pay just more than $100,000 toward Greene’s medical costs. The deal allowed the players to avoid trial and possible prison time after initially being charged with felonies. The plea agreements came in conjunction with a settlement of a civil case Greene filed. Financial terms of that deal remain undisclosed.
Under the NFL’s player conduct policy, the league office may issue suspensions for conduct that is “illegal, violent, dangerous, or irresponsible puts innocent victims at risk, damages the reputation of others in the game, and undercuts public respect and support for the NFL.”
A conviction is not required for the NFL to suspend a player. The league reserves the right to take an independent view of available evidence, which in Kamara’s case, includes security video of the fight.
In 15 games last season, Kamara gained 1,387 yards from scrimmage — 897 rushing and 490 receiving. He scored two TDs rushing and caught two scoring passes.
For his career, Kamara has 8,888 yards from scrimmage (5,135 rushing, 3,753 receiving) and has scored 71 TDs (49 rushing, 22 receiving).
Kamara has not done any interviews since training camp began last week, but had participated in every practice of camp until his trip to NFL headquarters in New York.
JETS OFFENSIVE TACKLE MEKHI BECTON IS SET TO PLAY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN NEARLY 2 YEARS
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Mekhi Becton last stepped onto a football field to play in a game nearly two years ago.
It seems more like a lifetime to the New York Jets offensive tackle.
Moments of pain, worry, anger and doubt have marked the past 688 days. But so have hope and an improved outlook, especially during the hundreds of hours of rehab since Becton’s right knee went out during the 2021 season opener in Carolina.
Now, the 24-year-old Becton is ready for his big comeback. It’ll finally come Thursday night in the Jets’ preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.
“Yeah, it’s definitely significant,” Becton said. “I’m treating this as if it’s a regular game, for sure. I don’t even care if it’s preseason or whenever.”
In 2020, Becton was the big attraction for the Jets — and not just because it was hard to miss him at 6-foot-7 and 370-plus pounds. The 11th overall pick in the draft that year was a pancaking left tackle who looked every bit a potentially dominant building block for the Jets’ offensive line as a rookie.
Then came that game against the Panthers during which he was carted off the field with a knee injury. He had surgery and came back last summer, but another injury to the same knee in training camp ended his season before it even started. Major knee surgery followed and the comeback was put on hold again.
Coach Robert Saleh said Becton will play against the Browns and probably stay in for about 20-25 snaps.
“I’m just ready to go put my hands on somebody else other than a green jersey,” Becton said. “So I’m ready to go. I’m excited.”
Becton, who has played in just 15 of a possible 50 games since he has been with the Jets, has already been labeled a “bust” by some frustrated fans. He saw a lot of what people were saying on social media about him and he acknowledged it was negatively affecting him.
Used to blocking defenders on the field, Becton began blocking the keyboard warriors off it.
“I was trying to get my mental right because you’ve got a lot of people that say stuff about you,” Becton said. “Just trying to not let the words get to me. That’s probably been the hardest part.”
He looks dramatically different from the most recent time he played, dropping his weight from a scale-tipping 400 pounds to a svelte 350 — the lightest he has been since his college days at Louisville.
Becton’s role remains uncertain this season as does his status with the team after the Jets didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on his contract. He’s working at both the right and left tackle spots, but hasn’t practiced with the starting offense during training camp. Becton figures to be behind Duane Brown on the depth chart on the left side and Max Mitchell and Billy Turner on the right.
“It’s definitely my goal to be the starter for Week 1,” he said.
He still has a lot of work to do before that happens, but Becton had a good week of practices leading up to the preseason game.
“There’s no denying his talent, so right now it’s just about building confidence, building strength, building the endurance,” Saleh said. ”And once all that comes, then we’ll take that next step of, ‘All right, let’s see how he can perform with the ones’ and all that.”
Left tackle or right, it doesn’t really matter at this point to Becton.
“I just want to be on the field,” he said. “Yeah, that took some maturing. That’s the big thing for me. I just want to play.”
Becton missed a practice last week while dealing with soreness in his knee — “I’m still in the healing process of my recovery” — but is feeling good now.
In May, Becton told Newsday he thought his knee injury last year was due in large part to the coaching staff playing him at right tackle, which put added pressure on his surgically repaired right knee. He backtracked a bit Tuesday, saying a major reason actually was him choosing the wrong surgery in 2021. Becton wanted to return quicker, but his knee still wasn’t completely healed before he got hurt again last season — and then had the major surgery he acknowledged he should’ve had in the first place.
That’s all in the past now.
He said since his promising rookie season, he has changed a lot — more tattoos, a baby boy, a better handle on his mental and physical health and a new perspective on the game he missed for so long.
“I’m not the same person I was three years ago,” Becton said. “I definitely look at this as a fresh start, for sure.”
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 2023 SEASON PREVIEW: SUPER BOWL OR BUST?
Eagles Team Preview
What to Know: Offense
The biggest storyline for the Eagles’ offense is their offensive coordinator, Brian Johnson. He’s replacing Shane Steichen, who became the Indianapolis Colts‘ head coach. Johnson has only called plays in college, so this season will be a big adjustment.
However, Johnson has one of the best offensive lines in football. He’s got one of the greatest quarterbacks in football. He’s got talent throughout the roster on offense. I suspect this transition will be seamless. However, if it doesn’t go well early in the season, be aware of the rumble.
What to Know: Defense
The Eagles’ vaunted defense nearly broke the NFL record for sacks last season with 70. (The 1984 Bears had 72.) They were ranked highly in almost every category that matters. Now, they have new defensive coordinator Sean Desai taking over for Arizona Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon.
Desai will be challenged because the Eagles lost several excellent defensive players this offseason, including Pro Bowl DT Javon Hargrave. Plus, general manager Howie Roseman has decided to rebuild that defense a bit through the draft. It’ll be interesting to see how Desai handles that influx of new, young talent on defense.
Biggest Off-Field Storyline
Be aware of the Super Bowl-loss hangover. Here’s what sometimes happens, only if you allow it. The players, and sometimes it’s subconsciously, get pulled from every direction, and they think they can show up on the field and just get it done. I’m assuming coach Nick Sirianni is going to be all over this.
He’s going to have to be hard on the details. He can’t let anything slide, and they’ll be back in the big game this coming season. They’ll be back to where you want to go if they can avoid the dreaded Super Bowl hangover.
Breakout Player Prediction
DT Jalen Carter out of Georgia is my breakout player prediction. What a pick Carter was. The young man slid to No. 9 overall because of some off-the-field reasons and the Eagles may have picked up the very best player in the draft. Expect him to start and to be highly productive as a rookie.
Move the Eagles Should Make
They’ve got Sydney Brown, Reed Blankenship, Terrell Edmunds and K’Von Wallace at the safety position. Some of the Eagles’ opponents could think the safety position is one of the weaknesses this defense didn’t have last year. Let’s see if the Eagles infuse some more talent at that safety position.
2023 Season Expectations
Well, it’s obvious. Anything less than winning in a Super Bowl will be underappreciated. The expectations are sky-high, maybe too high. Be aware of the Super Bowl hangover. Make sure that your hard work and preparation are getting done.
Then, you’ll be right back there in the Super Bowl with a chance to win it with the great Jalen Hurts at quarterback and talent all over the roster. As long as the Eagles stay healthy, it looks like they’re poised for a deep playoff run.
WASHINGTON COMMANDERS 2023 SEASON PREVIEW: WILL THE OFFENSE IMPROVE?
Commanders Team Preview
What To Know: Offense
How much influence is offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy going to have and what is it going to look like on the field?
Sam Howell or Jacoby Brissett? Both of those quarterbacks are underrated. Then you throw in Bieniemy and his expertise. I know Bieniemy just a little bit now. I’ve seen him work just a little bit. This man is detailed. He’s to the point. He’s tough. He doesn’t let anything slide. Bieniemy’s influence will have a positive effect on the Commanders’ offense.
What To Know: Defense
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio brought that defense from a disappointing 2021 to one of the top defenses in 2022. Their challenge is to remain at the top of the NFL defensively.
Biggest Off-Field Storyline
The top off-field storyline is the change in ownership. The Commanders have been sold, and a new owner is in town.
Coach Ron Rivera needs to make a heck of an impression in 2023. A new owner might want to select his own head coach. Rivera has to make a heck of an impression, and he has the tools to do it with Bieniemy as offensive coordinator and Del Rio as a defensive coordinator.
Will this have a positive, negative or no effect at all on the players? You will likely see little to no effect on the young players. There may be some effect on the veteran players, who may have had a personal relationship with the owner. But the biggest effect is going to be dictated by Rivera making that first-year impression on the new ownership team.
Breakout Player Prediction
Look for Logan Thomas to have a heck of a year. It’s all set up for that. The tight end position is so important to Bieniemy’s philosophy, his scheme and how he goes about his business play calling.
Thomas and the other tight ends should have a much bigger influence on the Commanders’ offensive output.
Move the Commanders Should Make
Look for the Commanders to add an offensive lineman or two. That spot looks like it may be their weakness, but if they add some depth, it could become a strength.
2023 Season Expectations
The 8-8-1 Commanders might have overachieved in 2022. Can they get two games better in 2023? That’s a big challenge and a big ask with new ownership and a new offensive coordinator.
At worst, the Commanders’ defense is stingy and will keep them in games. Bieniemy’s influence might help get them over the hump offensively.
The Commanders could be a possible surprise in the NFC East. They’re looking up at the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. But if they win two more games than last season, they could end up in the playoffs. If they get there, they could win in a game or two.
DALLAS COWBOYS 2023 SEASON PREVIEW: WILL THEY WIN THE NFC EAST?
Cowboys Team Preview
What To Know: Offense
The decision to move on from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and have head coach Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer run the offense is easily the biggest story here.
We’ll see Dak Prescott thrive in a “Texas Coast” offense, whatever that means. McCarthy is really, truly taking over. He’s done playbook install and will call plays with important guidance from Schottenheimer, who was in an analytics role last year.
So, what does this mean? It means they’re going to be more conservative. No more leading the league in interceptions, Mr. Prescott. Schottenheimer’s teams have finished top five in rushing in four of his years as offensive coordinator. The change means less emphasis on Prescott as a passer and more on the ground with Tony Pollard as the lead character.
Which begs the question: After moving on from Ezekiel Elliott, which running back on the roster shares the load with Pollard, who is recovering from a broken fibula last year? That is either some combination of Malik Davis, free agent Ronald Jones or my favorite guy, who was drafted last year, the diminutive Deuce Vaughn out of Kansas State. One of those guys has to fill the gap.
What To Know: Defense
If the biggest storyline on defense doesn’t involve Micah Parsons, then it’s not No. 1 when it comes to the Dallas defense. Anything that makes him more impactful helps the entire defense. Moving him from less of a hybrid role to a more dedicated defensive end role should help increase production. This move also sets the stage for contract negotiations in a year.
The defense should improve because of some of their key additions. The Cowboys drafted Mazi Smith, a 6-foot-3, 330-pound nose tackle out of Michigan in the first round. Then they traded for CB Stephon Gilmore to solidify a secondary that was depleted last year by injury. His addition fulfills a need defensive coordinator Dan Quinn saw.
These moves only help the best defensive player in football — Parsons — get better.
Biggest Off-Field Storyline
Just like the Giants and Saquon Barkley, the Raiders and Josh Jacobs, the franchise tender for running back Pollard has been the consistent story this offseason. Unlike the other two, Pollard signed his tender back in March. Though the deadline to extend has already passed, he’s at least guaranteed to play in 2023. I don’t know what that means for his long-term prospects.
Is this his last year in Dallas? We’ll see. At the least, he’s making $10.1 million and will be the primary runner this season.
Breakout Player Prediction
Predicting the breakout player for this team was fun because I didn’t know who the breakout player was going to be. They have plenty of great talent on the roster that’s already been showcased. However, after reviewing this roster, it became pretty easy. I’m going to go with tight end Jake Ferguson.
Dalton Schultz signed with the Texans, and this tight end room is pretty wide open. Ferguson started eight games last season and played in 16. If you’re into advanced statistics, no tight end was more open than him.
Prescott loves working in the middle of the field and targeting talented receivers like CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and trade acquisition Brandin Cooks. It will be easy for teams to overlook the second-year tight end.
They drafted Luke Schoonmaker in the second round this year, but he’s more of a tight end who stays on the line of scrimmage. This is a good year for Ferguson to be the next big thing in Big D.
Move the Cowboys Should Make
They may like some of their depth at wide receiver, but there’s nothing really proven behind Lamb, Gallup and Cooks. Jalen Tolbert and Simi Fehoko caught five passes last season. Behind them are a collection of free agents, seventh-round pick Jalen Brooks and second-year return man KaVontae Turpin. None have any experience playing wide receiver, and injuries are a fact of life in the NFL.
If they don’t have any proven options, it could be a problem. So look for the Cowboys to consider signing a veteran once camp cuts start, possibly sooner rather than later.
2023 Season Expectations
The key for the Cowboys is to have a healthy offensive line. Tackle Tyron Smith hasn’t started a full season since 2015. They had a rookie, Tyler Smith, who moved to left tackle last season, and it forced Tyron Smith to play right tackle when he came back because of the injury to Terence Steele.
Expect a combination of those three will be the left tackle, left guard and right tackle. If they survive 17 weeks, this group will be dominant.
The Cowboys are a clear contender in the NFC, though the East is a beast as always. New York got better. Washington is presumably ascending if it can find a quarterback. But of the three teams not wearing green in this division, Dallas possesses the most complete roster.
The Cowboys won 12 games for the second year in a row, and they made all the right moves in the offseason. We’ll definitely see these guys when the calendar turns to 2024.
NEW YORK GIANTS 2023 SEASON PREVIEW: CAN GIANTS RECREATE 2022 SUCCESS?
Giants Team Preview
What To Know: Offense
The biggest storyline for the Giants’ offense changed dramatically this week with Saquon Barkley signing his contract and attending camp. That’s great news. They’re no longer dealing with his potential holdout and everything that goes with it. But now they’re facing different challenges.
One of the biggest challenges of giving guys new contracts — whether it be the long-term deal that Daniel Jones got or what Barkley just signed — is it comes with different personal expectations. What happens is players will force things to justify the new dollar amount they got. The Giants don’t want that. They want Jones and Barkley to realize they’re being paid for all the good things that they did. Jones and Barkley don’t have to try to force it and make plays because that’s how they’ll get into problems.
It’s hard for players to understand, especially in this league because they want to make sure the team is happy with who they are, and the outside perception is justified in terms of the new money they’re getting. The challenge for the organization is they didn’t get any better. Jones and Barkley are the same two players they were last season. They are just more expensive.
That’s great. I’m happy for both of those players, and I’m happy for the Giants’ fan base. But those two players haven’t changed dramatically. They’re the same guys but a lot more expensive than a year ago.
What To Know: Defense
The biggest storyline has got to be cornerback Deonte Banks, whom they drafted in the first round (24th overall) out of Maryland. He had a freakish combine.
He’s going into a defense run by Wink Martindale, who either is at the top of the league in terms of pressure, which he was last season, or close to the top of the league every year. That will put Banks in a lot of situations where he’s in man coverage with zero help. So, he’s got to play against better competition as a rookie, and he’ll have to do it with little help over the top. That’s challenging.
I coached one of the best young rookie cornerbacks ever, Darrelle Revis, who went on to become a Hall of Famer. There is a learning curve for those guys as they get used to the system, the calls, the communications, the level of competition and all of those difficult aspects.
Now, add the component of not very much zone defense and a high level of pressure. It’s a big task for Banks, and how well and quickly he adjusts will play a huge role in the success of the defense overall.
Biggest Off-Field Storyline
It’s got to be the schedule they inherited. It seemed like the league was mad at the Giants for the success they had last season when they put this together. They’ve got seven out of the first 10 games on the road, and they play three games in the first 11 days of the season, which is unprecedented.
I can’t remember a team that’s faced a schedule as challenging as this, especially this early in the season. So it’s going to be interesting to see how coach Brian Daboll orchestrates the significant amount of travel they have along with the number of games they have in such a short time early in the season.
Every year, coaches try to put their guys in the best position to succeed, and they look at things they did the previous year or things they’ve experienced over the course of their careers. I don’t know what Daboll looks at to get a gauge of how best to handle this because we haven’t seen something as challenging as what they’re facing early on.
Breakout Player Prediction
The best possible outcome for the Giants at the end of the season is that quarterback Daniel Jones proves he’s worthy of his new four-year, $160 million contract. One of the best things he did last year was control the turnovers. That was one of his biggest issues. He did a great job with interceptions. He threw five, which was the fewest among quarterbacks with more than 10 starts. Oftentimes the starting point is not beating yourself, and he showed he could do that.
Now, a big contract brings big expectations, and that comes with pressure. Sometimes players will try to be something they’re not. Hopefully, Jones grows from where he was last year and doesn’t try to push to be something he’s not. At the end of the season, they’ll know if they have a guy they can win with every year. That would mean last season wasn’t a one-off but an indicator of where Jones is going to go.
2023 Season Expectations
They’re going to be a playoff contender, but it’s going to be a hard road. They won’t be sneaking up on anybody. Nobody’s underestimating them. They also have the challenge of learning to deal with success, which is a skill, just like dealing with adversity.
The Giants are facing this unprecedented, difficult schedule to start the season. I love what Daboll has done, but it will be challenging for him to do it again. They didn’t go out and get other marquee guys. Now, we’ve got to see whether or not they can live up to those same expectations and performances they had last season.
KEN RILEY WILL BE INDUCTED INTO THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME 3 YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH
When Ken Riley entered the NFL as a sixth-round pick by Cincinnati in 1969 after a successful college career as a dual-threat quarterback at Florida A&M, he was greeted with a harsh reality.
In an era when the model QB was a tall, drop-back passer, mobile QBs such as Riley from historically Black colleges typically got moved to other positions. So Riley was immediately told by Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown that his NFL career would be at cornerback not quarterback.
“That’s not an easy thing to accept,” said former Bengals teammate Dave Lapham. “I know he felt like he could have played quarterback in the National Football League. But he accepted the move to the corner and more than accepted it, he excelled at it.”
Riley excelled at the position switch so much with 65 career interceptions — tied for the fifth-most ever — and five returned for touchdowns that he will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, just more than three years after his death.
Riley took to the position switch right away with four interceptions as a rookie and never really slowed down until he retired after intercepting eight passes and earning first-team All-Pro honors at age 36 following the 1983 season.
“He worked hard just to master his craft, worked hard to accomplish what he was able to accomplish,” former Bengals receiver Isaac Curtis said. “To come in as a quarterback and be able to play 15 years in the NFL at cornerback, having never been a cornerback before, it just shows you the kind of work ethic and kind of athlete that he was. He prepared and played the game at a high level. You almost didn’t really realize it because he’s so low key and quiet. But at the end of the day, you look at what he accomplished was amazing.”
Riley used his background as a quarterback to excel at shutting down the opponent’s passing game. A copious note taker and studier of film, Riley kept detailed books with his own scouting reports on receivers around the league.
He combined that preparation and knowledge with great athleticism to shine at the position. His seven seasons with at least five interceptions are tied for the most in the Super Bowl era.
“He was very aware of like route combinations and route trees,” Lapham said. “He saw the game through a quarterback’s eyes, having played that position all the way through his collegiate career. He read routes. He would break on them in a timely manner. He kind of saw it before it happened. He just had an extraordinary feel back there and the ability to make plays on the football.”
But Riley was known as much for being a great teammate and leader as he was for his play, with younger Bengals saying he took them under his wing and taught them how to handle themselves as professional football players on and off the field.
Those skills led him to return to his alma mater after his playing career where he coached for eight seasons and later served as athletic director at Florida A&M.
“He wasn’t a rah-rah in-your-face guy,” said former Bengals cornerback Louis Breeden. “He just had a way of communicating with people. When Ken Riley said something, people paid attention to it. It’s not like some guys who talk all the time I think sometimes just to be talking. Ken Riley? Oh, damn it’s Ken Riley talking. Usually it is pretty good and it’s pretty on point.”
Riley is just the second player who spent the majority of his career with the Bengals to make it into the Hall of Fame, joining former teammate Anthony Munoz, a nine-time All-Pro tackle who was inducted in 1998.
But the honor comes too late for Riley to enjoy as he died of a heart attack in 2020 at age 72, questioning whether he would ever get the recognition he deserved.
“It’s kind of bittersweet. But he’s in now and we’re just very excited,” said his son, Ken Riley Jr. “I didn’t doubt it. I think he started to doubt it after the centennial class. I thought we were going to get in at that time. When that didn’t happen, he was disappointed. But one of the last things I told him was ’You’re going to get in if that’s the last thing I do.’ I definitely was making sure that we try to keep him relevant. … He finally got in. I can exhale now.”
BUCS OC:TRASK-MAYFIELD QB BATTLE EVEN
The race to replace Tom Brady as starting quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is tightening midway through training camp.
Any edge Baker Mayfield had over Kyle Trask was largely erased with Monday and Tuesday showings by Trask, a backup to Brady in Tampa the past two seasons.
“It just took a couple of days for Kyle to really settle in and then what we saw in the last two practices, Kyle really showed what he can do, stretching the field with his arm, getting the ball out quickly, and making decisions,” offensive coordinator Dave Canales said.
Mayfield signed as the presumed starter after making three stops in a whirlwind 2022. He was traded to the Panthers by the Browns, started the season as the No. 1 quarterback in Carolina only to be released and signed by the Los Angeles Rams.
The offensive scheme is new to Mayfield but the Buccaneers also changed coordinators, from Byron Leftwich to Canales. Most of the concepts are fresh to Trask, too.
“He is mastering the concepts,” Canales said of Trask. “The more that he can, in a pre-snap way, gather information and really start to progress. You know in any pass concept that you have, you could have as many as three or four progressions, but you do not have time to check all three. It is kind of like a true sprinkler type of read. When guys start to play comfortable and play fast, is when they eliminate one and two, then they are getting to three and four in the same rhythm they would. That is what I am seeing from him that I am excited about. Then the other thing too is just — what is happening with Kyle is, as I call a play, he is finishing the play — the sentence before I can finish it. That just speaks to him studying the offense, studying the formations, and being really comfortable with what we are calling.”
Canales said veteran offensive assistant Tom Moore charts and times every throw in practice. The coaches, including QB coach Thaddeus Lewis, huddle to discuss practice plans and performance as part of their plan not to name a starting quarterback in April or May.
“I think what we are seeing is a couple of guys who both have to put themselves into that starter mind frame going into the practices, knowing, ‘Hey, today is my day. I get to roll with the ones. I get a few more reps,’” he said. “It is pretty much even. Even with the way we go ones and twos, the way we do it. I just see the two guys really challenging each other. Then the cool part is in our room, which a lot of people don’t get to see and hear, is just rule number one, we are here to help the Bucs win. Whatever that is, we do that.”
Mayfield, 28, is 31-38 as a starter since being drafted with the No. 1 overall pick by Cleveland in 2018.
Trask, 25, has only appeared in one game since Tampa Bay drafted him in the second round in 2021.
DE EYIOMA UWAZURIKE ACCUSED OF BETTING ON BRONCOS, IOWA STATE GAMES
Eyioma Uwazurike allegedly bet on five Denver Broncos games and two Iowa State games while he was part of those teams.
A formal complaint filed in Story County, Iowa, on Tuesday includes other former Cyclones teammates.
Uwazurike, 25, faces a charge of tampering with records stemming from the alleged wagers, as does returning starting quarterback Hunter Dekkers. An attorney for Dekkers said he would not play or practice while defending himself from charges, which also include tampering with records, an aggravated misdemeanor.
Uwazurike was suspended indefinitely last week by the NFL for betting on games. He was the 116th overall pick in the 2022 draft.
Iowa prosecutors asserted Uwazurike placed 801 bets online for more than $21,300, with four wagers on Iowa State football games. He also made bets on at least one NFL game in which he played as a rookie in 2022 — Week 15 against the Arizona Cardinals.
Uwazurike and Dekkers, along with two other Iowa State athletes named in the complaint, are all scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 16.
REPORT: BIG TEN DISCUSSING ADDING 4 FROM PAC-12, INCLUDING OREGON
The Big Ten has begun preliminary talks about potentially expanding membership to 18 or 20 teams, sources told Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports.
The Pac-12 appears to be the Big Ten’s biggest target in case of a potential expansion. If the conference opts to add two new schools, Oregon and Washington are reportedly being considered. Stanford and Cal would also be under consideration if the Big Ten moves to 20, according to Wetzel. The Big Ten will also welcome USC and UCLA next year.
A final decision apparently isn’t imminent, as the Big Ten may also hold out for a resolution between the Pac-12 and Big 12 before deciding to add more members.
“It’s a discussion, but it’s a wait and see,” a source told The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach.
The Big Ten appeared to address the reports in a statement Wednesday.
“The Big Ten conference is still focused on integration of USC and UCLA, but it’s also the commissioner’s job to keep conference chancellors and presidents informed about new developments as they occur,” the statement reads, according to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg.
The Pac-12’s future is uncertain. In addition to USC and UCLA going to the Big Ten, the league will lose Colorado to the Big 12 after the 2023-24 season. Several other current Pac-12 members have been linked to the Big 12, including Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah.
The Pac-12’s current TV deal expires at the end of the upcoming season, but commissioner George Kliavkoff recently presented a new media rights package to his membership. The deal relied heavily on games appearing on an Apple Plus subscription streaming service and had revenue estimates as low as $20 million per school annually, according to Wetzel.
Big Ten schools will make at least $50 million per year with games appearing mostly on CBS, Fox, and NBC. That number is expected to grow annually. The Big 12 has a $31.7 million per year deal for schools.
Potential Pac-12 additions wouldn’t have full revenue shares in the Big Ten like USC and UCLA, sources told Rittenberg.
EX-NORTHWESTERN LINEMAN ALLEGES HAZING, RACISM IN LAWSUIT
A former Northwestern offensive lineman is filing a lawsuit against the school, alleging he was hazed and mocked for his Mexican heritage, ESPN reported Wednesday.
Ramon Diaz, who was with the Wildcats from 2005-08, said he also experienced the sexualized acts previously alleged by other former players.
Diaz’s lawsuit claims that former offensive line coaches Bret Ingalls and James Patton made “racist, embarrassing, degrading, and harassing remarks.”
Diaz, who battled injuries throughout his career and did not appear in any games, told ESPN that the derogatory comments about his race “haven’t left me since I finished playing.” At a news conference Wednesday in Chicago, he said he attempted suicide in 2007 as a result of the “bigotry, racism and emotional abuse I suffered.”
Diaz’s lawsuit also alleges that assistant coach Matt MacPherson, now the defensive backs coach and associate head coach, and former tight ends coach Adam Cushing either witnessed the hazing or should have been aware of the mistreatment.
“There is a culture that has been condoned by the athletic department and university that has allowed these coaches to behave the way they do,” Diaz told ESPN. “I believe focus should be shifted toward the athletic department specifically, but Northwestern at large. The atmosphere will not change systematically if that does not happen.”
Patton is now the offensive line coach at Miami (Ohio). Ingalls is an offensive analyst at Michigan. Cushing coaches the offensive line at Duke.
Patton declined to comment on the lawsuit. Ingalls and Cushing did not respond to ESPN’s requests for comments.
Northwestern said in a statement to ESPN that it is reviewing the allegations against MacPherson.
“We will review any specific allegation involving current coaches or players and will take the appropriate disciplinary actions based on the facts,” the school said. “We are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues and ensure that our athletic program remains one that our entire community can be proud of and one that is fully aligned with and reflects our values.”
Diaz is the ninth former Wildcats player to sue the school since it fired longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald on July 10.
Northwestern announced Tuesday that it has hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct an independent review of its athletics programs and culture.
COMPLAINT: IOWA PK AARON BLOM BET (AND WON) THE UNDER IN 2021 CY-HAWK RIVALRY GAME
Iowa placekicker Aaron Blom is accused of underage betting, including one “under total points” wager in the 2021 Cy-Hawk rivalry game with Iowa State.
Blom was a backup kicker in 2021 and did not appear in the game. He was 1 of 3 on field-goal attempts last season before Drew Stevens became the starter.
He was added to the criminal complaint resulting from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s sports gambling investigation. The complaint also alleges that Iowa State starting quarterback Hunter Dekkers bet on his team.
Files from the Johnson County Attorney’s Office show Blom is accused of placing “approximately 170” wagers on sports — one bet on an Iowa football game. He’s accused of using his mother’s identification to play the “under total points” on the 2021 Iowa-Iowa State football game. The over-under line for the game was 45. The Hawkeyes won the game, 27-17.
The complaint states that Blom made the bets with his mother’s “consent and knowledge.”
In Iowa, the legal betting age is 21 and NCAA rules prohibit betting on college sports and professional sports in which the NCAA has a championship.
NCAA rules changed recently to allow for the complete loss of eligibility as punishment for gambling.
NEBRASKA’S MYLES FARMER ENTERS THE TRANSFER PORTAL AFTER GETTING SUSPENDED FOR THE START OF PRACTICE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska defensive back Myles Farmer entered the transfer portal Wednesday after coach Matt Rhule suspended him for the start of preseason practice.
Farmer was the team’s second-leading tackler last season and had been expected to be the anchor of the Cornhuskers’ secondary. A Nebraska spokesman confirmed Farmer’s name is in the portal.
Rhule didn’t disclose the reason for Farmer’s suspension other than to say it had to do with a failure to adhere to team standards.
The previous coaching staff suspended Farmer for the game against Michigan last November after he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.
NORTH CAROLINA QB MAYE PICKED AS FAVORITE FOR HIS SECOND STRAIGHT ACC PLAYER OF YEAR AWARD
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is the preseason pick to win his second straight Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year award.
Maye came out on top over Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis in a vote of 176 media members, the results of which were released Wednesday. Maye, who won the league’s 2022 player of the year honors as a freshman, also was selected as the preseason All-ACC first-team quarterback.
Maye, who is from Huntersville, North Carolina, had 3,847 yards and 35 touchdowns passing, along with 629 yards and six TDs rushing.
He finished with 88 votes, with Travis in second with 66. Clemson tailback Will Shipley was third in preseason player voting, followed by Tigers linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., and a tie for fifth between Duke quarterback Riley Leonard and Clemson defensive tackle Tyler Davis.
Clemson, picked Tuesday as the preseason favorite to win its eighth league title in the past nine years, led all teams with five players and seven spots on the 27-member All-ACC preseason team.
Shipley was voted in as the team’s running back, its all-purpose player and specialist.
Florida State had four selections while North Carolina, Duke and Miami were next with three.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW: TEXAS TECH
2022 Record: 8-5 overall, 5-4 in Big 12
Head Coach: Joey McGuire, 2nd year: 8-5
1954 was the last time the Texas Tech football program won an outright conference championship. It went 3-0-1 to take the Border.
The 1976 team shared a Southwest Conference title, and Spike Dykes came up with a 4-3 league campaign to take a piece of the 1994 SWC.
That’s it. Outside of the various bowl appearances and a whole lot of offensive stats, there’s not a ton to the Texas Tech football resumé over the last 45 years.
Fine, so there might have been a fun win over Texas in the amazing 2008 season, but even then Oklahoma and UT ended up getting more respect in the three-way tie in the Big 12 South – the Sooners played for the national title, the Longhorns beat Ohio State in the Fiesta, and the Red Raiders got rim-rocked by Ole Miss in the Cotton.
And it gets even worse.
Kansas, West Virginia, and Texas Tech. Those are the only three current Big 12 schools – not counting the four newbies – who have yet to play in the Big 12 Championship. Kansas got close with an 11-0 start in 2007 before losing to Missouri, and West Virginia has only been in the league since 2012 – and won the Big East title the year before.
And it gets even worse.
Nine. That’s how many winning Big 12 seasons Texas Tech has enjoyed in 27 years of being in the league, and that’s with a strong coaching lineage of Dykes, to the late Mike Leach, to Tommy Tuberville, to Kliff Kingsbury, to – yeah, but he was coming off a great season – Matt Wells.
To Joey McGuire, and that’s where this all starts to look up.
In his first year as the head man – his first head coaching gig outside of a long high school tenure – McGuire not only turned things around fast after the rough run under Wells, but he pulled off the first winning season in conference play since 2009 – Leach’s final season with the program.
It took 12 years for Texas Tech to be above .500 again in the Big 12, and McGuire did it in one of the toughest and most balanced seasons the conference has ever seen. And now he appears ready to forge his own legacy at a program that – forgive how brutal this comes across – doesn’t really have one, at least in the Big 12.
There’s about to be an opportunity for someone to be one of the big stars in the new Jan Brady Big 12 in 2024. It might as well be Texas Tech.
The conference is expanding, but Kansas State just won the Big 12 and TCU just played for the national title. Baylor recently won a conference championship. Before that, Oklahoma and Texas won the previous 11, and they’re bolting to get paid more for the right to beat their heads against the SEC wall year after year.
This is all a way-too-long way of saying Texas Tech and its insanely patient fan base are very, VERY due to get their turn. From the extremely early returns, and with a loaded team coming back for 2023, McGuire might just be the guy who finally breaks through.
Texas Tech Red Raiders Preview: Offense
The Texas Tech offense was good, but it could, should, and likely will be better. Head coach Joey McGuire is more of a defensive coach, but his offensive coordinator certainly knows what he’s doing – Zach Kittley is on the verge of getting his own head coaching gig very, very soon.
The former offensive coordinator who cranked up the passing game with QB Bailey Zappe at Houston Baptist moved over to do the same for a year at WKU, and last season Kittley took over the same gig at Texas Tech, but without quite the same success. The Red Raiders averaged 462 yards and 34 points per game, and they led the Big 12 with over 300 passing yards per game. And now …
They need their quarterback situation to be settled and consistent. For a third straight season, former Oregon Duck Tyler Shough comes into the season as the starter – and with all the tools and skills to blow up into a top pro prospect – but he has to stay healthy. The 6-5, 230-pounder showed why he was supposed to be another Justin Herbert, throwing for 436 yards against Oklahoma in the regular season finale last season before hitting Ole Miss for 242 yards and 111 rushing yards and two scores in the Texas Bowl win.
Shough has only played 22 games over four seasons – again, injuries – and 2022 leading passer Donovan Smith left for Houston. Fortunately, Behren Morton is more than just a good backup; he can step in and the O wouldn’t skip a beat.
The receiving corps is loaded with veteran talent. Jerand Bradley and Myles Price tied for the team lead with 51 catches, Xavier White made 45 grabs, and in all the top five wide receivers return along with the solid tight end combination of Baylor Cupp and Mason Tharp. Making things even better is the addition of Drae McCray from Austin Peay – he might end up leading the team in receptions.
The ground game is hardly ignored. Tahj Brooks ran for 681 yards and seven scores, and sophomore Cam’Ron Valdez will get more of a role with second-leading rusher SaRodorick Thompson done.
The O line is good enough to get Brooks the openings to fly though, but the pass protection needs to be stronger – Texas Tech was last in the Big 12 in sacks and tackles for loss allowed. The addition of WKU C Rusty Staats at center allows the line to shift around a bit, and the veterans at tackle should be even stronger.
Texas Tech Red Raiders Preview: Defense
The defense was good enough. It might not have been Georgia, but it held up well, was great at bending but not always breaking, and it generated a consistently terrific pass rush.
Top end Tyree Wilson is a Las Vegas Raider, but Tony Bradford is a strong interior pass rusher and Jaylon Hutchings is a strong anchor on the nose coming off a 50-tackle season. More help is coming in on the outside with Syracuse transfer Steve Linton working in a hybrid role at one spot.
The linebacking corps loses top tacklers Krishon Merriweather and Kofi Eldridge, and now it’s up to 245-pounders Jesiah Pierre and Jacob Rodriquez to be the new tackling stars – Pierre in the middle and Rodriguez on the outside. Pierre can get behind the line.
There might be a little maneuvering in the front six and a few new parts, but the secondary is loaded with talent and experience in place. S Dadrion Taylor-Demberson led the team with three picks to go along with 74 stops, Tyler Owens is in his fifth year working in the mix at the other safety spot, and coming in from San Diego State is CJ Bakerville as a stat-sheet filler at the team’s Star position.
The corners are set, too, with the return of Rayshad Williams and Malik Dunlap, coming off a huge year breaking up 12 passes and 33 tackles.
Preview 2023: What Will Happen
Chill on the turnovers. For all the pyrotechnics and all the winging it around the yard, Texas Tech offenses have been relatively okay with the giveaways over the last several years. Under Mike Leach the turnovers were part of doing business – the 2003 team blasted away for over 7,500 yards of total offense but gave it up a whopping 35 times – but that started to change a bit.
The 2014 team gave it away 28 times in Kliff Kingsbury’s 4-8 season – some freshman Mahomes guy was responsible for part of that – and there haven’t been close to that many since last year when the O turned it over 25 times. The problems came in the meltdowns.
Texas Tech turned it over a combined 13 times in three losses to NC State, Kansas State, and Baylor. It went 9-2 when turning it over fewer than four times.
Texas Tech Red Raiders Top Transfer, Biggest Loss
WR Drake McCray in from Austin Peay, QB Donovan Smith gone to Houston. If Tyler Shough is close to the player he should be, then it’s okay. If Shough gets hurt again and Behren Morton shines with yet another opportunity, then it’s okay. But if Smith turns out to be just that good with his combination of next-level skills – and if he rocks on September 30th when he and Houston come to Lubbock – that’s going to hurt.
The Texas Tech receiving corps was going to be good no matter what, and now it adds a guy who was a dominant force in the FCS. The 5-9, 185-pound catching machine grabbed 129 passes for 1,888 yards and 17 touchdowns over his last two years. Watch for him explode on the bigger stage.
Texas Tech Red Raiders Key Player
Rusty Staats, C Sr. He’s a 6-5, 325-pound All-Conference USA center at WKU last year who knows exactly what he’s doing in this type of offense. If he comes in and takes over in the middle and plays like he’s supposed to, the rest of the front five suddenly looks like a possible strength. He allows the coaching staff to play around with the combination.
Texas Tech Red Raiders Key Game
at Baylor, Oct. 7 There will be plenty of huge moments over the first half of the season, but this is when Texas Tech should be able to show whether or not it’s a serious player in the Big 12 chase.
It has a brutal final six games after this – more on that at the end – and it needs to avenge the 45-17 clunker from last year. It’s 1-4 in the last five meetings with the Bears.
Texas Tech Red Raiders 10 Best Players
1. Tyler Shough, QB Sr.
2. Malik Dunlap, CB Sr.
3. Dadrion Taylor-Demerson, S Sr.
4. Jerand Bradley, WR Soph.
5. Drae McCray, WR Sr.
6. Tony Bradford, DT Sr.
7. Jaylon Hutchings, DT Sr.
8. Tahj Brooks, RB Sr.
9. Austin McNamara, P Sr.
10. Steve Linton, EDGE, Sr.
Texas Tech Red Raiders 2022 Fun Stats
– Fumbles: Texas Tech 20 (lost 7), Opponents 13 (lost 9)
– 4th Down Conversions: Texas Tech 33-of-52 (63%), Opponents 11-of-33 (39%)
– 3rd Quarter Points Allowed: 62; 4th Quarter Points Allowed: 129
Texas Tech Red Raiders Season Prediction, Win Total, What Will Happen
Set The Win Total At: 7.5
It’s not like there were any cheap losses last season.
The Red Raiders got blasted by Baylor, but other than that the other four losses were in decent fights against NC State, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU – and all on the road. And that’s the Big 12 now, more than ever – every game is a 50/50 toss up at best. The same goes for this season at a whole other level.
There isn’t a game on the slate the Red Raiders can’t win, but they’ll likely be the underdog in the regular season finale against Texas and in the home game against Oregon. Everything else is almost even.
TCU, Kansas State, UCF, and Houston – they’re all home games, and so is the showdown date against the Ducks early on. There’s no Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, and missing Cincinnati and Iowa State isn’t bad, too.
The road dates? Again, the Texas game is the problem, and no one likes to go to BYU, but West Virginia, Baylor, Kansas, and a quirky season opener at Wyoming. That’s not a breeze, but all things considered it could be a whole lot worse – and it should be far easier than last season’s road slate.
Getting to six wins and a bowl game shouldn’t be too hard, but again, this is the problem with so many games that could go either way – it’s going to take a whole lot of right breaks to push through enough to make this a special run.
Even so, Texas Tech has the talent and experience at least match the eight wins of last season.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW: BAYLOR
2022 Record: 6-7 overall, 4-5 in Big 12
Head Coach: Dave Aranda, 4th year: 20-16
Is Baylor college football’s Bret Saberhagen?
Bret Saberhagen was a fringe Hall of Fame pitcher – mostly with the Royals – from the mid-1980s into the late 1990s with a few Cy Youngs and a World Series ring, but he will forever be known for his bizarre run of seasons early in his career when he dominated in odd numbered years and was awful in even numbered ones.
Baylor needs a bigger sample size to go full Saberhagen, but no program has fluctuated like this one over the last four seasons.
In 2019 and 2021 it got to the Big 12 championship – winning in 2021 – on the way to the Sugar Bowl in each campaign. The 2020 team went 2-7, the 2022 version crashed with four straight losses to close with a 6-7 record, and, of course, now it’s 2023.
So why the roller coaster? 2020 was the head coaching change from Matt Rhule to Dave Aranda, and last year’s team couldn’t get its defensive groove back from 2021 and had the horrible scheduling break of closing with Kansas State (eventual Big 12 champ), TCU (played for the national title), and at Texas (Longhorns showed up at home) before losing to Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.
This year’s schedule is as nice as it can possibly get until mid-November – more on that later – the defense is going to be stronger with plenty of experience and a defensive-minded coach in Aranda who’s brilliant at fixing glitches – again, the teams on the schedule were the problem last year more than a fundamental issue – and with a potentially massive upgrade offensively because …
Baylor Bears Preview: Offense
Welcome to the Barrington brothers. The Baylor offense wasn’t awful in the mix of a loaded Big 12 – it finished 44th in the nation in total O, was okay on the ground, and averaged 32 points per game – but it could be stronger.
The pass protection was decent, but the line didn’t take over like it needed to in key situations late in the year. That’s where BYU transfers Campbell and Clark Barrington come in. The line already had a few decent parts, but now it has its left tackle in Campbell and a dominant NFL-level interior option in Clark, who’ll can work at guard or center.
Now the running game has to get going behind the improved front five. Richard Reese and Oklahoma State transfer Dominic Richardson should, at times, be a devastating 1-2 punch to take the heat off everyone else and control the clock. Reese led the team with 972 yards and 14 scores. Richardson ran for 1,139 yards and 15 scores in his three years in Stillwater, and he became an improved receiver last season. Now …
Is Blake Shapen really the main man at quarterback, or can Mississippi State transfer Sawyer Robertson step in and rip it up? Shapen was fine last year, but he was inconsistent throwing for close to 2,800 yards with 18 touchdowns and ten picks. Robertson is a 6-4 pure passer with the ability to spread the ball around, but he’s missing the time logged in that Shapen has. Fortunately …
The receiving corps is good. Five targets caught 26 passes or more, but WR Gavin Holmes – he averaged 20 yards per catch on 26 grabs – and 31-catch TE Ben Sims are gone. Monaray Baldwin led the team with 33 catches – averaging over 17 yards per pop – Hal Presley and Josh Cameron are good veterans, adding even more explosion is deep threat Ketron Jackson from Arkansas, and North Texas TE Jake Roberts.
Baylor Bears Preview: Defense
The defense was hardly awful. It didn’t generate any sort of a pass rush and couldn’t come up with a third down stop, but it was third overall in the Big 12 and certainly wasn’t any sort of a disaster.
However, being Dave Aranda’s defensive coordinator is a little like making a plate of nachos for Guy Fieri, so coordinator Ron Roberts is out and Matt Powledge has moved up from assistant to the big gig.
First for foremost, the front six has to start getting behind the line again. Last year’s defense generated ten sacks in the first four games, 11 combined against Texas and Texas Tech, and three against everyone else.
Big Siaki Ika is gone from the middle and off to the Cleveland Browns, but 6-6, 296-pound Gabe Hall is a good interior pass rusher, TJ Franklin is a big end with the upside to do more, and in from Louisiana Tech is 6-3, 341-pound Jerrell Boykins to be the new Ika and clog up the middle.
The linebacking corps might have lost leading tackler Dillon Doyle, but Liberty transfer Mike Smith is destined for All-Big 12 stardom coming off an 85-tackle, ten TFL season with three forced fumbles. He’s fantastic, third-leading tackler Matt Jones will make plenty of plays, and the 6-7, 247-pound Garmon Randolph should be an interesting hybrid on the outside.
The addition of Isaiah Dunson from Miami should help the corner situation, but most of the main parts are done. The secondary is likely going to be loaded with all underclassmen who’ll get time to grow into their respective jobs, but again, more of a pass rush is a must.
All of the improvements need to lead to …
Baylor Bears College Football Preview 2023: Keys To The Season, Top Players, What Will Happen
More third down stops. The 2021 defense allowed teams to convert 34% of their chances and gave up more than 46% of their conversions just twice. The 2022 defense allowed teams to hit 46% of their third down tries, and after not letting anyone get to 30% over the first three games, never dipped below 40% over the last ten.
Even so, the Bears were great at controlling the clock and the time of possession battle. Get that D off the field more, and all of a sudden the team that needs to control the tempo and narrative should be able to dominate.
Baylor Bears Top Transfer, Biggest Loss
C/OG Clark Barrington in from BYU, OG Micah Mazzccua gone to Florida. The Bears didn’t suffer that many huge transfer losses – at least nothing that can’t be replaced – but the line certainly would’ve found a spot for the 6-5, 331-pound Mazzccua somewhere in the interior.
Clark Barington was a fixture on the BYU offensive line for the last several seasons working as a dominant guard, but now he might kick over to center. At 6-6 and 305 pounds he’s got NFL length and the versatility to play anywhere in the interior, opening up the rest of the front five – including his brother, fellow BYU transfer Campbell Barrington at left tackle – to figure out the right combination.
Baylor Bears Key Player
Blake Shapen, QB Jr. The Bears have an improved O line, the receiving corps is full of deep threats and veterans, and the running back situation might quietly turn into the best in the Big 12. Everything is there for to shine as long as the quarterback play is stronger.
Shapen was fine. The ten interceptions were too many, but six of them were concentrated in three games. The 18 touchdown passes weren’t enough, but they were steady. What he didn’t do is throw accurately enough on a consistent basis, failing to get to 60% in three of the last four games – all losses. It’s his gig, but Mississippi State transfer Sawyer Robertson is right there ready to go.