Baylor ready to reload, defend Big 12 title

WACO, Texas -- There was a hangover, a brief one, but Baylor got over that quickly.

The Bears’ 52-42 loss to UCF in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, an outcome that perhaps nobody on this team saw coming, didn’t sit well with Art Briles or the players who led his team to their Big 12 title.

“Coach Briles was pretty upset about it for a while, and you could tell with his whole demeanor,” BU quarterback Bryce Petty said. “You get to the point of that feeling of disappointment that you let a lot of people down. I had it, too. It took a couple days for me to get over it.”

And yet, just as that game ended, so did the Baylor careers of so many of Petty’s fellow leaders. Gone were Lache Seastrunk, Ahmad Dixon, Tevin Reese, Cyril Richardson and a dozen other starters, many of them off to pursue NFL dreams.

Despite their absence, the Baylor squad that took the field here Friday for their first spring practice doesn’t look at 2014 as a time for rebuilding. These Bears are reloading.

“We've got the belt around our waist and it's buckled up pretty tight,” Briles said. “It'll be a struggle to get that sucker off of us."

The best way to work off the post-Fiesta hangover? Lots of running, every weekday at 6 a.m. Petty said that idea came from strength coach Kaz Kazadi.

“It was what we needed,” Petty said. “You need structure and need the details on point.”

The senior quarterback said he put plenty of the Fiesta Bowl disappointment on his shoulders, but credited Kazadi for giving him the perspective he needed to move on. Simply put: You don’t lose, you learn.

He’s learning now that, in addition to fine-tuning his game, Petty will need to take his leadership to the next level. The expected leader of the defense, Bryce Hager, is out for the spring with a groin injury he suffered during the season.

When Petty first stepped into the weight room this winter, the absence of Dixon and Seastrunk -- and of their antics and swagger -- was unmistakable. The room was just different.

“It was kind of tough, those first couple days, because those guys had a big personality,” Petty said. “When you completely take that out, it almost seemed dead. But that’s what you’ve got to love about college football. You’ll have a group of new guys coming every year, a group of guys that are different.

“The team dynamic changes every year. You’ll see who steps up and the personality of this team.”

Added defensive tackle Andrew Billings, now a sophomore: “Offseason is the best part. It’s when people find out where they are on the team. This is when people step it up.”

They got back to work Friday afternoon. The reminders of Baylor's high expectations were everywhere, from Richardson and Reese attending the practice to check out these new-look Bears, to "2013 BIG 12 CHAMPIONS" in big black letters overlooking the field from outside the indoor facility.

Briles, meanwhile, isn’t spending much time fretting about who will join Petty as the guys who run the Bears’ locker room. Talent usually wins out in these situations.

“It’s all about being productive on the field,” he said. “That’s what determines who are leaders are, because that’s who everybody is going to lean on.”

There are holes to be filled in the starting lineup, namely on the offensive line, in the secondary and at linebacker. There are All-Big 12 players who must be replaced.

Briles said he has “zero” concerns about his offensive line, and offered up a line that might as well apply to the rest.

“We’ve got some guys that have been eating bread,” he said, “and they’re ready to get a big slice of meat and go to work and fulfill their needs.”

There’s plenty of time to piece together the lineup. Right now, he’s just as interested in seeing his players adopt a mindset that was missing on Jan. 1 in Phoenix.

That night, Briles said, Baylor was no longer the hunter and learned a real lesson about life as the hunted. The 2014 season should be no different. That’s how it goes when you wear the title belt.

“We’re excited about continuing this journey,” Briles said, “and trying to do whatever we can do to be the most dominant team in the southern part of the United States of America.”