Jimmy Burch

Baylor regaining focus after slow start, off-field issues

Baylor coach Art Briles said he noticed a breakthrough in his team’s 70-17 rout of Rice.
Baylor coach Art Briles said he noticed a breakthrough in his team’s 70-17 rout of Rice. AP

Baylor football coach Art Briles spent part of Monday acknowledging another discipline-related departee from his team and a bigger stretch of Monday explaining how the Bears are regaining their lost swagger in efforts to become a “devastatingly dominant” team.

Briles dropped the alliterative description of his fifth-ranked squad on two occasions during a 17-minute news conference that included confirmation that safety J.W. Ketchum, a freshman who has yet to play in a game, has been suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules and will not take the field this season.

Ketchum, arrested Aug. 15 on a charge of marijuana possession (under 2 ounces), has been removed from the team roster but is eligible to be redshirted and play for the Bears next season.

For those scoring along at home, that makes three player suspensions, one player dismissal (tight end Tre’Von Armstead) and three coaching suspensions since Sept. 3. That’s seven individuals disciplined within the past month. All of those incidents followed in the wake of the August rape conviction of former Baylor player Sam Ukwuachu, which triggered an investigation of how the school handled that situation.

The wave of negative attention, one could argue, has impacted the performance of the Bears (3-0) in some of their nonconference mismatches on the 2015 schedule. But Briles spotted a breakthrough in last week’s 70-17 rout of Rice, which he cited Monday as the “first time I’ve felt … the team was where it needed to be” for a full 60 minutes on game day this season.

He hopes the trend carries into Saturday’s Big 12 opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington (2:30 p.m., WFAA/Ch. 8), when the Bears begin pursuit of a third consecutive league title against Texas Tech (3-1, 0-1 Big 12). Briles acknowledged he has been challenged personally in efforts to keep the proper game-day edge for himself and his team in efforts to live up to projections that Baylor will be a College Football Playoff contender.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, and that’s who we’re trying to be,” Briles said. “That’s my job and it’s our players’ job to perform at that level, play-in and play-out. We know we’ve got a long way to go as a football team. But we do have the potential to be pretty good.”

In terms of motivation, Briles said he altered his approach leading into the Rice game.

“I had to quit pouting. Quit acting like a baby and be a man,” Briles said. “So I’m back to being a football coach … doing what they hired me to do.”

Part of the job description includes overseeing an offense that leads the nation in total yards (767 per game), rushing yards (379.7 per game) and scoring (64.0). An even bigger part, at least this season, has involved keeping players from dwelling on all the negative attention surrounding the program.

Linebacker Taylor Young admitted the incidents have been difficult to dismiss but stopped short of describing the Bears as a distracted team.

“That’s probably going a little too far,” Young said. “It’s more about playing with an edge. People were too laid-back a little bit.”

Heading into the Rice game, which was preceded by a bye week, Briles and his assistants turned up the emotional intensity on the troops. Team leaders followed suit.

“Some people were complacent,” said receiver Corey Coleman, who leads the nation in touchdown catches (eight) and ranks fourth in yards per catch (27.1). “That’s not the way to be. You’ve always got to be 100 [percent]. You’ve got to have stuff to prove. We’ve got goals we’ve got to reach. We’ve got to do everything the right way in order to reach our goals.”

A nice start would be ending the streak of generating off-field headlines on a weekly basis. But Monday’s suspension made it five weeks in a row, one for each week of the regular season.

Players and coaches who already have served one-game suspensions for various infractions include defensive end Shawn Oakman, safety Orion Stewart, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles (the coach’s son) and receivers coach Tate Wallis. Briles’ son-in-law, passing-game coordinator Jeff Lebby, will be suspended for the first half of the team’s Nov. 14 game against No. 15 Oklahoma for breaking an NCAA rule by being on the Tulsa sideline during the first half of the OU-Tulsa game on Sept. 19.

Briles acknowledged Monday that he’s questioned the focus of this team, at times, but believes the situation is headed in the right direction. Quarterback Seth Russell agreed, citing the conference opener with an assist in that process.

“I feel like we’re right on point. What could have happened isn’t happening,” Russell said, reflecting on the possibility of a distracted locker room. “Everybody’s thinking positively. Everybody’s coming together as a team. We’ve got our energy back. That was something we didn’t have those first two games.”

Just in time, Briles hopes, to keep the dreams of an undefeated season on track for another week.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

Baylor vs. Texas Tech

2:30 p.m. Saturday, AT&T Stadium

TV: WFAA/Ch. 8

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