WACO, Texas — A Baylor program that toiled in obscurity until the arrival of Art Briles is now embracing the spotlight of a second Heisman candidate in three seasons. But there’s much more to the Bears than running back Lache Seastrunk and his 139 yards per game.
Some other players to watch as West Virginia heads into a conference showdown at Floyd Casey Stadium:
Bryce Petty, quarterback
The redshirt junior, who developed in the shadow of RGIII and Nick Florence, is on pace to put up numbers that would make his predecessors proud. He has eight passing touchdowns and no interceptions this season—in fact, he has no interceptions ever at Baylor, when you include the 14 mop-up duty pass attempts from the past two seasons.
It speaks to Baylor’s stat-stuffing system, and the Big 12′s dearth of returning quarterbacks this fall, that the media tabbed Petty as preseason all-conference. And in a strange twist, Baylor and Petty can thank Lane Kiffin for their union. The kid who played his high school ball in nearby Midlothian was committed to Tennessee and coach Phil Fulmer, but then Kiffin took over the Vols program and never reached out to Petty.
Bryce Hagar, Mike linebacker
Let’s first address the lineage: Hagar’s father Britt played nine NFL seasons and still owns the University of Texas single-season record of 195 tackles from 1988. (Hagar planned to walk-on at Texas until Baylor dangled an offer.) Along with stellar DNA, dad also gave his youngest boy some stellar advice: “Have fun, play fast and hit hard.”
Hager endured all kinds of struggles against West Virginia last season—as did every player on the Baylor defense—but he rebounded to lead the Big 12 with 9.5 tackles per game. With sub-4.5 speed in the 40, Hager can cover lots of ground in the Bears’ 4-2-5 defense; and those wheels were on display during his 91-yard fumble return against Buffalo in Week 2.
Cyril Richardson, offensive guard
Last season’s Big 12 lineman of the year is a 6-foot-5, 340-pound road grader who will be making his 32nd career start.
He popped up on a number of preseason All-American lists and hasn’t disappointed, leading the Bears with 21 knockdowns and back-to-back grades of 91 percent the past two games.
“I played against him last year,” said West Virginia nose guard Shaq Rowell, “and he gave me fits.”
Tevin Reese and Antwan Goodley, receivers
They call Reese “Sweet Feet” but his 23-yards-per-catch average actually trails Goodley’s 26.4. Both stand 5-foot-10, but the stocky Goodley has a 50-pound edge at 220 and looks like fullback, at least until he outruns secondaries.
“They’ve got receivers who can catch a hitch route and take it 90 yards if you miss a tackle,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.
Goodley’s four touchdowns this season have covered 83, 65, 63 and 27 yards, and did we mention he squats 660 pounds—second-most on the team? “He can run but he’s also one of the most physical kids I’ve ever seen,” said Petty.
Reese’s three scores have gone for 61, 47 and 44 yards—no surprise, considering the 957 receiving yards he racked up as a junior while playing opposite Biletnikoff finalist Terrance Williams.
Ahmad Dixon, safety
The five-star prospect stunned the recruiting universe in 2010 by signing with Baylor over the likes of Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas. Now a senior, Dixon has started the last 29 games and projects to be in the lineup Saturday despite an arrest last week for misdemeanor assault on a 21-year-old man who reportedly bragged about breaking into Dixon’s apartment. (Cue a Texas justice soundtrack …)
A physical player with speed and athleticism, Dixon has shifted back to safety after playing two seasons at the hybrid linebacker/nickel back spot in the Bears’ 4-2-5 defense. He’s one of five three-year starters on the unit, which explains some of the vast improvement from the easy-to-slice outfit WVU encountered last season. When the Bears speak of winning the Big 12 this season, there’s actual validity to such ambition.
“The defense has never given the offense a chance to come close to reaching these goals,” Dixon told ESPN.com. “Now guys defensively are in tune, they know what’s going on.”
Eddie Lackey, Will linebacker
The San Diego product—thought to be undersized by most BCS programs—spent a season at Division II Northwood (Mich.) before returning to California for a year of junior college action. He made every start last year upon arriving at Baylor, and among his team-leading four interceptions were crucial game-changing picks against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
Lackey knows the Baylor defense was far more sound late last season than it was in its Week 5 trip to Morgantown, whereby WVU rolled up 807 yards.
“It was a pretty tough day for us to go through,” he said.