2024 Summer Magazine: Baylor Bears

Photo by Carter Pirtle

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Dave Aranda went hat-in-hand to the Baylor brass with a proposal following the season-ending loss to West Virginia. He’d move back to a familiar role as defensive play-caller, hire an offensive coordinator with head coach experience and an innovative, exciting offense, and push for more investment in the NIL world to attract better Transfer Portal talent to Waco ahead of an all-important 2024 campaign. 

Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades and the powers that be agreed and Aranda went to work. He hired Cal offensive coordinator and former Texas State head coach Jake Spavital to run Spav’s version of the Air-Raid offense he curated with mentor Kliff Kingsbury. Aranda also retreated to his mad scientist persona to fix a Bears defense that allowed more than 30 points per game in 2023. 

“I’m probably not a better person when I’m not (completely locked in on the ball), but I’m a better coach,” Aranda said. “I’m back to ball all the time like in a previous life. When I’m at home, I’m watching film and drawing on my whiteboard. It kind of takes over your life.” 

Aranda is an idealist. He’ll admit that one of his faults as a college football coach is that he prefers to see the world as it should be rather than for what it is. That’s hard in a college football landscape that cares more about results than process. And more about winning than growth. He sees taking 30 transfers as kicking 30 other players off the team. 

The transactional nature of the sport in modern times forces Aranda to question his philosophy and approach. That introspection also hardens belief in what is right. Aranda’s Bears carry the motto, “Person Over Player.” Heading into 2024, Aranda wants those players to win for the person inside. 

“It is very important to me to show that we can win while staying true to your beliefs and core principles,” Aranda said. “I want to see the guys who’ve stuck through it and kept belief in how we do things be rewarded. I want us to show that there is another way because we’ve lost the importance of how we do things when we only care about a means to an end.” 

Winning won’t be easy in the Battle Royal known as Big 12 football. Gone are monolithic powers Texas and Oklahoma. In their place, a stable of solid and competitive programs like Utah arrive to compete in a crowded conference without a true favorite. Baylor knows how quickly fortunes can change. The Bears won two games in 2020 before a program-best 12 wins in 2021. Rival TCU won five games in 2021 before reaching the College Football Playoff in 2022. 

“The margins are thin in this conference,” Aranda said. “There will be hard games on the road that require a tough team that handles adversity to win. We weren’t that the last two years. We’re working on getting back to that this season.” 

Aranda is betting his future as the Baylor head coach on change. Spavital’s offense is the antithesis of what was run by former offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. The man who was once opposed to utilizing the Transfer Portal in fear that it would mess up the culture of his locker room brought in a dozen new faces, including Dequan Finn (Toledo) as the expected starter at quarterback. Instead of sitting in on offensive meetings and recruiting meetings or watching his guys in the weight room, he’s back drawing up plays on a white board and watching film deep into the night at home. 

The goal is simple: Compete in the Big 12. Anything less might be the end of his tenure in Waco. Will it work? Only time will tell, but Baylor fans should rest easy knowing that the head coach is willing to do whatever it takes to prove that the Baylor way can still result in victories.  

“No one wants to get this thing right more than me and the people in this building,” Aranda said. “We’ve done what it takes to win before. I’m confident we can find the recipe again.” 



Baylor craved an offensive coordinator with previous head coaching experience and a more explosive scheme when replacing Jeff Grimes, who is now calling plays at Kansas. The Bears chose former Texas State head coach Jake Spavital, who was most recently the offensive coordinator at Cal. 

The Bears ranked 101st in the FBS in 2023 with 23.1 points per game. Cal averaged 30.2 points per game last season with Spavital calling the plays. Baylor was 92nd in plays of 20-or-more yards with 49 last year. Cal was in the top 50 nationally with 63. 

“This offense is finely tuned to attack and manipulate defensive structures,” head coach Dave Aranda said. “It’s almost like a playbook built of all the plays that give defensive coordinators headaches.” 

The quarterback battle between transfer Dequan Finn (Toledo) and Sawyer Robertson wasn’t settled in the spring. Finn, a senior, is the odds-on favorite to start Week 1 given he was the 2023 MAC MVP and a first-team all-conference selection with over 3,000 yards of total offense. 

The wide receiver room likely did flips as Spavital installed his pass-friendly system in the spring. Senior Ketron Jackson Jr. is poised for a big season if he can stay healthy. As is slot receiver Monaray Baldwin. Hal Presley and Josh Cameron are also upperclassmen who will carve out roles. Ole Miss transfer Michael Trigg was added to the tight end room. 

The running back room headlined by Dominic Richardson, Dawson Pendergrass, and Richard Reese is reliable. The offensive line opening holes in front of them is not as known a commodity. The Bears bring back players with experience like Campbell Barrington, Alvin Ebosele, and Gavin Byers, but they need to be much improved for Baylor to return to Big 12 contention. 

MVP - QB Dequan Finn - The Toledo transfer must unlock the potential of the Baylor offense. 

Position Group Ratings

QB: B 

RB: B+ 

WR/TE: B- 

OL: C+ 

Breakout Candidates

WR Ashtyn Hawkins – The Texas State transfer reunites with his former head coach in new Baylor offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. Hawkins is a productive and electric weapon as a slot receiver. 

OL Kurt Danneker – If he can return to full health, the Ohio transfer should help reinforce the interior of Baylor’s offensive line. He’s played in 36 games and started 25 in his college career. 

TE Kelsey Johnson – The Bears must replace Drake Dabney’s production at tight end and Johnson started four times as a sophomore in 2023. He’ll compete with transfer Michael Trigg.

RB Bryson Washington – A four-year starter in high school who racked up 30 touchdowns as a senior. Washington redshirted in 2023 and must compete in a crowded running back room, but he’s talented. 

Keep An Eye On

Jake Spavital is known as a pass-first play-caller because he was a former quarterback and his mentor is Kliff Kingsbury, but the Texas State offenses loved to run the ball when the talent upfront allowed it. Baylor will undoubtedly throw the ball more than it did when Jeff Grimes was calling plays, but that doesn’t mean Spav will ignore a talented and deep running back room. Reese was a star as a freshman in 2022. Richardson is a workhorse with SEC experience. Pendergrass was the offensive surprise in 2023 as a true freshman. 

Projected Starters 

QB: Dequan Finn       Sr. 

RB: Dominic Richardson        Sr. 

WR: Ketron Jackson Jr.         Sr. 

WR: Hal Presley         Sr. 

WR: Monaray Baldwin            Sr. 

TE: Michael Trigg       Jr. 

LT: Alvin Ebosele       Soph. 

LG: Omar Aigbedion          Jr.

C: Coleton Price         Soph. 

RG: Gavin Byers        Sr. 

RT: Campbell Barrington        Sr. 



Dave Aranda is returning to his roots as a defensive play-caller because that’s the side of the ball most responsible for Baylor’s fall from grace. The 2021 defense allowed 18.2 points per game (10th in the FBS) during a 12-win season that included a Big 12 championship and a win in the Sugar Bowl. The Bears allowed 26.8 points per game in 2022 (67th nationally) and 33.3 points per game in 2023 (116th). 

“I’m hopeful that the fans see a defense that rises to the occasion and plays its best when it matters most,” Aranda said. “We need our production to mirror our preparation.” 

Good Aranda defenses begin with a suffocating secondary. The Bears feel confident with a safety room that includes juniors Devyn Bobby and Devin Lemear, as well as nickelback Carl Williams IV. Cornerback Caden Jenkins was a breakout performer as a true freshman in 2023. 

Arkansas transfer Lorando Johnson returns to Baylor to compete alongside Chateau Reed and Isaiah Dunson at the other cornerback spot. 

Matt Jones returns to anchor the second level of the defense. He says he’s worked on becoming more of a vocal leader. Former JUCO standout Keaton Thomas might be Aranda’s next young star pupil. Brooks Miller and Josh White are also in the mix. 

Texas Tech transfer Steve Linton joined the fight at the JACK position alongside Garmon Randolph. Western Kentucky edge rusher JaQues Evans joined after spring practices. Sophomore Trey Wilson is emerging at defensive end. Cooper Lanz and Treven Ma’ae are talented frontline players at nose and defensive tackle. Texas Southern transfer Elinus Noel III provides a 320-pound body at nose tackle. 

MVP - DB Caden Jenkins was one of the top true freshman cover corners in the country last season. 

Position Group Ratings


LB: B-

DB: B+


Breakout Candidates

S Kendrick Simpkins – The Western Kentucky transfer started 21 times over 42 appearances in a four-year career at the G5 level. He’s a physical safety who had 11 tackles-for-loss last year. 

DL Tonga Lolohea – A JUCO prospect who bounced around early in his college career. Lolohea came on in the back half of spring practices. He’ll need to provide depth along the defensive front.

DT Elinus Noel III – Aranda defenses thrive with a big, unmovable player at the nose tackle position and the 320-pound Noel provides the Bears with more depth on the interior. 

Edge JaQues Evans – He was the CUSA preseason Defensive Player of the Year but a season-ending injury cost him the back half of 2023. Evans recorded 14 TFL and nine sacks in 2022. 

Keep An Eye On

The slide from great defense in 2021 to poor defense in 2023 is best illustrated by sack totals. The Bears ranked 5th in college football during 2021 with 44 sacks. They checked in at 118th nationally last season with 18. Baylor added Texas Tech transfer Steve Linton in the offseason. Safety Kendrick Simpkins, a Western Kentucky transfer, is also comfortable in an opponent’s backfield. Aranda feels the downturn in production is less about talent and more about preparation and execution. He hopes to improve both with a more hands-on approach as the defensive play-caller this season.   

Projected Starters 

DE: Trey Wilson         Soph.  

NT: Cooper Lanz        Jr. 

DT: Treven Ma’ae       Sr.  

JACK: Garmon Randolph      Sr. 

LB: Matt Jones           Sr. 

LB: Keaton Thomas   Soph. 

NB: Carl Williams IV   Soph. 

CB: Caden Jenkins    Soph. 

CB: Lorando Johnson Sr.  

FS: Devin Lemear      Jr. 

WS: Devin Bobby       Jr.



Baylor linebacker Matt Jones wasn’t the first college student to realize throwing up can help keep the party going. But not many experience that rite of passage on the sideline of an historic comeback win. Jones could feel his stomach turning in the fourth quarter of Baylor’s game at UCF in 2023. His Bears were in the midst of a furious comeback attempt after falling behind 35-7 midway through the third quarter. 

“I was a little sick that week heading into the game and I was trying to keep from throwing up in the middle of the field,” Jones remembers with a smirk. “We played a lot of snaps defensively and that drive was long. I was tired, man.” 

UCF led 35-26 and were driving to score the knockout blow against a Bears team that didn’t handle adversity well in 2023. Jones was about to barf. His team was about to fall to 1-4 on the season. And then a miracle happened: UCF fumbled and Baylor cornerback Caden Jenkins scooped it up and ran 72 yards for a touchdown with 6:02 left in the game. Jones chased Jenkins as adrenaline replaced nausea until he returned to the sideline, collapsed next to head coach Dave Aranda, and puked. 

“I felt better right away,” Jones said. “I looked up at Coach Aranda and told him we were about to win this game.” 

That’s exactly what happened. Isaiah Hankins hit a 25-yard field goal with 1:21 left to complete the largest comeback in program history. A win that temporarily saved Baylor’s season. Unfortunately, momentum is fleeting. Baylor lost the next week to drop to 2-5. The team was guaranteed a losing season by nightfall on Nov. 4 after losing in overtime to Houston at home. 

Jones enters his final season in Waco on a mission to oversee Baylor’s return to glory. He played in all 14 games and started nine times on the 2021 squad that won the Big 12 and the Sugar Bowl. He’s also started 24 of the programs’ last 25 games while the Bears limped to losing seasons in 2022 and 2023. 

“We replaced the bodies and production from the 2021 team, but not the leadership,” Jones said. “I’m trying to be a better vocal leader as a sixth-year player. I know that core leadership is what we’re missing. If we find it, we’ll surprise people because we’re more talented than we were in 2021.”  



Ceiling – 8-4 

The fun part about the new-look Big 12 is that a wide range of results won’t shock any fan base. A team like Baylor could benefit from those fine margins with a solid run in 2024, especially if Dave Aranda’s defensive play-calling acumen solves issues on that side of the ball. 

Floor – 3-9 

Even changes in the staff and added help in the portal can’t solve every issue. Baylor has posted two straight losing seasons and were sub-.500 in three of the last four. While no game in the Big 12 is impossible for the Bears to win, no game is a slam dunk, either. 



Baylor plays 10 Big 12 teams in 2024, but only nine of those contests count towards the conference standings. An existing home-and-home with new Big 12 member Utah caused the Week 2 trip to face the Utes to not count towards the conference standings. The Bears also play Tarleton State and Air Force in non-conference play. The official Big 12 slate consists of five home games – BYU, Oklahoma State, TCU, West Virginia, and the regular season finale against Kansas. Baylor travels to Colorado on Sept. 21 to begin Big 12 play and will also visit Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Houston. 



DATE                      OPPONENT     RESULT

Sept. 2                  Texas State       L, 42-31

Sept. 9                  Utah                        L, 20-13

Sept. 16               Long Island       W, 30-7

Sept. 23               Texas                      L, 38-6 

Sept. 30               at UCF                   W, 36-35 

Oct. 7                     Texas Tech            L, 39-14

Oct. 21                 at Cincinnati   W, 39-29

Oct. 28                 Iowa State         L, 30-18

Nov. 4                    Houston              L, 25-24 (OT)

Nov. 11                 at Kansas State              L, 59-25

Nov. 18                 at TCU                   L, 42-17 

Nov. 25                 West Virginia   L, 34-31

Record: 3-9 (2-7) 




Aug. 31                 Tarleton State                   W

Sept. 7                  at Utah                                   L

Sept. 14               Air Force                               W

Sept. 21               at Colorado                        L 

Sept. 28               BYU                                            W

Oct. 5                     at Iowa State                     L

Oct. 19                 at Texas Tech                    L

Oct. 26                 Oklahoma State             L

Nov. 2                    TCU                                           L

Nov. 16                 West Virginia                     W

Nov. 23                 at Houston                          W

Nov. 30                 Kansas                                   L

Record: 5-7 (3-6)


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