Special teams can increase the Bears’ potential

Baylor’s football season begins in less than 60 days, but it’s never too early to start thinking about what the Bears might look like in 2024.

This is the 10th in a series of position previews leading up to the season opener against Tarleton State on Aug. 31, highlighting the best-case and worst-case scenarios for Baylor this season.

We’ve already looked at the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, tight ends and the offensive line and then moved to the other side of the ball to talk about the defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties.

People also read…

Finally, it’s time to talk about the special teams:

In the best case

Kickers: Redshirt junior Isaiah Hankins has experienced every level of emotion during his time at Baylor.

As a freshman, he earned the starting kicker spot, which was revoked later in the season. Last season, he established himself as the Bears’ go-to field goal player, making 21 of 23 PATs and 18 of his 25 field goals.

Hankins scored the game-winning field goal in UCF’s record-breaking comeback and made three kicks over 50 yards, including a career-high in the loss to Texas Tech.

“This spring, I’ve tried to focus primarily on slower, targeted reps instead of just trying to do a million kicks,” he said. “Just slowing down and targeting each rep.”

Jack Stone, a junior and transfer from Michigan State University, was Baylor’s usual kickoff player last season and pressured Hankins all spring.

The Bears also signed Connor Hawkins from Liberty Hill High School on signing day, increasing their roster depth.

Baylor Football: Palmer Williams Highlights // via BaylorAthletics on YouTube

There is no competition at Punter.

Palmer Williams, the most promising punter coming out of high school last year, established himself as one of the best in the Big 12, averaging more than 42 yards per punt for 1,501 yards, with the longest punt being 53 yards. 20 of his 35 punts were either caught fairly or deflected inside the 20-yard line.

Returnees: Baylor probably has the best group of returners in the country.

Josh Cameron ranked second in the Big 12 with 15.5 yards per return last season. His 70-yard punt return against Kansas State was the third-longest return in the conference, and he did not have a single fumble in his 13 returns.

Richard Reese showed how dangerous he can be as a kick returner, returning kickoffs 96 and 93 yards in the season finale against West Virginia, becoming the second Baylor player to accomplish the feat after Trestan Ebner did so against Kansas in 2021.

Phill Steele named Cameron a preseason All-American Fourth-Team and All-Big 12 Punt Returner and named Reese a preseason All-Big 12 First-Team Kick Returner.

Add in transfer Jamaal Bell, who set program records for kick returns (80) and kick return yards (1,712) during his three seasons at Nevada, and Baylor can expect a lot of kicks to go over their heads.

Worst case

Kickers: There’s a reason #CollegeKickers seems to trend weekly during college football season.

Kicking is about both mental and physical performance, and Hankins felt that pressure during his time at Baylor.

After earning a starting spot as a true freshman and helping Baylor win the Sugar Bowl in 2020, he missed two extra points and a field goal in the double-overtime loss to BYU and did not play for the rest of the year.

“That was one of the worst games I’ve ever played,” Hankins told the Tribune-Herald last October. “Probably the worst game ever played.”

From a kickoff perspective, Baylor ranked last in the Big 12 in touchbacks. However, Stone and the kickoff team had fewer opportunities than almost anyone else in the conference, as the Bears scored the fewest touchdowns in the Big 12.

Returnees: Given the wide range of returnees, it is hard to imagine them taking a step back.

Barring injuries, opponents may, like NFL teams featuring Hall of Fame returner Devin Hester, intentionally hold the ball away and try their luck against Baylor’s offense.

Of all the Bears’ potential weaknesses, kick and punt returns are the least of their problems.