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Baylor's bowl hopes rest on speedster QB Griffin's arm, legs

He's one part Edwin Moses, one part Pat White. He's one of the nation's best young hurdlers and one of its most intriguing college quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III's world is one defined by obstacles -- 10 hurdles and 11 defenders, 400 meters and 100 yards -- obstacles he's proving he can clear at accelerated speeds.

After enrolling early at Baylor last year and going through spring football practice, Griffin joined the Bears track team. A few weeks later he'd become an All-America in the 400 hurdles. Once football season rolled around, he rushed for a school-record 217 yards against Washington State in just his second start. Said Cougars coach Paul Wulff afterward: "that quarterback makes everybody look slow."

Now Griffin, arguably the fastest quarterback in Division I-A history, faces a different kind of obstacle, one that has been hanging over the Waco campus since the centerpiece of coach Art Briles' reclamation project was preschool age: leading Baylor to its first bowl game in 14 years.

For Griffin, it's a welcome challenge. "We've only been here one year, so it's only a one-year drought for us," Griffin said, "and we're looking to end that quickly."

There were signs last season, the Bears' first under Briles, that Griffin's bowl-game expectations might not be as ludicrous as they seem for a program that has amassed a paltry 13-43 record since joining the rough and rugged Big 12 South in 1996. Baylor lost three games by a touchdown or less in 2008, and the three point losses to UConn and Missouri and the seven point loss to Texas Tech were the difference between a 4-8 season and bowl eligibility. What's more, Griffin made quite an impression on the conference, earning honors as the Big 12's top offensive newcomer of the year.

Despite the forward progress, challenges remain. While the Bears return eight offensive starters from last year's squad, they must replace both of their starting tackles, including Jason Smith, who could be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. And while the defense returns nine starters from '08, including first-team all-Big 12 selections LB Joe Pawelek and S Jordan Lake, the unit ranked 84th or higher in six different national categories in '08, including 103rd against the pass.

Briles, however, said the team's most glaring challenge will be altering perceptions, not replacing personnel and overcoming deficiencies. "The biggest challenge is changing the mindset and changing the culture of Baylor football and how people outside the program and how our people view us," Briles said. "But it's easy talk and a tough task."

Especially when you consider the Bears' 2009 schedule includes matchups with eight teams that played in bowl game last season, including three divisional rivals -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas -- that could figure prominently in the national championship race. That'll provide the Bears a razor-thin margin of error for reaching their first bowl game since the 1994 Alamo Bowl. "We want to be a bowl-eligible football team. That's one of the goals we've laid out," Briles said. "It's vital we take care of our non-conference schedule to put us in [the position]."

The Bears open at Wake Forest and then host UConn, Northwestern State and Kent State before beginning Big 12 play against Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and the Sooners. The burden of getting out of the blocks quickly (to borrow from Griffin's track vernacular) will rest largely on Griffin and the developing offense.

While the Bears ranked 21st nationally in rushing last season (195.7 yards per game), they struggled mightily through the air (92nd), despite Griffin setting a freshman record for most pass attempts to start a career without an interception (205). In '09, the pressure will be on Griffin to take over games with his arm rather than his legs -- which, coincidentally, is exactly why Briles was drawn to him in the first place.

When Briles recruited Griffin out of Copperas Cove (Texas), he wasn't consumed by the speed that allowed Griffin to set Texas records in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles and prompted many coaches to view him as an "athlete" rather than a quarterback. "The thing that I was impressed with was the way he throws the football," Briles said. "He's naturally a good thrower. When you put that together with his discipline, you've got an absolute stud and that's what we've got. Robert is a stud."

Griffin initially committed to join Briles at Houston, and when the coach left to take over at Baylor, Griffin followed. He considered Kansas, Stanford and Tennessee, but opted to follow Briles to Baylor, where he saw an opportunity to play early. Griffin graduated high school in December and enrolled at Baylor in time to compete during spring ball with returning starter Blake Szymanski, who set a slew of records as a 10-game starter in '07, and Kirby Freeman, who started seven games at Miami before transferring.

Freeman initially won the battle, earning the starting nod for the season opener against the Demon Deacons, but Griffin was under center by the game's fourth series. A week later he passed for three TDs and ran for another in his first career start against Northwestern State. In his second start, Griffin put together a banner day on the ground against the Cougars, the first of four games in which he ran for at least 100 yards on the ground, including 102 against Oklahoma and 101 against the Longhorns. Griffin finished the season with 2,091 passing yards and 15 touchdowns along with 846 rushing yards and 13 running scores. Along the way, he managed to shake the nickname teammates saddled him with when he arrived on campus: "Track Guy."

"I just didn't listen to that," Griffin said. "I didn't take it as an insult but I wasn't satisfied with it either and gradually, that name has gone away." Whether he shuns the label or not, Giffin agrees his exploits in those other spikes have helped him on the football field. He says the foot speed and the balance it takes to clear the three-foot hurdles has aided his ability to break tackles -- but believe it or not, Griffin has never hurdled a defender at any level of football.

"I haven't hurdled anybody ever, playing football, but I'm an NCAA All-America hurdler, so you don't have to be a hurdler to go out on the football field and hurdle somebody," he said.

But you do have to be an All-America hurdler to do what Griffin did at the end of his first spring with the Bears.

As practice neared its conclusion, Griffin began working with the Bears track team (a plan he also expects to follow once practice ends on April 2 this spring) and won the 400-meter hurdles in the Big 12 Championships with the third-fastest time in Baylor history (49.22) before going on to finish third in the NCAA Outdoor Championships (49.55). Griffin went on to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials, and when it came time to run at fabled Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Briles was on hand to watch Griffin finish 11th (49.38). The coach has never tried to dissuade the player he calls "the key cog" in his turnaround efforts from running track because he's never doubted Griffin's ability to handle the workload of two sports and classes. "He's so disciplined and he has a plan," Briles said.

Briles can thank Griffin's parents for that.

Robert Griffin Jr. and his wife Jacqueline were career military people who stressed the importance of hard work and education to Robert III and his sisters, Jihan and DeJon. After they had retired from the Army, the Griffins went back to college, with Robert Jr. earning a degree in psychology from Tarleton State in '07 and Jacqueline graduating from Mary Hardin-Baylor with a general studies degree in '06. "They've just instilled a lot of wisdom and character traits in me and my sisters," Robert III said. "We've just carried them along and just that determination that you're going to do whatever you set your mind to."

Come 2012, Griffin knows he'll have to decide whether he's setting his mind on the Olympics or the NFL, but for now Griffin has made rejuvenating Baylor football his focus.

Track folks often call the 400-meter the man's race because it requires a combination of speed, efficiency and the ability to maintain a constant stride pattern between hurdles. It tests one's capabilities to evenly distribute speed throughout the one-lap run and still have enough left to gain separation down those last crucial 100 meters. "It's a gut check and it checks your heart," Griffin said. "There's no hiding anything in the 400. If you're hurting, when you come down that last stretch, everyone will see it ... if you can tackle the man's race, you've done something."

In Baylor football's version of the man's race, the hurdle is clear: seven wins to reach a bowl and further transform a recently downtrodden program. Luckily for the Bears and their fans, few clear hurdles better than Griffin.

MOREMcCARTNEY: Griffin headlines 10 players primed for breakout seasons

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