WACO, Texas – Robert Griffin missed being on the field. And the Baylor Bears certainly missed their dynamic dual-threat quarterback.
Griffin's absence after a season-ending knee injury in the third game last year was too much to overcome for Baylor. All the expectations for a breakthrough season — having a winning record and maybe even a bowl appearance — crumbled when he couldn't play.
"When he got hurt, we all hurt," top receiver Kendall Wright said.
Everybody at Baylor is feeling better now, and the Bears are starting to get excited again.
Griffin has been declared healthy, and the proof is the way he is running and throwing during preseason drills without any problems. Plus, tailback Jay Finley is getting better after offseason surgery on an ankle that bothered him most of last season.
"We've got the potential to be great," Griffin said. "We're definitely looking to win six games, and after that all bets are off. Anything can happen after that."
The Bears haven't had a winning season since 1995, the year before moving with other Southwest Conference teams into the then-new and now soon-to-be-altered Big 12. Baylor last played in a bowl game in 1994, a postseason drought that matches Duke for the longest by an FBS team.
After Griffin's impressive debut as an 18-year-old freshman in 2008, when he had 2,934 total yards (2,091 passing and 843 rushing) and 28 touchdowns, there was plenty of anticipation for even bigger things in the second season for Griffin and coach Art Briles. Then the quarterback got hurt.
Now Griffin gets sort of a do-over — another sophomore season. The Big 12 approved a hardship waiver request after the quarterback played only 2½ games, leaving him still with three seasons of eligibility at Baylor.
Baylor doesn't even count Griffin among its seven returning starters on offense. That doesn't change the fact that he is still the biggest key for the Bears, as he was last season.
The first real hits on Griffin and his surgically repaired knee won't come until the season opener Sept. 4 against Sam Houston State. He doesn't sound too worried about it.
"I feel confident and I'm ready to go. I definitely love football more now. Once you have something taken away, you see how much you love it," he said. "You're always going to get hit. I'm going to play fearless the way I always do."
Griffin injured his knee when he was stopped on a fourth-down run on the opening drive against Northwestern State last season. He still threw three TDs before halftime with his knee heavily wrapped then finally came out of Baylor's highest-scoring game in 67 years.
The devastating news came the day after that 68-13 victory, when an MRI revealed a torn ACL in his right knee.
"When you get something taken away from you, you respond one of two ways," Briles said. "You pout, complain, sulk, cry, and fall into a shell, or you fight, you grind, you have vision, you have hope, and you work harder than you've ever worked in your life. That's what Robert has done, and that's what we knew he would do."
Baylor was 4-8 in Griffin's freshman season, but three of the losses were by seven points or less, including games against Top 25 teams Missouri and Texas Tech.
Last season, the Bears were 3-1 after beating Kent State in their non-conference finale and first game without Griffin. They then went 1-7 in the Big 12 with those losses coming by an average margin of three touchdowns.
The Bears will find out soon how much of a difference Griffin can make.
"I think he's where he needs to be right now. I think he's healthy. I think he's ready," Briles said. "But I'm not lining up and growling at him and trying to, you know, cut him in half either. I'm sitting back there looking at him with a smile on my face. So I think when he gets in the heat of competition, I think that stuff will take care of itself."
Finley is a slasher who complemented Griffin two seasons ago with 865 yards and seven TDs rushing. But after running for 212 yards the first two games last season, Finley had only 158 more while dealing with the ankle injury.
Briles and the coaches have been cautious with Finley in practice, focused on having him ready for the season opener.
"The pain has gone away, but there's still some soreness," Finley said. "Not to sound cocky, but I can tell when I have another gear. Right now, I can't use it. But I'll be ready for Sam Houston State."
Baylor has holes to fill on defense with the loss of six starters, including linebacker Joe Pawelek, hard-hitting safety Jordan Lake and linebacker Antonio Jones, their top three tacklers.
The Bears play 10 of their 12 games in Texas this season, leaving the state only for games at Colorado and Oklahoma State. Their non-conference road games are Rice and TCU.
(This version CORRECTS to Oklahoma State, instead of Colorado State, in last paragraph)