People outside of the sports media realm don’t quite understand what national signing day means to us.
My default description is that it’s like tax day for CPAs. Or election day for politicians. It’s a dawn-to-dusk, all-hands-on-deck, put-your-nose-to-the-grindstone kind of endeavor.
For football coaches, though, it’s a little different. For them, the real heavy lifting is over. That’s not to suggest those guys don’t work on signing day. Not at all. But for the coach, this day is more like payday — the reward for all the many hours of work already logged.
In all honesty, it’s a little like Christmas morning.
“To see it as a reality is always a huge excitement,” Baylor coach Art Briles said.
Ever since he arrived at Baylor in late 2007, Briles has continually stressed the importance of beefing up Baylor’s interior lines. Gotta get some of those “big ol’ hosses up front.” For Briles is astute enough to understand that to win the war, or even to claim victory in the battles along the way, you’d better be firm in your trench warfare. Air strikes are often explosive and pulse-quickening, and you can certainly cover a lot of territory with powerful surges from your ground forces. But if the guys in the trenches lack toughness and can’t hold the line, you might as well wave that white flag of surrender.
In the Briles era, the offensive line hasn’t been an issue. If anything, it’s one of Baylor’s major strengths. In the past four NFL drafts, a total of five Baylor offensive linemen have heard their names called — Jason Smith, J.D. Walton, Danny Watkins, Philip Blake and Robert T. Griffin. That’s a pretty hefty feat. Though Smith wasn’t a Briles recruit, that list is a major testament to both Baylor’s dogged recruiting of formidable O-linemen and the hands-on development issued by assistant Randy Clements.
Catching up to offense
However, it’s been a much different story on defense. The level of talent on Baylor’s D-line has lagged far behind its offensive counterparts. Yes, Phil Taylor was a first-round pick a couple of years ago, but Big Phil was more the exception than the rule. A 300-pound anomaly.
To be fair, there may be some justifiable reasons for that lag. Just as single women won’t hesitate to inform you that a good man’s hard to find, it’s even more true when you’re looking for a good, big, strong, quick-off-the-ball man with legs the size of tree trunks and a head that requires its own weather system. (Did you ever see Taylor’s imposing cranium up close? I’m betting he had to special-order his pillows).
So, yeah, football coaches can’t dial up Match.com and instantly locate their soulmates on the defensive line. “It sounds crazy, but you can really find a quarterback better than you can find a D-tackle,” Briles said, almost wistfully.
Briles also noted Wednesday that the sheer numbers of offensive linemen allow coaches to occasionally hit the recruiting jackpot. A football team starts five behemoths on the offensive line, and each of those guys needs a backup. Meanwhile, depending on the alignment, an opposing defense counters with four and sometimes just three defensive linemen.
Nevertheless, whatever the reason, for a number of years Baylor hasn’t been able to match those chunks of D-line granite that programs like Oklahoma and Texas always seemed to boast. But on this particular Signing Day, evidence of change seemed to surface.
In a very big way. Like 1,400 pounds worth of man-child big. That’s the combined weight of the five defensive linemen the Bears signed, headlined by a pair of highly-regarded 305-pound tackles, Terell Brooks of Navarro College and Waco High’s Andrew Billings.
“Some of these guys coming in, Billings, Brooks, (Byron) Bonds, time will tell,” Briles said. “But we’re not recruiting those guys to play collegiately. We’re recruiting guys to play in the NFL.”
Billings is, figuratively and literally, as massive a recruiting prize as Baylor has unearthed in some time, probably since Robert Griffin III. Briles boldly labeled Billings the “strongest high school football player in America,” and given that Billings maintains serious aspirations of breaking the state powerlifting record this year, the comment might not be hyperbole.
“Signing him is a tremendous boost for Baylor, for Waco and for Central Texas,” Briles said. “So anyone that yawns and kicks their feet up, they need to get real. It’s a huge, huge signee.”
You don’t have to tell Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw how big a deal it was landing Billings. His ears are still ringing from the football coaches’ celebration.
Seems when Billings made his decision official on a local radio show Tuesday, the coaches started whooping and hollering so loudly that McCaw, whose office is located in another part of the building, couldn’t help but investigate.
Brooks, as a juco guy, will definitely play right away for the Bears, and one assumes that Billings would have a better than good chance of seeing action as a true freshman next fall. For the Baylor coaches, that’s what is so nice about bringing in the type of D-line talent they did. A defense in need of help looks to get it.
On this particular Christmas morning, the practicality of the gifts is off the charts. It’s like giving a barefoot man 30 packages of socks.
“It really is a fun time of year,” Briles said. “Once you get these guys signed and you know they’re coming to Baylor, then you start thinking about their four and five-year journeys. And I’m excited to go on that journey with them.”
Here’s betting that Briles puts those socks to good use.