Even in light of all the injuries that Baylor has sustained this season, Matt Rhule has resisted the temptation to change the way his team practices.
Rhule doesn’t want his guys to be reckless. But the Bears are still going to work on tackling. They’re still going to hit – because that’s the way that football works.
“I’d say, culturally, we’re kind of used to getting hurt. Do you know what I’m saying?” Rhule said. “That’s one of the things that over time will change. That’s one of the things guys are asking, ‘Coach, why do we practice the way we practice?’ Well, (former Temple cornerback) Sean Chandler started every game for me for three years. I’m used to guys not just (saying), ‘Oh, my shoulder, I’m down, next guy’s in.’ So we’ve got to kind of move them past that, but I do think guys have developed.”
Baylor’s defensive secondary has endured more than its share of aches and pains. Through six games the Bears have yet to start the same combination of four players twice. Injuries haven’t helped, nor did an early-season suspension to safety Taion Sells.
So continuity has proven elusive among the DBs, and consequently so has a level of consistency.
“It can (affect you) in some aspects, but at the end of the day we’ve just got to know what we’ve got to do,” cornerback Grayland Arnold said. “We’ve got to go out there and execute. We’ve got to execute as a group. We might have one person execute and then the next three, you don’t know who’s going to be in the right spot at the right time. Once it all comes together, it’ll be good, but we’ve just got to play hard and play fast at the end of the day.”
Last weekend against Oklahoma State, Mason Rudolph roasted Baylor’s defensive backs like a pack of campfire marshmallows. Rudolph racked up 471 passing yards and three touchdowns. It’s the second time a quarterback has incinerated BU’s secondary for 400 yards or more this season, as Liberty’s Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert gunned his way to 447 yards in the season opener.
“I think one of the hard things about playing corner is that you have to have a game where you get beat, and it stinks,” Rhule said. “And you get beat a couple times. And you come in on Sunday, and either you’re done, shell-shocked, and never come back again, or you come in on Sunday and say, ‘That ain’t happening again.’ And that’s Grayland Arnold. Grayland Arnold is out there with a cast on his hand because he broke his arm, and he knocks the ball out.”
Another potent touchdown machine awaits Baylor’s defense again this week, when No. 23 West Virginia visits McLane Stadium for the Bears’ homecoming game. Another prolific quarterback, Will Grier, is likely licking his chops, eager to get his shot to test Baylor’s safeties and corners.
Arnold, for one, said that he lives for such challenges. It’s why he loves playing in the Big 12.
“In some leagues corners are like safeties and hardly ever get the chance to get the ball thrown in the air,” Arnold said. “So you’ve got to appreciate it and be grateful for it. We all came here to the Big 12 because we knew what we were going up against. We knew it was a shootout here.”
Compounding Baylor’s issues have been those moments where the Bears have made contact with a ball carrier, only to let him slip through their grasp. Rhule has pulled no punches: the Bears have to tackle better.
“If we just tackle a little bit better in the open field, maybe in the safety and corner positions, that’s not that (blowout) game,” Rhule said. “All those long plays are plays where you say, ‘There’s no way that play will ever work,’ and it did, just because their kid made a play and our kid didn’t.”
It’s a learning process, the coaches said. Sometimes that means stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Not every defensive player craves contact. That may be especially true in the secondary, where a player may be more equipped to blanket a receiver and prevent him from catching the ball rather than bringing him to the turf if he does.
“We’ve got some people who probably don’t really like to tackle, they’re not physical people,” Arnold said. “Everybody has got those type of guys. So we’ve got to get them out of that, where they want to tackle. Because we all might come here some day and say, ‘Man, I don’t feel like practicing.’
“You’ve got to switch your mood once you step on this field, because once you step between these lines, there’s one standard. And we’ve got to live up to that standard.”
That’s one reason the Bears keep hitting hard in practice. Rhule steadfastly refuses to baby his team, because he believes the way they’ll get better – “And we are getting better,” he insisted – is by challenging them.
The secondary will remain in the crosshairs of that challenge this week against the Mountaineers. Rhule said he is convinced that they’ll not only survive, but thrive.
“What I do know is that our cornerbacks, Grayland Arnold, Blake Lynch, Harrison Hand and Jameson Houston, are going to show up to play on Saturday. I know that,” Rhule said. “Those guys are tough kids and it was a tough day (against Oklahoma State). It wasn’t just a tough day for them; it was a tough day for everybody. But they’re sort of in the spotlight, and they’re anxious to play.”
Running back John Lovett (toe) and wide receiver Pooh Stricklin (sprained foot) are doubtful for Saturday’s game against West Virginia. Baylor coach Matt Rhule said that Terence Williams will start at running back, despite lingering shoulder pain.