Baylor’s defensive backs were often burned, failed to get interceptions, and had a penchant for missing tackles last season.
It was a tough year all around for the Baylor secondary, but those young players learned the hard way and have grown from their mistakes.
With more experience and depth, Baylor’s secondary expects to be a lot more equipped to handle the explosive passing games of the Big 12 this fall.
“Day by day, I see us as a work in progress but I see us jelling more together,” said Baylor defensive backs coach Fran Brown. “The guys are trusting their technique a little more than they have before, just playing together and playing hard. They’re believing in what we do and doing a great job.”
Brown has continued to demand a lot from his defensive backs, but now he’s got help from Evan Cooper following his promotion to the coaching staff after serving as Baylor’s director of player personnel last season. With Cooper coaching the safeties, Brown has been able to focus on developing Baylor’s cornerbacks.
Cooper has had the luxury of not just learning coaching skills from Brown but also from veteran Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me,” Cooper said. “I get to learn from the guru, the Yoda, Coach Snow. I get to learn from Fran Brown, who I think is the best young coach in the country. I feel like I’m in the perfect position.”
Both Brown and Cooper have a big job improving a Baylor secondary that had to learn on the run last season in Matt Rhule’s first season as the Bears’ head coach.
The Bears ranked last in the Big 12 with three interceptions during their 1-11 season. Only Kansas ranked lower among Big 12 teams in pass defense efficiency as the Bears allowed opponents to complete 66.1 percent for 3,204 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“We’re going to try our best to get as many turnovers as we can,” said Baylor junior cornerback Grayland Arnold. “With us all playing a lot and having the experience under our belt, it’s going to be a great thing. Now we don’t have to hit the ground trying to figure out what’s going on. I feel like each and every day we get better. We hold it to a high level.”
Arnold will be counted on to raise the level of Baylor’s cornerback play along with junior Jameson Houston, sophomores Harrison Hand and Timarcus Davis, and Temple University graduate transfer Derrek Thomas.
Thomas will give the Bears an experienced cornerback who knows the defensive system since he played under Snow and Brown at Temple before they came to Baylor.
“He’s given us a big boost,” Brown said. “He makes the other guys compete. You see someone walking on campus, 6-3 and runs that fast and can jump that high. So it automatically boosts everybody to step your game up. He also has a confidence level that is extremely high. He believes he’s the best, so he comes and fits in.”
Hand enjoyed a solid freshman season as he tied Verkedric Vaughns for the most tackles among Baylor’s defensive backs with 42 while defending a team-high nine passes with one interception.
After missing the first three games with a broken arm that he suffered at the end of preseason camp, Arnold made 35 tackles with eight passes defended and an interception in nine games.
“When I came back after missing those games, it was a different feeling trying to get used to the cast,” Arnold said. “I didn’t want to use that too much as an excuse. But I feel like it was a little slower process and later on in the season it got better.”
Junior Blake Lynch is moving from cornerback to safety where he’s joined by Vaughns and juniors Henry Black and Chris Miller.
Lynch began his college career playing receiver and running back in 2016 before playing both receiver and cornerback last season. But the Baylor coaches like the size and physicality the 6-3, 217-pound Lynch brings at safety.
“He’s a big athlete, he’s super smart,” Cooper said. “He’s probably smarter than people even know. He loves football. He brings a different element to it, he brings some size, he brings some physicality, some ball-hawking abilities. We feel like we can get him to be a great player, and he wants to be. To me, Blake is just an absolute football player. He’s always in his comfort zone.”
Vaughns is eager to prove himself as a senior safety after playing cornerback for most of his first three seasons at Baylor.
“It was hard the first year for the transition to safety from corner, but it’s going pretty well,” Vaughns said. “Everybody’s flying around, I’m flying around. I have a year under my belt, and I feel real comfortable. We learned what not to do last year. We know we have a chance this year, so everybody’s getting better and taking it one day at a time.”
Brown has enjoyed seeing Vaughns’ work ethic and his desire to be a leader for the secondary.
“Verkedric came in and bought into what Coach Rhule wanted earlier than I believe a lot of other people have,” Brown said. “Whatever Coach Rhule wanted right away, he kind of went into it and did it. It almost made him look like he was being a coach’s pet, but all he wanted to do was to be successful. If you get to know Verkedric’s background, the kid is dying to be great. He has a dream to play football after college.”
Freshmen Christian Morgan from Porter High School and J.T. Woods from Cibolo Steele enrolled at Baylor this semester to get a jump on their college careers, and will add depth at safety.
“I think we have at least 10 DBs that can go into the game and help us play,” Brown said. “We’ll be four to five deep at safety and four to five deep at corner. I’m excited about our depth, I’m excited about just where they’re going right now.”