Baylor linebacker Clay Johnston calls defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s playbook as thick as the Bible.
But coach Matt Rhule doesn’t want his defensive players to only know their positions. He demands that they learn other positions to give the defense flexibility in case of injuries or shifts in alignments.
“We want to teach it globally,” Rhule said. “We want our corners to be able to play safety. Linebackers can rush the passer. I think we’re just trying to move more and more to a positionless defense. You don’t necessarily say this guy is this.”
Nobody has exhibited his versatility better than cornerback Grayland Arnold, a fourth-year junior who is enjoying an impressive preseason camp.
In Baylor’s primary 3-3-5 defensive alignment, Arnold could play cornerback, safety or nickelback.
“We’re just trying to utilize his versatility,” Rhule said. “Grayland gives us a great chance to cover with great ball skills. If you talk about trying to get more turnovers, who are the guys who can go get the ball and make turnovers, he’s one of them. He has good physicality as well.”
Injuries have limited Arnold to 13 games during the last two seasons. Last year, he played in just four games due to an ankle injury, which made him eligible for a redshirt.
If Arnold can stay healthy, Baylor’s defense would benefit immensely.
“Having him back, the passion he brings, and the energy he brings to the team,” Rhule said. “His focus is so much further than where it once was. Not that he wasn’t focused before, but he’s like ‘Hey, I’m getting ready to play the last two games of my life type of focus.’ That really drives people.”
Rhule also pointed out that freshman linebacker Will Williams from El Paso Chapin High School has had an eye-opening camp.
“We’re the type of team that we don’t like to talk a lot about the freshmen because we have a lot of vets, but we have this kid Will Williams who’s out there and the whole team knows who he is right now because he plays hard and is physical,” Rhule said.
Deep into their second week of practice, the Bears are beginning to feel the preseason grind. Not only are they having to deal with oppressive 100-degree heat during practice, they’re staying late to break down film.
“This is the grind of camp,” Rhule said. “There’s no end in sight. Next week is when you see a little light at the end of the tunnel. Right now you just have to keep working through it, grinding through it, and continuing heavy install.”
Playing their third season under Rhule, the Baylor veterans know what he and his coaching staff expect. But the freshmen have had to learn to be focused and disciplined throughout practices and still be alert at late film sessions.
“We’re such a big, physical older team that they’re used to studying,” Rhule said. “We’re not like some teams that let the kids go early at night. We’ll stay until 9 or 9:30 and sit in two-hour meetings that way. The vets are used to it, but with the younger guys it’s a little bit more of a challenge. A lot of those young guys are handling it, so that to me is having them fight through those things.”
Rhule said the defense is ahead of the offense, which was evident during the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday. But Rhule said that’s common this early in camp as the offense is in the process of installing plays and schemes.
“I thought Saturday’s scrimmage was good,” Rhule said. “The defense was significantly ahead of the offense, which is normal for this time of year. We have a lot of vets on defense, and they’re flying around and playing hard. The second week, I’ve really challenged the offense, and the offense is really starting to catch up.”
The grind and intensity of preseason drills made for some tense moments in Tuesday’s practice as emotions began to spill over.
“Today there was a little bit of chippiness, a little bit of a lack of discipline,” Rhule said. “I threw some guys out of practice today. You want guys who are chippy. But we really have to be a disciplined football team to get where we want to get.”
Rhule said it’s important to push the players hard now as they grow closer to the Aug. 31 season opener against SFA at McLane Stadium.
“I’m pushing things on them football intelligence-wise, situationally that we haven’t pushed on them before,” Rhule said. “You get decision fatigue, you get studying fatigue. If you’re going to eat the training table meals and wear the gear we’re going to give you, make sure you’re also studying football. It’s tiring for me. It’s tiring for them. But if we weren’t tired, we wouldn’t be doing anything.”
The Bears feature a lot of returning veterans offensively like junior quarterback Charlie Brewer and senior receivers Denzel Mims, Chris Platt and Marques Jones. But Rhule wants Brewer to get more comfortable utilizing younger players in the passing game.
“Charlie has a great rapport right now throwing the ball to some of his older receivers,” Rhule said. “But I’d like to see that continue across the board with tight ends involved and the backs involved, and get the younger receivers involved.”
BEAR FACTS – Rhule was excited to see former Baylor receiver Jalen Hurd make two touchdown catches Saturday night to lead the San Francisco 49ers to a 17-9 exhibition win over the Dallas Cowboys. After leading the Bears in receiving last season, Hurd was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the spring.
“What I told the team was when Jalen goes out there and plays the way he played – not just the touchdowns, but he caught the ball and tried to run someone over on the goal line. He tried to dominate blocking. When people would come in here and ask me about him, I would say, ‘This is who he is.’”