Baylor’s offense deservedly draws most of the national attention, but the defense has quietly become a dependable unit that’s played a big hand in back to back Big 12 championships.
With nine returning starters and more depth than ever, the Bears expect to put their best defense on the field since Phil Bennett took over as defensive coordinator in 2011. Now it’s on their shoulders to prove how far they’ve come.
“Everybody has to have the mindset that they’re going to be better than last year,” Baylor safety Terrell Burt said. “Working with these guys, they’re legit. But we’ve got to show it and make sure we stay level headed and do good things.”
Baylor’s aspirations to create a dominating defense starts up front with a line that returns all four starters including third-team All-America end Shawn Oakman, all-Big 12 tackle Andrew Billings, tackle Beau Blackshear and end Jamal Palmer.
“We can be one of the best to ever come through Baylor and college football history,” Oakman said. “We can take it to the next level. You won’t get any slack from us. We’re all on each other to be great. We’re all like crazed men running around.”
Oakman surprised a lot of people when he announced that he was returning for his senior year just before the Cotton Bowl. Though he was projected to be a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, Oakman believes he could become one of the top five picks in the 2016 draft with an exceptional season.
At 6-9 and 275 pounds, Oakman is a terrifying sight for college quarterbacks. Last season, he ranked among the Big 12 leaders with 11 sacks and 19½ tackles for loss but he could put up even bigger numbers this year if he improves his consistency.
“The way I see it now is I haven’t done anything spectacular,” Oakman said. “I just know my potential and work ethic are so much higher.”
There isn’t a stronger defensive lineman in the country than Billings, a 6-2, 300-pound former Texas high school weight lifting champion. Billings not only plugged the middle for the Bears last year, he was often in the opponents’ backfield as he finished with 11½ tackles for loss.
While Billings is known for his strength, he has exceptional speed for a defensive lineman as he proved last year when he chased down Kansas running back Corey Avery after a 36-yard gain.
“He’s relentless,” Bennett said. “He doesn’t think there’s a play he can’t make. He plays hard and plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He has a very high motor and finishes plays. Once he gets his techniques fine tuned, the sky’s the limit.”
Blackshear is coming off a solid season in which he recorded 9½ tackles for loss and 4½ sacks. The defensive tackle enjoyed a dream game in a 28-7 win over Texas, when he recovered a fumble near the goal line and blocked a field goal that Burt scooped up for a 62-yard touchdown.
After missing the last eight games of last season following an ACL injury against Texas, Palmer is back for his senior year. Palmer recorded 2½ sacks before his injury after finishing with five sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 2013.
With defenses gearing to contain Oakman and Billings, Palmer believes he can pile up big sack numbers.
“I think a lot of people will be focused on Shawn and Billings and it will be time for me to show what I can do as a player,” Palmer said. “I think the sacks will be there for me. It’s just up to me to find my way back there and make plays.”
With Palmer out of the lineup, K.J. Smith stepped in and collected five sacks last season and will be a big part of Baylor’s defensive end rotation. End Brian Nance and tackle Byron Bonds will add depth to the line.
“K.J. got a lot reps so he’s like a first-team defensive end,” Palmer said. “Nance is doing a great job and getting acclimated and getting a position on the team. We’re pushing and trying to get each other better. We have a lot of depth and I’m very excited about it.”
Easily the biggest loss on Baylor’s defense was all-Big 12 middle linebacker Bryce Hager who led the Bears in tackles for the last three years. Grant Campbell will step in after a season learning the ropes under Hager after transferring from Bakersfield College.
“My first spring practice out here I was like a chicken with his head cut off,” Campbell said. “I had no idea where to go or where to line up or how to set up the guys. It was bad, I’m not going to lie. But I learned so much that year. I’m ready for this responsibility. We play sports to live up to the moment and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Replacing Collin Brence at nickelback will be Travon Blanchard who showed some good signs as a redshirt freshman as he finished with 31 tackles and an interception. Patrick Levels will also be in the mix.
“I played rover in high school, so I feel quite comfortable at the position,” Blanchard said. “I feel the nickelback position is the most athletic position on the field, not taking anything away from anybody. You’re asked to play man to man, zone and blitz off the edge. Last year is going to help because I won’t come in blind.”
With Hager gone, sophomore Taylor Young expects to take over the leadership role at linebacker. Though he’s undersized at 5-10 and 225 pounds, Young made freshman All-America as he collected 92 tackles last season and recorded 8½ tackles for loss, four sacks, forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass.
“I know I’m the smallest but I can be the toughest,” Young said. “I hope that my play says that I’m going to be full speed every play and that I pack a lot of punch when I bring it. That’s what I hope people see out there and not just that I’m small.”
Aiavion Edwards will also be in the mix at both middle and weakside linebacker after finishing with 35 tackles last season. Sophomore Raaquan Davis will add depth at middle linebacker.
The Baylor veteran defensive players are confident the linebacking corps will step up to the challenge.
“I don’t think there will be a dropoff at linebacker and they’ll be as good as last year,” Burt said. “I have faith in them and trust in them as teammates that they’ll give their best.”
Sizing up secondary
The Bears ranked 107th in the country in passing yards allowed last season but expect improvement with more depth in the secondary.
Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid played most of the snaps at cornerback and their fatigue showed toward the end of the season. With Terrence Singleton and Tion Wright healthy this year, the Bears hope more depth at cornerback will translate into better production.
“Having depth is big especially in our league,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “It’s a throwing league and guys are getting challenged every snap. We’ve got guys who are very capable. Somebody needs to drive the car and X (Howard) would be the one to get in there and drive. He has proved himself more than the others.”
Howard tied for the team lead with four interceptions while collecting 13 pass breakups last season. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Howard is taller than most cornerbacks and has the leaping ability to hang with most receivers.
“This offseason I’ve been working on my footwork and hands and ball skills,” Howard said. “I feel like I can get into better position to make plays.”
Despite playing with an abdomen injury, Reid played in 12 games and broke up 12 passes last season. After missing spring drills following surgery, Reid is anxious to show what he can do when he’s healthy.
“I had dreamed about it my whole life and I didn’t want the injury to end the dream,” Reid said. “I stuck it out as much as I can. But you could see it in my face on the sideline. I’m feeling way better now.”
Both Orion Stewart and Burt are back at safety and should provide veteran leadership. Stewart is coming off a solid sophomore year in which he finished third on the team with 81 tackles and four interceptions while Burt made 53 tackles and broke up six passes. Providing depth at safety are sophomores Chance Waz and Alfred Pullom and junior Taion Sells.
But it all starts up front. If the defensive linemen can pressure quarterbacks like they expect, it will make everybody look better.
“The D-line makes our job so much easier,” Burt said. “The quicker you get to the quarterback, the quicker the play is over. They do a great job. I know they’re ready to show why they’re the best in the country.”