Big 12 Media Day Football

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule answers a question during the annual Big 12 media days event on Tuesday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

ARLINGTON — Baylor made one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the nation last season as it jumped from one win to seven.

Coach Matt Rhule clearly showed his system was working after taking over a depth depleted, scandal ridden program in December 2016.

But as impressive as last year’s rise was, making the jump to a nine or 10-win season could be even more difficult.

Rhule knows the blueprint: He took Temple from 2-10 in 2013 to 6-6 in 2014 before breaking through with a pair of 10-win seasons during his last two years coaching the Owls. Rhule hopes the model works at Baylor, but he knows how difficult it is to join company with the Big 12 elite.

“That’s what I would like to do,” said Rhule at Tuesday’s Big 12 media day. “That’s the expectation for me, but it’s way easier said than done. This is one of the hardest working, most industrious groups I’ve been around. They know the teams that are here. So I’m hopeful we can take those steps.”

After finishing 1-11 in 2017, the Bears improved to 7-6 last year by winning their last two games, including a 35-24 win over Texas Tech in the regular season finale followed by a 45-38 win over Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl.

With eight offensive and seven defensive starters returning, the Bears will put a veteran team on the field. There are plenty of leaders who have played at a high level like quarterback Charlie Brewer, wide receiver Denzel Mims, and preseason all-Big 12 defensive lineman James Lynch and linebacker Clay Johnston.

But Rhule said the defense must stop allowing so many big plays while coming up with more sacks and turnovers. The Bears ranked eighth in the Big 12 by collecting 25 sacks last season and were dead last by forcing 10 turnovers, including seven interceptions and three sacks.

“For us to take the next step, we have to get better on defense and that starts with not giving up so many big plays,” Rhule said. “Also last year we were last in the conference in taking the ball away. We’ve got to become more of an impact defense taking the ball away, and I think that starts with our players.”

Rhule would like to see the Bears collect 40 sacks this season, which means veteran defensive linemen like Lynch, Bravvion Roy and James Lockhart will need to produce big years. Lynch is coming off an all-Big 12 sophomore season in which he amassed 5.5 sacks, but the Bears need more consistency from everybody up front.

“It’s going to take the whole team to get the numbers up to 40, and 40 is where we have to be in my mind to have a great defense,” Rhule said. “I think the thing about the Big 12 is that it’s not much of a dropback passing league. A lot of teams rely on RPOs (run-pass options), and really play-action and match protection. So to me the key to be a dominant pass rush team is you have to get the lead.”

Not only did the Bears have trouble getting to opposing quarterbacks, they had difficulty protecting Brewer. Though a big part of Brewer’s game is scrambling and creating plays with his feet, Baylor hopes to cut down on the Big 12-high 39 sacks it allowed last season.

“I’m making sure we’re doing everything we can for the offensive line to be better, so he can play a little more comfortably,” said Baylor guard/center Sam Tecklenburg. “Once we settle on a starting five, I think we’ll be able to jell pretty quickly.”

If the offensive line can improve and the defense can resolve its issues, the Bears should be in ideal position to win more consistently since they have plenty of weapons to produce a lot of points.

Brewer will pass to a receiving corps that features seniors Denzel Mims, Chris Platt and Marques Jones, who will be joined by speedy young receivers like Tyquan Thornton, Josh Fleeks and Jackson Gleeson. Mims is Baylor’s top returning receiver after making 55 catches for 794 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.

“This is one of the best groups I’ve been a part of because we have a lot of young talent,” Mims said. “We have a lot of people who haven’t had the chance to show they can do something. We feel like we’re going to really make some noise.”

Baylor is also stacked in the backfield with the veteran trio of John Lovett, JaMycal Hasty and Trestan Ebner returning. Rhule said Lovett, who led the Bears with 573 yards rushing last season, will remain at running back after seeing some time in spring drills at safety.

“I really believe John could play 10 years at safety in the NFL,” Rhule said. “But he’s also a great back. He just could never get healthy in the spring. We had him backpedal a couple of times, but it wouldn’t be fair to ask him to go out there now and try to learn it in preseason camp. He wants to play tailback, and that’s important to me too.”

Most of the players who sat out during spring drills are expected to be ready for the season opener against SFA on Aug. 31 at McLane Stadium. Rhule said defensive end Deonte Williams (broken arm), running back Craig Williams (knee) and receivers Tyler Henderson and Gavin Holmes (ACL injuries) will likely be out when the Bears report Aug. 1 and hold their first practice Aug. 2.

“Deonte had another surgery from the Texas game last year, and hasn’t quite healed the way it’s supposed to,” Rhule said.

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