The Baylor Bears under Coach Art Briles, have long been thought of as an offensive power. Even back in 2010, the Bears were scoring points at a fast pace, and sometimes giving them up even faster. With the addition of defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to the coaching staff though, the Bears started to transform their defense from a weakness to a strength. In 2013, the Bears defense was a strong piece of their success, anchored by a seasoned defensive secondary. In 2014, that secondary was young and untested with a strong defensive line to take some of the pressure off.
The hope for 2015 is that both the front seven and the back 4 will finally both be at the same level, and make the Baylor defense one of the best in the nation. With two All-American anchoring the defensive line, and 4 returning starters in the defensive backfield, this could be the year that Phil Bennett gets to put the finished product of his hard work on the field.
With Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings leading the way, the Bears migth have the best defensive line in the nation. The two stars get most of the attention, but Beau Blackshear, Jamal Palmer, Byron Bonds, and KJ Smith would form a solid defensive line just by themselves. However, when you add in one of the most physically imposing presences in college football and one of the strongest players to ever play in the state of Texas, you get something special.
Oakman, the preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year, is known as a physical presence on the outside of the line. With his 6-foot-9 frame, he is able to use his length to seal the edge in the run game as well as any defensive end in the country. He can cut off the outside easily, while still holding leverage inside to stop cut-backs. His pass rush is still developing, and has been inconsistent at times. He has a great bull rush, but needs to devleop a 2nd quality move, as he struggles to dip his shoulder and get around his blocker at times.
Jamal Palmer and KJ Smith both have starting experience on the side of the line, as Palmer was a solid contributor in 2013, and in 2014 until an injury ended his year. That opened up a spot in the lineup for Smith, a redshirt freshman at the time. Smith was second on the team in sacks with 5 and fourth on the team with 10 tackles for loss.
In fact, the Bears return seven of their top 10 players in terms of tackles for loss, and all but 5 of the teams 37 sacks, with 25 of those coming from returning players on the defensive line.
On the inside of the line, the Bears have one of the best duos in the nation, headlined by Andrew Billings, an All-American candidate. Billings is the strongest Baylor Bear on the team, and one of the strongest players in the nation. His ability to demand a double team, and even beat it (2 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss) is a key to the Bears run defense. With 3-year starter Beau Blackshear alongside him, the Bears have a seasoned and talented middle of the line. Add in backups Byron Bonds, and redshirt freshmen Andrew Morris and Ira Lewis, the Bears should be able to rotate quite a bit and keep their big guys fresh.
The only questions about new faces with the Bears defense this year is in the middle, as they look to replace two of their three linebackers, including their "nickelbear" spot, a hybrid linebacker/safety role held last year by Collin Brence. Add in replacing 3-year starter, a defensive key Bryce Hager at middle linebacker, and the Bears will have an untested middle of their defense.
Taylor Young is back after a sensational freshman season as the starter at the weakside. Young was second on the team in tackles with 92 in 2014, even with not starting the first few games of the year, before taking over for Aiavion Edwards after an injury. Young brings great quickness and insticts to the position, and was very effective as a blitzer in the Bears scheme.
Alongside Young will be two new starters, with Travon Blanchard and Grant Campbell both leading candidates. Blanchard was the primary backup at the nickel back position last year, and brings quite a bit more athleticism to the position. Stepping in for Hager will be senior Grant Campbell. The junior college transfer played primarily as a backup and on special teams in 2014, and had 11 tackles and 1 sack on the season. Campbell is a solid tackler for the position, with good size and speed.
Backing up both players will probably be Aiaivion Edwards, who started at the weakside spot to begin last year, after starting at middle linebacker late in 2013 after Hager was injured. Edwards is the best athlete of the bunch, and brings experience at both positions. If an injury were to occur, the Bears should feel good about the first guy off the bench. Also providing depth will be Raaquan Davis, and backup nickel back Pat Levels, who could play quite a bit when the Bears go to a 3-man front.
In 2014, the Bears pretty much went with a 2-cornerback system, with Ryan Reid and Xavien Howard dominating the snaps and playing for almost all of the game. That was primarily due to injuries to key backups Terrence Singleton and Tion Wright, as well as a lack of depth options behind them. In 2015, that should be less of a problem, as Baylor returns every corner on the roster. Howard and Reid still are the starters, with Wright pushing hard for a starting spot of his own. Singleton, a star the past 2 springs, has appeared to put all of his fall injuries behind him. The depth behind them is even stronger this year as well, as redshirt freshman Jourdan Blake and Veredrik Vaughns have also impressed at times during fall camp and look to get into the rotation throughout the 2015 season.
Xavien Howard is the star of the group. After a tremendous first half of the 2014 season, Howard took a step back after the West Virginia game. Struggling with pass interference penalties, and a possible lack of confidence after his WVU game struggles, the Bears need Howard to be one of the best corners in the Big 12. Getting him to take care of his field, and let the Bears focus defensive reinforcements to other areas would be a huge win for Phil Bennett and company.
On the other side, Ryan Reid is still the starter, after being pushed by the under-sized Tion Wright all offseason. Reid struggled mightily at times in 2014, but improved as the year went on. You could see his improvement from the beginning of the TCU game to the end, as he was picked on all night till the 4th quarter comeback, eventually knocking down a 4th down pass on the Horned Frogs last offense chance.
This is the biggest area of improvement needed for the Bears to take the next step defensively. The Baylor corners were not good enough in 2014, especially in the losses to West Virgini and Michigan State. Late in the year, and late in games, the secondary struggled to stop the deep ball, and protect big leads. With improved depth, and more experienced players to lean on, the Bears secondary could be a very improved unit.
With All-Big 12 safety Orion Stewart returning to anchor the Bears defensive backfield again, Baylor has one of the better safeties in the Big 12 as its leader. Stewart is a a very active player, beinv involved in the running game (82 tackles) as well as being leading the Bears in interceptions with 4 (Tied with Xavien Howard). Starting alongside the senior will be Terrell Burt, a player that struggled in 2014 after a very strong start to his career in 2014. Burt was very impressive as a freshman in 2013, playing very well alongside Ahmard Dixon and Sam Holl. However, in 2014, Burt struggled taking on more of a coverage role, especially in the slot. With a more athletic nickel back alongside him, the hope is that the lessened coverage responsibilities, as well as better overall health, will help Burt get back to his 2013 levels of play.
Alfred Pullom, Chance Waz and Taion Sells will be the primary backups for the safeties, with Pullom and Sells getting quite a bit of playing time last year in those roles. Waz is one to watch, as he played as a true freshman in 2014, as looks to improve on a season spent mostly as a strong special teams player.
Overall, if the Burt from 2013 is what the Bears see this year, this could be one of the better safety duos in the Big 12, and a huge boost to the Baylor pass defense.
With the amount of experience returning for the Bears all over the defensive depth chart, the Bears should see quite a bit of improvement in results in 2015. They are an older team, a wiser team, and quite possibly a much better overall defense. One player won't be able to replace Bryce Hager, but if the overall lienbacking unit can share that load, the Bears could be improved overall. They should be more athletic with Blanchard at the nickel back position, which could have a huge impact on the secondary.
The pieces are all there for the Bears to have one of the best defenses in the Big 12. They won't look like it on the box score at times, but if the defense can get those big stops in the 4th quarter that alluded them in the Michigan State, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State games, it will go a long way to making this the best Bears team in history.