Raymond Carlin III/USA Today

How Texas has legitimized Phil Bennett's defense this season

Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has been consistently maligned while with the program. However, Texas' early defensive struggles prove why Bennett schemes this way.

Saturday afternoon in Ames was embarrassing. Baylor’s defense allowed a hapless Iowa State team to score on its first six drives and needed a late field goal to beat the Cyclones. Eventually, the Bears led for zero seconds of game time, but still found a way to pull out the win. 

It’s become a yearly tradition for Baylor fans to call for defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to be fired, and that was no different after the disastrous 45-42 win over Saturday. I’ve written extensively about Bennett’s successes at Baylor, but Texas has changed the conversation.  

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As any Bears fan knows by this point, Texas hired offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert away from Tulsa to run a Baylor-style offense in Austin. After a nationally-relevant win over Notre Dame in the opener, the Longhorns have looked supremely mortal. This past weekend saw them fall to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., which has caused many fans to call for Charlie Strong’s head. Strong has become a victim of his own early success.

The loss has been exaggerated to the point of being comical – Oklahoma State is a darn good football team and certainly more cohesive than Texas at this point. However, there is plenty for Baylor to take away from the start.

Multiple fans have asked me why we can’t run defensive systems like Alabama or LSU. The answer isn’t simply talent; offenses and defenses have to be in sync. Seeing Texas try to run its defense against Oklahoma State a week after Baylor was the perfect case study.

Texas allowed 49 points, 555 yards, 3.5 points per drive and a wild 7.8 yards per play against the Cowboys. The Longhorns were especially inept against the pass as OSU averaged 14.0 yards per pass attempt. To contrast, Baylor – a team with less defensive talent and comparable experience – allowed 24 points, 492 yards, 4.9 yards per play and just 1.7 points per drive.

Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was an excellent coach at Louisville with Charlie Strong, but the results have not followed to Texas. The Longhorns current rank No. 87 allowing 428.5 yards per game and No. 116 allowing 38.3 points per game. In a desperation movie, Strong demoted Bedford and said he will take over the responsibilities.

The Longhorns have strong talent and more experience than they’d like to admit, but the flaws of trying to play a traditional defense alongside the new spread, hurry-up offense quickly became apparent.

Texas plays multiple base defensive packages, but most center around traditional 4-3 or 3-4 alignments with two safeties and two cornerbacks, and featuring a pass rusher that can line up either as a stand-up or down lineman. Like most traditional defenses, Texas has a nickel package with a fifth defensive back, but it’s situational.

Texas’ linebackers are built to play in this traditional system. Starters Edwin Freeman, Naashon Hughes, Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler average out at 6-foot-2.5 and 233 pounds. Compare that to Baylor’s base linebacker corps of Taylor Young, Travon Blanchard, Aiavion Edwards and Raaquan Davis, who average just under 6-foot-1 and 222.5 pounds. 

However, the biggest difference between the two differences is the utilization of the fourth linebacker. Both systems call for a hybrid, but the hybrids could not be more different.

For Texas, think DeMarcus Ware. Even though he’s a linebacker, he’s used almost exclusively to rush the quarterback and get pressure in the backfield and is a hybrid between a defensive end and a linebacker. This position on Texas’ defense is called the FOX. However, Baylor’s BEAR position instead functions as a hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive back and is typically considered a nickelback – or fifth defensive back.

This system can sometimes be referred to as a 3-3-5 – three down defensive linemen (Ira Lewis, K.J Smith, Jamie Jacobs), three linebackers (Aiavion Edwards, Raaquan Davis, Taylor Young) and five defensive backs (Travon Blanchard, Ryan Reid, Verkedric Vaughns, Orion Stewart, Davion Hall). Baylor even went a step further by replacing one of the linebackers with another nickelback (Pat Levels) to form a 3-2-6 defense at times against a pass-heavy offense.

These changes all seem pretty minor, but they have a major cumulative effect. The hulking linebackers Texas runs out are perfect to stop the run effectively, but these players can get worn down having to be on the field for 100 plays. Additionally, these players are unequipped to chase around quick wide receivers.

That manifested itself on Saturday. Slot receiver Jalen McCleskey broke out for 109 yards and two touchdowns, largely while being matched up against linebacker or when safeties were forced out of position to help. James Washington added 91 yards and a score before getting knocked out with a concussion. Six different players had at least 30 receiving yards.

Baylor allowed Washington and McCleskey to combine for 166 yards, but Chris Lacy was next with just 32 yards.

There are downsides to running Baylor's system. The defense has less bulk to match up with big, physical running backs and strong offensive lines. We have seen this against Kansas State over the past few years, who seem to manhandle the smaller linebackers and clear space. The middle is more exposed, especially considering the Bears are now without gigantic defensive tackle Andrew Billings. It forces more players to make tackles in open space.

Football is all about matchups. When a team runs a four receiver set, it either forces all four defensive backs (cornerbacks and safeties) to match up against wide receivers or forces a linebacker to cover one of the receivers to allow your safety to stay back and protect against deeper passes. Having a traditional linebacker against a new-age offense makes that difficult.

However, that’s what makes Baylor’s defense so effective when it needs to be. Blanchard is built to either make plays at the line in run support or cover receivers in space. Versatility is the name of the game with Phil Bennett’s defense and the results are obvious.

In 2012, Bennett’s second season, Baylor gave up an absurd 502.2 yards per game and 37.2 points per game. That number improved to 28.3 points per game and 396.5 yards per game in 2015 with personnel that fit his system.  

Bennett has run several different defenses over the years and had several rank top 10 nationally, especially under Bill Snyder. However, this is the best balance to try and complement Baylor’s explosive offense.

Defense is hard to evaluate and is even harder when it needs to be contextualized with offenses. Regardless, Baylor should be encouraged by the consistent improvement that continues to happen on defense.

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