About halfway through my first look at Baylor's football roster on Tuesday night I realized that the undertaking was just too much for one post, so I decided to split it into two, one for each primary side of the ball. I also thought about doing a third, shorter post about special teams, but only two positions of performance there will change going into this season. It's probably easier to just gloss over those in true Brilesian fashion diving into the defense.
The departure of Kendall Wright for the NFL and the arrival of Darryl Stonum means Baylor will probably have entirely new returners on both punts and kicks. I expect for Stonum to be the primary kick returner with either Demitri Goodson (the former Gonzaga PG who transferred before last season) and Antwan Goodley, the freakishly strong WR that returned kicks late in the season last year. Goodson's emergence in the defensive secondary could be a harbinger of increased playing time across the board, but I'll give the nod (insomuch as I can) to Goodley to pair with Stonum on kicks. As for punts, Levi Norwood was listed as the primary punt returner on the post-spring depth charts Baylor posted. I have no reason to doubt that will continue to be the case. Stonum almost certainly has the skillset to do so, it's just a lot to ask of a guy who will be doing so much already.
Whew, glad we got that out of the way. Now let's see what Phil Bennett will have to work for in his second year at the helm of Baylor's defense. Again, when I say "roster," I mean the most-recent version available on BaylorBears.com. When I say "depth chart," I mean the one posted after spring training ended.
It's worth noting right off the bat that for the first time since Briles arrived on campus five years ago, Baylor will return its entire defensive coaching staff intact. Brian Norwood (safeties), Carlton Buckels (CBs), Jim Gush (LBs), and Chris Achuff (DL) are the primary position coaches on Phil Bennett's staff, and unlike a year ago when Buckels and Gush were just arriving, Norwood changed jobs from DC to Associate HC, and Phil Bennett took the reins, the entire staff has a full year under their belts working at their current positions. I have no doubt that will pay dividends this season. Though all are experienced coaches and hard workers, working as a unit was as new for them as it was for the players they coached. The benefits to them of a year working in Bennett's system could be just as important as the benefits to the players themselves.
First, the defensive line:
- I want you to guess the significance of the following number: 7. Give up? That's how many combined starts our starting DTs have in their careers at Baylor going into this season. Here's another number: 0. That's how many games played their likely backups have. Scared yet? Yeah, me, too. Now you know part of the reason why I have the defensive line as the single biggest question mark on our entire 2012 team. We'll get to the other part in a moment.
- There is, however, reason for some hope. First, both likely starters have excellent size-- Nick Johnson is listed at 6-2, 295 while his counterpart Kaeron Johnson is 6-3, 305-- that makes them prototypical DTs for the type of defense Phil Bennett likes to run. In that defense, they will be asked to do basically two things: plug gaps and keep the opposing linemen off the linebackers. The seniors Johnson should be at least competent in those respects. The second reason for optimism is the upside of their backups, two redshirt freshmen who will both, according to Bennett, get significant time in the DT rotation. Nick's backup at the NG position is Trevor Clemons-Valdez, a 6-3, 285 pounder who came to Baylor two years ago nearly thirty pounds lighter. Kaeron's backup is Beau Blackshear, another member of the 2011 recruiting class who came to Baylor as a 6-4, 268-pound defensive end and now plays DT after also gaining nearly thirty pounds.
- As for the rest, it's possible that we could see former Trinity Trojan Suleiman Masumbuko (6-3, 290) in the rotation at NG, and I've heard rumors that 5* 2012 DE Javonte Magee (already 6-4, 260) might move inside on obvious passing downs to take advantage of his speed and strength. We'll talk more about him with the DEs below. I fully expect true freshman Zorell Ezell (6-2, 280) to redshirt this season and would be surprised if he didn't.
- It probably hit you that, with seniors starting at both DT positions and little depth behind them, we need DTs in the 2013 class in the worst way. It appears that all hope of that JUCO DT we took this past year whose name I can't recall actually making it to Baylor is gone. That sucks. I should mention, however, that there were some rumors that Baylor may include a few 3-4 looks in addition to the base defense, an alignment that might alleviate some of our problems on the interior OL and take advantage of a relative glut of LBs I'll talk about below. Keep an eye out for that. A 3-4 with Magee, Kaeron Johnson, and Beau Blackshear (or Gary Mason, Jr.) across the front could be an intriguing change-of-pace. It also could allow Terrance Lloyd and Chris McAllister, both relatively undersized DEs, to play their more natural position of OLB and rush the QB.
- Speaking of DEs, all this doom and gloom about our DTs actually makes our situation there, another area of concern, seem less dire. Unless something crazy (and possibly awesome) happens, senior Gary Mason, Jr. (6-4, 265) will start opposite junior Terrance Lloyd (6-3, 235). Mason and Lloyd combine for 36 starts, over 5 times their interior counterparts, which averages to about a second and a half per player. Depth is a serious issue, though, and where the offseason departure of Tevin Elliott rears its ugly head. Junior LB-turned-DE Chris McAllister (6-2, 255) and the heralded freshman Javonte Magee are the probable backups at this point on the outside. I am both terrified and excited by the fact that we might rely so much on a true freshman. That should be our motto-- Baylor Football: it's terrifying and exciting! Also, even though he's supposedly incredibly raw at this point, the possibility that the NCAA grants Shawn Oakman (6-8, 250) immediately eligibility could give a huge shot in the arm to a group that desperately needs it.
- The silver lining of this relative lack of depth is that another freshman (other than Magee, I mean) might get a chance to play early with the probable beneficiary being Dominique Banks (6-3, 265). You have to try pretty hard to see that as a good thing, though.
- Cordarius Golston is listed as a DE despite the fact that he's 6-0, 225. That must be a mistake. Nothing against Golston, that's just not Big 12 size for a DE. Aaron Lorick (JR, 6-2, 25) and Kevin Park (SR, 6-3, 245) are the token "Guys I have never heard of in my life" from this group.
- WAIT A SECOND. I just noticed this because they're listed right between the "DL" guys and the DTs on the roster-- WHY DO WE HAVE 3 DEEP SNAPPERS ON ONE ROSTER? Is that really necessary? You can teach a monkey to snap the ball on place kicks and punts. Why would you ever need more than two with one replacing the other in the extremely unlikely event of an injury? How bad could you be at deep snapping where the coaching staff says "wow, we really need to bring in another guy to do that" and if you were actually that bad, why would they keep you around? We should move on.
- Put aside for a moment the fact that we have another significant number -- 0 -- representing the combined starts of our likely starters at MLB and WLB. I've been excited to write this section for a while now because my choice for Most Intriguing Player on the Baylor Roster is one of those guys. Bryce Hager, son of former Texas All-American LB Britt Hager, emerged in the offseason as both the probable starter at MLB and an absolute athletic freak after coming to Baylor in 2010 as a relatively low-ranked (2*) recruit. Bryce, another success story of the S&C staff, is listed on the roster at 6-1, 235 with a 40 time in the 4.4s and some of the most impressive measurables on the entire team. Every report I've read about him this offseason is positive; every account of his growth and leadership glowing. I can't wait to see him play, and he's just a sophomore!
- Hager's ascendancy probably cost Rodney Chadwick, a returning starter from 2011 with 11 career starts, his job. Chadwick is slightly bigger than Hager at 6-4, 240 pounds but was repeatedly exposed when asked to cover tight ends and receivers in space. Let's just say speed is not his fort. He'll be asked this season to back up Hager on the inside and may see additional time in formations requiring two MLBs.
- Another newcomer is slated to start as of this moment at WLB. JUCO transfer Eddie Lackey (JR, 6-0, 220) ended his first spring at Baylor running with the first team and relegating QB-turned-LB Brody Trahan (JR, 5-11, 220) to a backup role. Had Brian Nance (2012 Army All-American) made it in this fall-- and remember, he didn't-- he could have also made a run at playing time behind Lackey or in a possible 3-4 alignment I mentioned earlier. But he didn't.
- It seems like he's been here forever because he's changed positions twice (according to the roster, he's now a LB), but Prince Kent is actually only a junior and seems to have gained quite a bit of size. He's listed at 6-3, 220, a height that would almost certainly limit his effectiveness at his original position, and I'm interested to see how much speed he's retained. His failure to push for playing time as of yet is definitely concerning, but I've said it before and I'll say it again-- I'm a starswhore. I love potential. Maybe Kent still has it and maybe he doesn't. I want to find out!
- Filling out the rest of the roster are true freshmen Shamycheal Chatman (6-1, 215, certain redshirt) and Kendall Ehrlich (ditto on all three), sophomore Robert Singletary (6-2, 235, sounds vaguely familiar), junior transfer Mike Orakpo (6-1, 225, will redshirt per NCAA rules), and "who?" guys Lee Bristow (RSFR, 6-3, 210), Charles Kelly (SO, 5-10, 220), and Chris Quinn (SO, 6-0, 235). There's talent in that group (particularly Ehrlich and Orakpo) as well as raw athleticism (Chapman).
- Rodney Chadwick is the only senior LB on the roster, but we have a metric Bearton of juniors. That's probably why we're taking a ton in the 2012 class. They'll redshirt next season and be ready for playing time in 2014.
- One of my recruitcrushes from 2012, Aiavion Edwards (6-0, 220), showed up in the LB photo on picture day the other day. Does that mean something? Might he be moving to the next position on this breakdown or angling for a LB spot? I don't know.
- Really wish Brian Nance made it in this past year, you guys, because I see an opportunity to use his speed coming off the edges. But he didn't.
- There is only one on the roster and that's junior Ahmad Dixon (6-0, 210), the progenitor of the Ahmad Dixon position and probable owner of the most swag on the post-RGIII Baylor Bears. The depth chart lists Prince Kent as the backup at the AD, which could technically qualify as a third linebacker most of the time or a member of the secondary some of the time, but redshirt freshman Devante Davis (6-2, 205) is the only other one listed on the roster as such.
- Copy and paste what I said about Prince Kent above in this spot. This is probably where he fits the best. I still want to see what he can do blitzing the QB, though. Or just playing on the field anywhere at all.
- Before I go any further, I want you to look at the roster (here's a link in case we're too far down the page) and sort by height from shortest to tallest. Notice anything? With a few exceptions like freshman RB Rashodrick Linwood (5-8, 185) and Salubi, they're mostly DBs. Quite a few of them are cornerbacks. So when I tell you that Phil Bennett has a "type" at CB, this is what I mean. He likes shorter, extremely fast CBs that make up for their lack of height with tremendous acceleration. Patrick Levels (5-8, 180), Terrell Burt (5-8, 185), and Ryan Reid (5-9, 195) are the most-recent additions to our CB corps (and all likely redshirts this season) after Bennett added 2012 starters Joe Williams (JR, 5-9, 190) and K.J. Morton (JR, 5-9, 175) from the JUCO ranks a year ago.
- Their diminutive size aside, I like our returning starters (Williams and Morton) quite a bit more this year than I have in the recent past. Both players arrived last summer with little time to learn, improved as the season went on, and established themselves as the incumbents for their respective positions going into 2012. Don't let the disastrous efforts of our secondary as a whole from last year fool you into believing these guys can't play; it's not their fault that the last position on this breakdown was a total mess.
- I'm not going to waste my time and yours by listing all of the other possible CBs on the roster. Believe me when I say there are way too freaking many for that. The other names you probably need to know are Tyler Stephenson (JR, 5-10, 170), consistently billed as the best pure cover corner on the roster despite his inability to stay on the field, Tuswani Copeland (SO, 5-10, 170), a rumored starter going into last season before -- GASP! -- getting injured, and Demetri Goodson, the former Gonzaga PG I told you about above the jump. Goodson is especially intriguing because rumor has it that he's been getting a lot of run the past few days. Junior Darius Jones (5-11, 190) could also sneak into playing time in a dime package. He's got the speed for it.
- Probable redshirt candidates are Orion Stewart and Xavien Howard in addition to the Burt, Reid, Levels troika I mentioned above. Names that jump out at me for their failure to jump out at me are Anthony Betters (RSFR, 5-9, 180), Quinn Johnson (FR, 5-10, 175), and Kevin Mitchell (RSFR, 6-0, 180).
- It may be that I've already written 2300 words about our defense, but I'm exhausted just thinking about the safety position on this team. It was, without a doubt, the worst unit on the team in 2011 and the sole reason for 85% of my expletive-laden tirades this past season . And, because that wasn't enough and God has a wicked sense of humor, we're probably bringing both starters-- junior Sam Holl and senior Mike Hicks-- back for another go in the same positions in 2012. AREN'T YOU EXCITED? In their defense, it was their first year in an entirely new defensive scheme and they were overseen by a coach who was just demoted from DC. Perhaps they both deserve a mulligan for las-- I couldn't even finish that sentence without the vision of Ryan Swope streaking to the endzone dancing through my head.
- The good news is that both Holl (6-1, 200) and Hicks (5-11, 200) posted impressive numbers in summer workouts in terms of speed and athleticism, so perhaps there is some reason for optimism from both in their second seasons playing for Phil Bennett. Another reason is that things couldn't possibly get worse from 2011, right? Chance Casey (SR, 5-11, 185), a valuable contributor in years past beset by unfortunate injuries, has a Chance to earn playing time behind one of the two after a position change to safety last year, and yet another JUCO from last season, senior Josh Wilson (6-0, 195) does, as well.
- With Kiante Griffin apparently a WR and Aiavion Edwards possibly moving to LB, my hopes for an impact safety from the 2012 class have taken a tumble. 2013, however, has Pullom, Sells-Warner, and Jupe looking like probable safeties, so youth is on the way, after all.
- I'm not going to lie to you, when I said that DT was my biggest concern on the team, I was lying to you. It's actually the safeties. Safety is a tricky position to scheme and play because there is no, for lack of a better word, safety net behind you. You can overcome some poor play on the line with good linebackers and vice versa, and good safeties can take the pressure off bad corners, but what do you do when you have bad safeties? You give up points. I don't mean to harp on Holl and Hicks because I know they're incredibly hard-working players that give Baylor 110%. I hope people reading this don't take my criticism as me slamming them as people. That's not what I'm saying at all. What I am saying is that for Baylor to take a big step forward defensively in 2012, they've got to be a lot better than they were last season. I've heard Bennett is confident they will be. I hope he's right.