Baylor Football 2013 Spring Preview: The Defense

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor DC Phil Bennett begins his third year at the helm in earnest today when the teams take the field for the first spring practice of 2013. He's got more talent to work with than ever before, but serious questions remain about how he'll use it.

At this point, any Baylor fan worth their salt knows that while our offense carries our team, it is our defense that dictates our fate. It is not a coincidence that in each of the last two years, our late-season winning streaks have been powered by resurgent defensive efforts any more than it is a coincidence that each was necessary in the first place.

Through the first 7 games last season, Baylor had not just the worst defense in the country, but one of the worst in the history of FBS football. We were so bad that I, in a fantastic example of my own hot-headedness, started calling for the head of Phil Bennett in only his second year. It was a dark time. Luckily, the defensive turnaround most evident in the huge upset over Kansas State kept us from going down in history and by the end of the season, things were actually looking pretty good. We ended the season 83rd in defensive F/+, up nearly 40 spots from our lowest-recorded mark after the game against OU. I'm willing to bet that if I had the stats, we were even worse after scoring 63 points and losing to West Virginia.

The even better news than the way the 2012 team finished is that the 2013 defense should be the most-talented such unit in a generation. Defensive end, which once seemed as much a pile of crap as that through which Andy Dufresne crawled his way to freedom, benefited over the last two years from great recruiting and the arrival of an impact transfer who will get his chance to shine this year. Defensive tackle, though not what anyone would call a strength just yet, has seen its own fortunes turn similarly, and we should be able to reap the benefits this year of playing young guys before they were ready in 2012. Yes, we lose both starters up front in stalwarts Nick Johnson and DE-turned-DT Gary Mason, Jr., but we will replace them eventually with incoming JUCO All-American Terell Brooks, 4* DT Andrew Billings, and existing players in the system who will be a year older and stronger than they were before.

Still, because we're all Baylor fans here and our glass half-empty approach is as much a part of our self-identity as the colors green and gold, we should temper enthusiasm a bit by saying it's highly doubtful that we get where we want to be any time soon. Though I can't prove it because I haven't done the research, I'm comfortable saying that there aren't many defenses that go from being ranked in the 100s one year to the top-20 the next. The good news is that we don't really need it to. With our offense, we don't need an elite defense (but I'd take one, if offered!) to be successful. We need one that isn't a complete trainwreck. That's what we got in the last 6 games of the season and you saw what happened-- we won. As much as I hate absolute defensive statistics (and I think I've explained why at length), if we could get into the top-75 this season, I'd be very happy. Ecstatic even.

To do that, here's where I think we'll be when we take the field against Wofford on August 31. Once again, because there was some confusion, I'm not projecting the depth chart that will practice today. Guys like Billings and Brooks aren't even on campus yet. I'm projecting where it will be once things shake out a bit. I understand that's not entirely useful for knowing how things stand in Spring Practice, but I think it's the best way to know where we are on the whole. Reasonable minds, of course, can differ. But here it is:

FIRST TEAM SECOND TEAM
LE Terrance Lloyd (SR) Shawn Oakman (JR)
DT Terell Brooks (JR) Trevor Clemons-Valdez (SO)
NG Beau Blackshear (SO) Andrew Billings (FR)
RE Chris McAllister (SR) Javonte Magee (SO)
WLB Eddie Lackey (SR) Brian Nance (FR)
MLB Bryce Hager (JR) Kendall Ehrlich (RS-Fr)
NB Sam Holl (SR) Prince Kent (SR)
CB K.J. Morton (SR), OR
Demetri Goodson (SR)
Xavien Howard (RS-Fr)
DS Ahmad Dixon (SR) K.J. Morton (SR)
CS Terell Burt (SO) OR
K.J. Morton (SR)
Terrence Singleton (RS-Fr) OR
Jemarcus Johnson (SO)
CB Joe Williams (SR) Darius Jones (SR)

Five Questions for the Baylor Defense:

1. The Switch

I'm starting off on a weird note by calling a statement a question, but I think it makes sense when you hear me out. The switch I'm talking about is the Holl-Dixon swap, an extremely risky move if made in-season that I whole-heartedly agree with for Spring Practice, which is designed to do exactly this kind of thing in an environment where mistakes are basically meaningless.

The reason I like this switch so much is the same reason they probably did it in the first place: it fits both players' skillsets perfectly. The reason it's so risky is the same it might not stick: you're asking two senior 2+ year starters to change everything they do on the fly. Despite the uncertainty, color me excited.

Moving Dixon back to safety gets our most naturally-gifted defender into a spot that has become the black hole of the Baylor defense ever since Byron Landor left years ago, and even then we weren't exactly stacked. We've always had difficulty recruiting and developing safeties that can both assist against the run (where Jordan Lake and Sam Holl were both decent) and cover receivers down-field (where they were not). Our consistent biggest weakness the last few years-- giving up big pass plays, particularly on third down-- has stemmed in no small part from this deficiency. With a guy like Dixon roaming the defensive secondary instead of hanging out close to the LOS, we may be able to fill that gap. Maybe.

Like I said, it's a ballsy move because you're asking a lot of the individual players involved. But I love it because of the potential. Sam Holl gets to play closer to the line where he won't have to worry about covering faster receiver in space, and Dixon gets to do ... whatever the hell it is Dixon does.

2. What we we doing at CB?

Last year, I asked how many CBs a team really needed on its roster since we seemed to have decided a dozen was about right. This year, I'm wondering if we might start seeing the benefit of that hoarding in terms of a couple of younger guys jumping up to unseat the veterans. I really do believe that this could be as wide-open a competition as any we've seen in a long time. Just look at who we have on the roster:

SR K.J. Morton-- started much of the last two years, may be in line for a position switch to safety.
SR Joe Williams-- Phil Bennett loves him despite the warts, probable starter in 2013
SR Demetri Goodson-- former Gonzaga PG, received medical redshirt after starting 4 games and getting hurt for second year in a row. Probable starter for 2013.SR Darius Jones-- came to Baylor as a WR, received significant playing time each of the last two years.
SR Tyler Stephenson-- missed all or nearly all of 2012 for personal reasons, played a ton in 2011
JR Tuswani Copeland-- outstanding size/speed, actually slated to start in 2011 as a RS-Fr before injury
SO B.J. Allen-- recruited as a RB/DB, now a DB, apparently
RS-Fr Xavien Howard-- talk of the scout team last year, could push for playing time this season
RS-Fr Ryan Reid-- same deal as Howard. A bit undersized but with phenomenal speed
RS-Fr Patrick Levels-- listed as a safety on the roster, pretty sure he's a CB

I can't be crazy to believe that we can find two capable starting corners, whether it's the returning guys or someone new, from that group. Right now I give the nod to Goodson and Williams because they have experience and solid play in their backgrounds, but don't be surprised to see Howard and Reid challenging. I'm not sure what will happen with Morton, but I think he could be a candidate to join Dixon at safety in Mike Hicks' old spot. Will be interesting to say the least. By my count you have 5 different guys on that list that have started games for Baylor in the past.

3. When do the Young Guns arrive at DE?

I've made no secret of my excitement over the potential for guys like Javonte Magee, Shawn Oakman to come in and give us strength at DE unlike any we've had in two decades, and I'll admit that my expectations for that duo are absolutely sky high. Perhaps too high, but fortune favors the bold.

The reason I'm so excited is that those two combine strength, size, and speed at a position where we've always had to settle for one or, if we were lucky, two of the three. Terrance Lloyd and Chris McAllister are good players, and I don't want to sell them short, especially after the way they finished the season, but each have visible warts. Lloyd is too small and probably best-served as a pure pass rusher than an every-down DE. McAllister spun down to DE because he got too big for LB and doesn't have elite speed. As they proved toward the end of the season, however, both are capable players in the Big 12 and both are back this season, penciled in for now as the presumptive starters. They've got guys breathing down their neck in Magee and Jamal Palmer who both saw playing time last season as true freshman, and Oakman who had to sit out. The potential for solid play as a unit from this group might be the highest on the entire defense, if you can believe it.

4. Who plays safety?

Assuming Dixon has one safety spot at this point, who gets the other? I've long felt like the best candidate to replace Mike Hicks would be Morton, but he didn't do it last season when Hicks was out for an injury and I'm not sure he will now, either. Bennett supposedly loves Terrell Burt despite his size and it would seem he will get first crack at the job. Behind him, former 5A offensive player of the year Terrence Singleton (he was a QB in high school) is supposedly wowing people in practice and may push for time, as well. There's also the arrival of Kiante Griffin to account for, and the latest word there is that he won't be a nickelback after all and will definitely play safety. He's one to watch.

This is one spot that, to be honest, scares me a little. We saw what kind of difference Mike Hicks made when he came back from injury last season and he wasn't even that great of a player. Now he's gone and we get to replace him once again from a list of candidates that are either: a) unproven, b) switching positions, or c) extremely unproven. There's talent there with guys like Burt, Griffin, Singleton, and SO Jemarcus Johnson, but this could be a little rough. I'll be watching with interest to see how it shakes out.

5. Osei can we see?

Once again, I needed a fifth question because I'm obsessed with symmetry, and I decided to focus on our first foray into recruiting across the pond in Englishmen Jason Osei. Listed finally on the roster as a redshirt freshman (raising the question of why he wasn't allowed to play in 2012 at all), Osei presents an interesting specimen at 6-3, 310 pounds. Guys with that kind of size and the experience of having already played semi-professional football (albeit in Europe) don't exactly grow on trees, and I'm curious if the absence of Brooks and Billings this spring might give the tea-swiller (I assume) a chance to show what he can do. Right now our DT situation consists of sophomores Beau Blackshear, who really came on toward the end of the season, Trevor Clemons-Valdez, who struggled when pressed into service early in 2012, Suleiman Masumbuko, and redshirt freshman Zorrell Ezell, who I know almost nothing about. Other than they (and Osei, obviously), we have no other DTs on the entire roster. Maybe RS-FR Dominique Banks counts or Magee seems some time inside, but that's it, otherwise. I know of no better way to say "SEE WHY BROOKS AND BILLINGS WERE SO IMPORTANT" than to tell you we only have 4 scholarship DTs to get snaps this spring.

*****

I hope that the hope I have for this year's defense shines through the (now that I read it again) rather negative view I've given of some of the positions. I don't mean to sound so Debbie Downer about the unit as a whole. If you'll notice, I didn't say a word about linebacker, where I think we'll be quite strong, indeed. We return two of the conference's leading tacklers in Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey, and they are going to be backed up by another JUCO All-American in Brian Nance and guys like Kendall Ehrlich and Aiavion Edwards who are just waiting for their chance. That's just one example.

I mean it when I say that I think this could be the most talent we've had on the defensive side of the ball since I've been a Baylor fan, and I am excited to see how it all comes together. If we are strong where I believe we will be and good, or, more likely decent, everywhere else, we should be able to continue the upward trend of the last six games of 2012 into 2013. Baylor doesn't need an elite defense to be successful in 2013 and almost certainly won't have one. But the defense we will have should be more than capable of supporting the offense and taking this program to new heights. It all starts today.

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