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Baylor Football Spring Training Preview- Defense

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Our long national wait is over and Baylor football spring training 2012 has finally begun. At this very moment, our intrepid athletes are probably practicing hard, recovering from practice this morning, or preparing for practice this afternoon/evening. I don't actually know how the schedule lines up. UPDATE: Practice supposedly starts at 3:10 PM. This post is set to go up around 4, so I might be updating it with any information that comes out.

In case you missed yesterday's preview and 5 questions for the offense, what I'm doing through these posts is attempting to address what I see as the biggest issues facing Baylor football on each side of the ball. For offense that was relatively easy; Baylor needs to replace its best QB, RB, and WR ever (in terms of single-season statistics) and fill two holes on the offensive line. We discussed in the comments how that might happen and I gave you my predictions, one of which has already come true, for who might play where when things opened up today.

The defense is not going to be nearly so easy. When I sat down to write this post last night, I realized that I couldn't stick to only 5 questions. Even worse, I couldn't answer most of the questions I have because our defense is not nearly so settled an issue as our offense. Though it only loses 3 starters versus the offense's 5, many more players on defense may shift around and it's not as easy to address a unit collectively on defense like it is on offense. The idea of a "defensive line" doesn't lend itself so neatly to analysis as the offensive line, for example.

That being said, today's post about the defense may actually end up being more question-based than yesterdays in that I will actually be asking questions with answers I either don't know or have a much harder time guessing. As always, any input you guys have based on what you know, have heard, or simply think very strongly is greatly appreciated.

Let's get right to it, though, by looking at what Baylor has coming back off the defense as it stood for the Valero Alamo Bowl shootout with Washington at the end of December!

Just as we did yesterday, if we take out the graduating seniors and players leaving early for the NFL from Baylor's defensive depth chart, the Bears have the following starters coming back (all classifications are for 2012):

DT: ________, _________ (Tracy Robertson and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste both graduated. Their backups, Nick Johnson and Kaeron Johnson, respectively, maybe first in line for these spots. For now they are open.)

DE: Terrance Lloyd (JR), Tevin Elliott (JR). Elliott is out for spring practice after having knee surgery in the offseason.

WLB: Rodney Chadwick (SR)

MLB: __________

Nickel: Ahmad Dixon (JR)

CB: K.J. Morton (JR), Joe Williams (JR). I'm going to pencil Morton in as a starter below, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Williams lose his job to someone else. We'll talk about it.

S: Mike Hicks (SR), Sam Holl (JR). Listen, have nothing against either of these guys personally. I'm sure they are both excellent students and outstanding athletes. This is a situation, though, where having returning starters is not a good thing considering how awful both of them played in 2011.

Looking at this list, Baylor's immediate needs are to find to a new starting MLB, replace both starting DTs, and shore up the secondary. Sounds pretty simple, right? WRONG.

5 Questions for the Baylor Defense:

1. Who leads the defense at MLB?

The eminently quotable and perennially-underrated Elliott Coffey is gone; Baylor has to find a new MLB in 2012. Ideally, Coffey's replacement will have played experience playing the position and calling out our defenses and will have both size and speed from the linebacker position. In the past Baylor has had to make do with just one or the other, typically sacrificing speed for size to help cover up deficiencies on the defensive line and keep teams from mauling us to death. It didn't always work out.

The first (and arguably most likely) candidate for the position was listed on Baylor's last depth chart in 2011 as Coffey's backup, upcoming RS-So Bryce Hager. I am extremely intrigued by Hager considering that he is listed at 6-1, 230 pounds on the last available roster and was timed this spring (according to the @BU_Iron_Bear twitter account, the official account for Baylor athletics performance and training) at 4.49 in the 40. That is not a misprint; I went back and found the tweet about him. Hager was also listed with a 35.7" vertical and a 10' 1.5" broad jump. I will pay close attention to this kid in spring training for sure.

Other possibilities that are extremely likely to get at least some playing time at the position this spring are 2012 JUCO recruit Eddie Lackey, who turned in a 4.62 in the 40 and was listed at 6-1, 219 pounds when recruited, and Lequince McCall, who would be spinning down from the nickel position after having backed up Dixon in 2011. McCall is listed at 6-1, 220 on the last roster. A dark horse for immediate playing time should he make it on campus-- relax, he should-- is Brian Nance, Baylor's All-American recruit from Trinity HS in Euless. Nance has all of the physical tools necessary to take and own the position in Baylor's defense, I just don't see it happening right off the bat due to inexperience and the normal adjustment period from HS to college. If it did happen, it would mean that either none of the other guys can play at all or Nance is even better than we thought.

2. Where does Ahmad Dixon play next?

After being recruited as a safety and playing there his freshman year, Baylor "hero" Ahmad Dixon spun down to a quasi-LB position last year in Baylor's defense and played extremely well in a difficult role that often saw him covering tight ends and slot receivers, blitzing, and lining up as a more traditional LB in a 4-3 front. Rumors abound that our weakness at safety has caused Phil Bennett to consider moving Dixon back into the secondary and displacing one of Hicks/Holl.

Dixon has the size (6-0, 200 lbs) and athletic ability (4.39 in the 40, seriously, and a 38.9" vertical) to be one of, if not the, best safeties Baylor has ever had. Whether he gets the chance for Baylor and takes to the position, however, are still questions without answers. I would like to see Dixon, who has become one of the more vocal leaders of the Baylor defense (in some high-profile situations, too vocal), given the chance to shore up a major problem for our defense at safety. That move would create an other problem at the nickel, where we could see someone like SO Devante Davis (6-2, 200 lbs) or JR Anthony Moore (6-2, 210 lbs, no reports from the offseason) step up or even JR Sam Holl, who has been rumored to be moving to LB, spun down. Holl's measurables are actually probably better than you probably expect them to be at 4.57 in the 40 with a 38.2" vertical jump. Making that move would cause Baylor to lose significant speed at the nickel and gain it at safety, so it's a question of where you think that speed will do the most good. That's a question to which I do not know the answer. I just know that I still have nightmares of Holl and Hicks trying (and failing spectacularly) to cover Ryan Swope, which leads me to the next question...

3. What in the world are we going to do at safety?

Assuming for a moment that neither Hicks nor Holl return at the safety position next season (probably not a good assumption, but let's roll with it for now), who does Baylor have coming back or in that could help solve our problems in center field?

One option is the aforementioned Dixon, who may be moving back to his more natural safety position. Another is SR Josh Wilson, a Phil Bennett JUCO recruit in 2011. The coaching staff was extremely high on Wilson when he signed and expected him to contribute in 2011 but his late arrival kept him from getting the opportunity to start. He finished the season as Holl's backup. I don't know much about his cover skills or what we could expect from him. His measurables are reminiscent of Holl himself; he's an inch shorter and slightly lighter with similar speed and a 4" advantage in the vertical jump. I'll be interested in hearing about him from practice reports.

Another player I will be watching out for is the oft-forgotten Prince Kent, who came to Baylor in the same heralded defensive back class that included Stephenson and Dixon. Kent was a 4* safety recruit from Hargrave Military Academy that was expected to compete for playing time each of the last two years. He has not for whatever reason, and my hope that he can flip the light on and take advantage of his physical gifts is starting to fade. He's on the last roster Baylor made available but I haven't heard anything about him in a long, long time.

It's also possible that the eventual "answer" for Baylor at the safety position in 2012 may not even be on campus yet. Those who have paid attention to my Recruit Impact Rankings know that there is one set yet to be revealed that will include two recruits, Kiante Griffin and Aiavion Edwards, who both have the potential to play safety for Baylor at some point in 2012. Whether they will get that opportunity after obviously not being here for spring training remains to be seen. This post is more about figuring out what we will do in the spring, so it may not make sense to include recruits at all in that. It does seem like the chance to make an impact for Baylor's defense will be there considering the uncertainty surrounding the position.

4. How many potential CBs does one team need?

With Williams and Morton returning from 2011 and guys like Chance Casey (SR), Tyler Stephenson (JR), and Tuswani Copeland (RS-So), and T.C. Robinson (RS-So) who all have significant experience and/or started for this team at one point in the past waiting in the wings, Baylor has no shortage of options at the corner position coming into spring training. That's not even counting redshirt freshmen Anthony Webb and Jemarcus Johnson, Gonzaga basketball transfer Demetri Goodson, who I think will be a RS-JR, or DB-turned-WR-turned-DB Darius Jones, who is also a junior. That's ten options (10!) for 2, maybe 3, spots before the incoming freshmen even get on campus.

As I said above, I have to believe from what I've heard/seen that K.J. Morton did enough this past season and in the offseason to predict that he keeps a spot. He turned in a 4.48 in the 40 this offseason and has the benefit of starting 11 games in 2011 where he played very well. It's easy to see him on one side.

On the other side, though, things are probably much more open. Joe Williams seems, at least to me, to be much less of a sure thing, so Baylor may be looking at other options for that spot. Tuswani Copeland is supposedly a favorite of the staff despite his inability to stay healthy, so if he gets healthy he could be an option. Tyler Stephenson will also almost certainly get a look at the position; Baylor doesn't have many players on its roster with his combination of natural cover skills and athleticism. His problem has always been size, particularly in a league dominated of late by big receivers.

Like safety, CB is one of those positions where I have questions with no answers. I honestly don't know how these things look going into spring training, much less how they will shake out afterward. Based on what I listed above it seems like we have no shortage of talent, though, and that's something we haven't always been able to say. That we are having this conversation at all and not simply throwing our hands up in defeat about our secondary is a sign of progress, no?

5. What are we doing for big uglies?

Those that follow recruiting closely know that by far the hardest thing to recruit on defense from the high school ranks is quality defensive linemen. 18 year olds with the size and strength to play DL in college and play it well don't exactly grow on trees, and that's why the biggest difference between the haves and have nots in college football, I think, comes on the defensive line. Baylor's problems in recruiting and developing defensive linemen has been particularly pronounced. We were lucky to get an eventual first round pick in Phil Taylor as a transfer from Penn State, but most of our DTs and DEs have been either what I would call journeymen or guys that had to bulk up considerably to play on the line. The ones we've had with the natural size to be effective have lacked something else, namely endurance.

Our recent recruiting at DT and DE has actually improved, however, and I see a lot of reason for hope from the candidates we have available. Though we are losing both of our starters, we have replacements returning with significant experience in Kaeron and Nick Johnson. Should he make it in, Joey Searcy, the huge JUCO DT, should also get a real chance to contribute. I am also extremely excited to see how redshirt freshmen Suleiman Masumbuko and Trevor Valdez perform after spending a year in Baylor's strength and conditioning program, and I think but don't know that Baylor will consider giving at least one of the bigger DEs like Beau Blackshear (RS-Fr) or Gary Mason, Jr. (SR) playing time at DT in obvious passing situations.

Like CB, I wouldn't be surprised if things were pretty open at DE in Baylor's defense, especially since both Tevin Elliott and Gary Mason, Jr. are expected to miss time in spring training. Elliott is actually going to miss the entire spring, and that could open up his spot completely. Terrance Lloyd returns on the other side, so he's probably got a leg up on the competition. Kedrick Dial (RS-So) could also work into the mix along with RS-Fr Blackshear. Overall, if I had to guess, taking into consideration the wealth of options Baylor has across the line (I could 12 DEs or DTs on the roster before the freshmen even get here), Phil Bennett will choose to go with a true rotation on the line based on the situation. I would also bet just about anything that we see more complex blitz packages installed in his second year at DC in order to help our defensive front 6 (or 7) get more pressure on the QB.

I wish I had more to offer about the defensive line than to simply say that I'm hopeful it can continue to improve, but I don't. Baylor has upgraded its level of incoming talent considerably in the last few years and the 2012 class will be no different with impact newcomers like Javonte Magee, who I could absolutely see starting at DE from the day he gets on campus, Zorrell Ezell, Dominique Banks, and Jamal Palmer coming in when summer school starts.

I have more questions about individual players that I'm going to save for now. This post is long enough. Hopefully we get good practice reports once spring training really gets going this weekend. As always, I'll share everything I hear.