Every expert, analyst, commentator, and fan seemed to be asking the same question about the 2019 Baylor Bears. How did they get here? How did this program go from 1-11 to 11-1 and playing for a conference championship in just 3 seasons? This is the second part of two-part series examining the reasons for success. Today’s focus is on the coaching.
I think every Baylor fan had moments of angst, confusion, and worry during the 2017 season. Mine was when the Bears were trailing by two possessions in the 4th quarter against UTSA, and from the stands it did not look like the offense was playing with any sense of urgency. But there were enough glimpses that assured me that this was not going to be a program that reverted back to its 1997-2002 levels; I believe the Bears had a lead in eight of the 12 games they played that year. Sure enough, the process continued and the Bears are now just a few weeks from playing in the Sugar Bowl.
A key component of the 2019 success was having players excelling at positions in which they had not played before. On defense, Blake Lynch came into his own after bouncing around different positions for most of his collegiate career. At the end of the 2017 season, Lynch looked to have found role in the Baylor WR corps. He finished the year strong and had a standout performance against TCU, all while starting the season on defense. Fortunately, even after his strong 2017 finish, the coaching staff had the foresight put him back on defense for the 2018 & 2019 seasons. By the end of this season, we had seen Blake Lynch do it all. He had success rushing the passer, defending the run, and in pass coverage. Similarly, Grayland Arnold also saw his position change pay off in 2019. Switching from a traditional cornerback to a safety allowed Arnold to show off his ball-hawking skills, recording 6 interceptions. Conventional wisdom says we will see his name on some pre-season all conference lists in 2020. Last, maybe the most important position change was the one that Sam Tecklenburg made in 2017. Moving from a tight-end to offensive lineman was not always easy for the senior, but when it was all said and done, its my belief that Tecklenburg has improved more than any other player the past 3 seasons. In 2019, he was our most reliable offensive lineman and earned a captain spot.
A decision was made in the off-season to switch to a 3-man front, and that decision would wind up being the most important strategy of the whole off-season. Whether it was born out of necessity due to transfers, graduation, and inexperience, or out of self-realization is irrelevant. Scheming around a strong 3-man rush made things easier on the defensive coaches and allowed coach Phil Snow to get more creative with his blitz packages; engaging players from all levels of the defense because the out-manned defensive line would be able to occupy all of the opposing teams offensive line.
Good coaches have their teams ready to play each and every Saturday no matter the opponent. And I can honestly say that this 2019 Baylor team never came out flat or with the wrong mindset, surprising many people, including myself. Whenever I was worried about the Bears being overwhelmed in hostile environments (Oklahoma State & Kansas State) they proved me wrong. Whenever I was worried about a trap game (Kansas & West Virginia) they proved me wrong. Whenever I was worried that they would not be able to match a talent level (Oklahoma) they proved me wrong. Even during games the Bears were struggling, it was not due to lack of effort. The motivation was exemplified in other ways as well. Most noticeably, in the rise of punt and field goals blocked the past two seasons. A lot of times those are just pure effort plays. Instead of taking those plays off because the probability of making a big play is low, the Bears consistently get great pushes up front and extend their paws as high as they can. And in 2019 it paid off. Baylor blocked a field goal against Iowa State that would keep the momentum from changing going into halftime, and again blocked one against West Virginia to clinch the game. Finally, an obvious sign of motivation has been displayed by the physicality that the Bears played with the entire season. Teams that are scared don’t play with that kind of tenacity. Teams that don’t respect their coach don’t leave their bodies on the line for them.
A lot of coaching is just about pushing the right buttons, and the past 3 seasons, this coaching staff has done just that. And in 2019, fans were able to see those decisions pay off successfully.