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Baylor Football: Predicting the Defensive Depth Chart

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Baylor lost 9 out of 11 starters from 2019’s historic defense. What’s the new group look like?

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Getting to Know the New Defense ...

Two things are very important for projecting Baylor’s 2020 defense: 1) Baylor lost 9 out of 11 starters from 2019, and 2) Dave Aranda and defensive coordinator Ron Roberts will be installing a new system.

If you’re looking to learn more about the new defense, here are a collection of articles that I’ve found very helpful and will give you a much better understanding of what Aranda/Roberts are looking for and how they plan to attack offenses.

Basic Changes for Personnel

Again, if you want to learn about how the defense is changing, read those articles. Here I’ll go over the basic changes with respect to personnel; i.e., which positions are leaving and which are coming.

Soran has a great quote in his article, “the field side outside linebacker may be played by a ‘linebacker,’ ‘cornerback’ or ‘safety.’ The only relevant questions are: (i) what each defender spot will be asked to do on Saturday, and (ii) who on the roster has the skill set to fill that role? And if they don’t have an answer to the second, they go back and change their answer to the first.”

Basically, this is a fancy way of saying that Aranda will never design his defense around something a defender isn’t capable of doing. He fits the scheme to his personnel (every coach will say they do this, but few actually do it).

Standard 2019 Alignment

https://matchquarters.com/2020/03/16/the-evolution-of-the-odd-dime-baylor-vs-oklahoma-pt-1-coverages-2019/

For help identifying these positions, in 2019 these were played by: Jordan Williams (“W”), Terrel Bernard / Clay Johnston (“M”), Blake Lynch (“S”), Chris Miller (“MS”), Grayland Arnold (“FS”), Henry Black (“BS”).

Standard 2020 Alignment

https://rileykolstefootball.com/2019/05/12/the-bay-and-the-bayou/

I say “standard” because Aranda isn’t nearly as static as most defensive coaches (however, I presume they will be in 2020 due to limited practice and install time). As Cameron Soran goes over in his article, Aranda plays out of a variety of fronts, however there are always a field “F” and boundary “B” linebacker.

These field and boundary linebacker positions are the primary difference between the two defenses. Essentially, the Aranda/Roberts defense trades a third safety for an additional man on the line of scrimmage (the boundary LB). This is foundational to the defense because it allows for more games to be played with who rushes the QB, but gives you less flexibility on the back end for coverages.

Here’s another alignment (this time vs a standard trips look you’ll see a lot in the Big 12):

http://sportstreatise.com/2020/07/aranda-transfers-the-baylor-defense/

Anyway, I have to stop before I just keep talking about the differences. This is a depth chart article!

Defensive Line

As shown in the above diagrams, the defensive line is comprised of two defensive ends and one nose tackle. Aranda’s defensive ends typically sized around 6-2 to 6-4 and ~300 lbs, while nose tackles were bigger, often up to 340 lbs. This was likely due to recruiting differences though (LSU is one of the few programs that can regularly get guys that big that retain their athleticism), at Wisconsin his lines were naturally smaller. The defensive ends are similar to the guys who played DE under Rhule, you want guys around 6-3 300 with long arms who can fight through trash, penetrate, and hold up OL. It’s yeoman’s work. However, due to the addition of the boundary linebacker, it allowed for smaller guys like Josh Landry to have a more natural position since they won’t be fighting through as many double teams.

Defensive End(s)

Starters: Jr., Chidi Ogbonnaya, 6-5 290. So., TJ Franklin, 6-4 296.

2-Deep: So., Josh Landry, 6-1 277 lbs. R-Fr., Garmon Randolph, 6-7 246.

Last year the starting DEs were James Lynch and James Lockhart and their primary backups were Chidi and TJ, so I think this is a pretty easy prognostication. Chidi was a raw guy coming out of high school and has finally built himself up into a really athletic, big DL. Franklin was an underrated recruit of high school who got a lot of burn as a true freshman under Rhule last year.

Landry was a pretty highly regarded recruit who didn’t have a natural position under Rhule’s new defense. He plays with powerful hands and is really good technically. Randolph was getting a decent amount of playing time in his 4 non-redshirt games last year, the key for him will be whether he was able to continue putting on weight during quarantine. There are a few other options behind these guys, namely Harrison White, who still needs to put on some weight, and Cole Maxwell who is coming off his second ACL tear and might fit better as a NT.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Nose Tackle

Starter: So., Gabe Hall, 6-5 305 lbs.

2-Deep: Jr., Rob Saulin, 6-5 302 lbs.

Another underrated recruit, Hall came to college with a college-ready frame and, when he wasn’t injured, was the primary backup for Bravion Roy last year. He’s an interesting player, he has the frame of an offensive tackle but has the tenacity and desire to play defense. He’ll be the anchor in the middle. Saulin has bounced around a few different positions (started at OT, then moved to TE, then to DL, then to TE again while still playing some DL). He’s relatively experienced and will be a good piece this year.

Behind them is probably Ryan Miller, who played OL for the first few years and recently moved to defense. He’s stockier and could grow into a good piece.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers

There are four linebacking positions in Aranda’s defense. Two (The MIKE and WILL, which stand for middle and weak side, respectively) are your standard inside linebackers. Think the positions played by Jordan Williams and Terrel Bernard last year. The other two are new positions in the defense: the boundary and field linebackers. The boundary linebacker (A.K.A. the JACK or bench-backer) is your classic 3-4 defense pass rushing hybrid, usually somewhere around 240-260 lbs. The field linebacker (A.K.A. STAR, SAM, or Nickel) is more versatile and will be a best player available; could be more sized like a linebacker, safety, or corner and then Aranda will design the defense around him.

Boundary Linebacker (A.K.A. JACK or bench-backer)

Starter: Sr., William Bradley-King, 6-4 248 lbs.

2-Deep: Jr., Ashton Logan, 6-1 232 lbs.

Bradley-King was the major coup for Baylor this off-season. A grad-transfer from Arkansas State, he essentially played the same position there and was one of the best pass rushers in the country. Who plays behind him is more of a mystery. If WBK hadn’t come to Baylor, I’d have slated redshirt freshman Matt Jones to start here, but we’ll get to him later. We know from an interview with outside linebackers coach Joey McGuire that the others are Ashton Logan and Tyrone Brown. If Brown gets his weight up he has higher potential, but I don’t know that he’ll be there in 2020.

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WILL Linebacker (A.K.A. Rover)

Starter: Jr., Terrel Bernard, 6-1 222 lbs.

2-Deep: r-Fr., Solomon Turner, 6-1 230 lbs.

I had absentmindedly slotted Bernard to stay as the MIKE backer, but was convinced by Ian Boyd in his recent article that he is more likely to play WILL under Aranda. This position will align to the boundary and be in the box more than the MIKE will and has more pass rushing responsibilities. One of the basic games that Aranda will play is sending the WILL on an insert blitz while dropping the boundary linebacker in coverage, as shown here (R labeled for Rover, equivalent of WILL).

http://sportstreatise.com/2020/07/aranda-transfers-the-baylor-defense/

Behind Bernard I think you’ll see Solo Turner who received a lot of unprompted praise from the coaching staff last year as a true freshman. He arrived on campus with a college ready body but just had to prove he could make the transition from safety to linebacker. I think he’s done so. He reminds me of former BU starting linebacker Aaivion Edwards. Another guy to watch for here is Jr. Bryson Jackson who has dealt with a variety of injuries but played as a pass rusher in high school.

MIKE Linebacker

Starter: So., Dillon Doyle, 6-3 237 lbs.

2-Deep: r-Fr., Matt Jones, 6-3 237 lbs.

In the Big 12, the MIKE has a lot of responsibilities and is one of the toughest positions to fill. The biggest competing constraints are that they must simultaneously be fast and quick enough to defend sideline to sideline, tough enough to take on OL regularly, and athletic/heady enough to drop into deep zones in the passing games. Not an easy skill-set to find.

Doyle is a transfer from Iowa who I think is primed for a great career. I did a short twitter thread on him, he did some really nice things starting as the middle linebacker as a redshirt freshman for Iowa last year.

Doyle is very similar to former Bear Clay Johnston. Both are really athletic big guys who have good lateral quickness and are great on run blitzes. He hasn’t been given immediate eligibility by the NCAA yet, but I’d bet on it.

As I said previously, if Baylor hadn’t landed WBK I’d have slated Matt Jones to be the starting boundary linebacker. Instead, I think they’ll work him as the MIKE backer either backing up Doyle or starting if Doyle isn’t granted immediate eligibility. Regardless, I think he’ll be the most fluid member of the defense; I think you’d see him start if any of the boundary, WILL, or MIKE linebackers got hurt, and he’ll have packages where he plays regularly. He’s supremely talented.

Field Linebacker (A.K.A. STAR or Nickel)

Starter: Jr., Jalen Pitre, 6-0 212 lbs.

2-Deep: Jr. Christian Morgan, 6-1 211 lbs.

This is the position with the most variability on the defense. This is also the position where the depth chart is most meaningless; i.e., against bigger formations you’ll see a bigger guy played here, against smaller a smaller guy. In 2019 for LSU this positioned was manned by the 6-2 240 (but supremely athletic) Michael Divinity, but after he got hurt they converted the 6-1 230 lb safety Jacoby Stevens.

I’ve been pretty vocal in my admiration for Jalen Pitre, he played very well while he was redshirting last year playing behind Blake Lynch. He’s a versatile athlete that does a lot of things well. He’s not huge at 210 lbs, but he plays with great lateral quickness and toughness in the box. He’s fast enough to where he can play occasional man coverage when needed, but you don’t want him regularly carrying vertical routes by the slot which is a major constraint on the defense.

Behind him is a huge question mark, there are a lot of guys I can see playing here such as Christian Morgan, Will Williams, Abram Smith, Hakeem Vance, or even Al Walcott. Guys like Morgan and Williams are converted safeties who are athletically similar to Jalen Pitre. Walcott can play corner and would really operate as a 3rd corner. Morgan is my current best guess, he’s at his best creating havoc around the box, but I also would love to see him get redshirted this year. Baylor will have to find a way to get Will Williams on the field sooner than later, it might be here or either of the other LB spots if he can put on enough weight.

As said though, the depth chart for this position doesn’t matter as much. I think you’ll see games against more spread teams where Al Walcott is effectively the starter, and games against more condensed teams like K-State where Matt Jones plays here.

Safeties

Aranda’s scheme does a lot of unique stuff with his guys up front which means it requires even more (i.e., they have to be able to hold up in coverage with less help) from the back end. A hallmark of Aranda’s defenses are remarkably versatile safeties. LSU’s 2019 duo was Grant Delpit and Kary Vincent. Delpit was a do-it-all athlete who was equally proficient at playing over the top and playing in the box and blitzing. Vincent was listed as a CB on the roster and essentially functioned as a third corner. I’ll label the Delpit spot (versatile, playing over the top zone more) as free safety and the Vincent spot (more man coverage) as strong safety.

Free Safety

Starter: Jr., J.T. Woods, 6-2 190 lbs.

2-Deep: r-Fr., Brandon White, 6-0 181 lbs.

Woods is a no-brainer here. Woods is a freak athlete and is really fast. Because of his long legs and tall frame, he’s at his best playing over the top instead of playing man coverage over the slot (OU and K-State targeted him in man coverage last year). He plays with a tough mindset in the box but isn’t heavy enough to be much of a threat there. He has a lot of potential in this spot, expect him to grab a handful of interceptions this year.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

White is a projection. He was recruited as a cornerback but Baylor is light on safeties right now and White played safety in high school. He’s a good tackler, really fast, and has experience playing over the top. The question is whether he can put on enough weight, but I think he is a natural fit here.

From the most recent recruiting class look for Chateau Reed and/or Lorando Johnson to end up here.

Strong Safety

Starter: Sr., Jairon McVea, 5-9 195 lbs.

2-Deep: So., Al Walcott, 6-2 187 lbs.

McVea isn’t going to get much fanfare this preseason because he’s a former walk-on whose most prominent role thus far was as Grayland Arnold’s backup last year. McVea is pretty fast but has also become a solid box defender. He might be usurped later in the year but I’d bet that he begins the year starting. This position requires a lot of man coverage and McVea is solid there.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Walcott is a member of the newest recruiting class but has one year of junior college experience. I liked his film a lot, he’s a very versatile player and I could honestly see him playing anything from CB, S, or STAR LB. This is the position I like him the most at, though, where he’ll primarily be playing man coverage but also have some responsibilities in the run game. The wildcards are Christian Morgan and Will Williams, who I currently have as working at the STAR position, but I could envision a scenario where they play here.

Other young guys to look for here are Mike Harris or maybe Byron Hanspard.

Cornerbacks

Starters: Sr., Raleigh Texada, 5-10 180 lbs. Jr., Kalon Barnes, 6-0 186 lbs.

Backups: So., Mark Milton, 6-1 182 lbs. Fr., Devin Neal, 5-11 192 lbs.

Texada and Barnes are easy predictions at CB. Texada is one of the few returning starters and brings a steady presence as a fast, quick, albeit small field corner. He became tough under Rhule’s culture and is good in the screen game despite his small stature. Barnes is a really good prospect but I think is being overrated by fans this offseason, I don’t see him as a risk for leaving yet. He’s already become an adept press corner but needs to become a better tackler and continue to hone his technique overall. He’s Baylor’s best option for becoming the lock-down corner Aranda needs for his system to work.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For the backups, Milton is a guy I loved out of high school as a project and apparently has done everything right. He’s really fast and has a great frame. Neal has been projected by most at safety, but with his tenacity and athleticism I think he’s a guy you dream on at corner. Baylor took a lot of safeties in their most recent class, I think Neal is the best bet to stick at CB.

Conclusion

Phew, that took a lot longer than I thought it would. After losing 9 starters, a lot of these predictions were tough; many of the younger players can be slotted at any variety of positions.

One final note, the depth chart released during fall camp or before game one isn’t going to be the final answer on a lot of these. Because modern defense has become more and more positionless, it is difficult for coaches to accurately make a depth chart. Last year’s LSU depth chart didn’t exactly look like how they lined up on the first play. For example, in the national championship game, they had Jacoby Stevens listed at safety with Kary Vincent as his backup. In reality, Stevens was playing field linebacker and Vincent started at safety. There’s a lot of that happening nowadays.

Anyway, please hit me up with comments below or @Travis_Roeder on twitter.