We come now to a position that I, in all honesty, have dreaded talking about for a while. For all his shortcomings as a safety, Sam Holl was actually a dang good nickelback for the Bears in 2014-- good enough, at least, that we are now in a position of actual concern over who will replace him in 2014.
In the Baylor defense, the nickelback or "bear" position is difficult, and thus extremely important, mostly because it demands versatility. In choosing to play a hybrid LB-S, you're trying to pull the best qualities from both: you want the run-stopping capabilities of a linebacker and the coverage skills of a safety. Each, however, requires sacrifice; if you're big enough to take on blockers on the edge in run support, you're probably too big to cover slot receivers down the field and vice versa. The prototypical NB, then, is probably the one we had for two years in Ahmad Dixon-- big and strong enough to be a weapon against the run, yet capable (at least in theory) of keeping up with and covering faster wide receivers. Somehow, through a combination of intelligence, hard work, and better speed than most gave him credit for, Sam Holl was able to approximate Dixon's performance following the switch last year, and our defense was all the better for it. As difficult as it is to imagine writing this statement after the grief I've given him for years: we're going to miss Sam Holl tremendously.
Through a sequence of position switches that a former safety (Levels) and cornerback-safety (Blanchard) join their ranks alongside a 2014 recruit, our program-wide depth at the NB is actually quite a bit better than I anticipated. From what we've heard, the starter at this point is Brence, the former walk-on who has spent the last 3 years playing primarily on special teams. Behind him on the post-spring depth chart stood Levels, another special teams hero in his redshirt freshman season in 2013. Now it appears that Travon Blanchard, who was listed as a linebacker a year ago but apparently played corner, has joined them. If Brence can fend off those two, it will be interesting to see how their battle for the backup spot unfolds.
Worth noting -- Baylor didn't just lose the starter last year at NB. We lost his primary backup, Prince Kent (one of my all-time "What if..." players), AND the Heir Apparent, Kiante Griffin, who began the spring as the starter and ended it unofficially suspended before transferring to Sam Houston State, as well. Brence and Bristow are the only two holdovers at this position from 2013.
Collin Brence -- SR -- #38 -- 6-0, 210 pounds
It should be enough for me that Phil Bennett, a man who has forgotten more about football than I will ever know, believes in Collin Brence. It should be. I don't exactly know why it isn't. In all likelihood, it doesn't matter-- I didn't exactly believe in Sam Holl, either, and he turned out fine. I am often wrong.
My biggest concern with Brence is athleticism. For all his limitations as a safety, Holl actually had pretty impressive straight-line speed (4.49 in the 40) and a mind-blowing vertical jump (39.4"). Those things were enough to get him where he needed to be to make plays when it mattered, and I honestly can't remember too many situations where I thought "Holl was a liability on that play." Unless I just missed it, we haven't heard the same thing about Brence athletically. Instead, you hear a lot about his "football IQ", that he's a coach's son, and how he's basically another coach on the field-- good attributes to have, for sure, but not things that are going to make you jump up and down with excitement. Size shouldn't be an issue -- I'd bet he's only about an inch shorter than Holl and about the same weight -- but can he get to where he needs to be to make plays? I just don't know.
Focusing on the positive: If it turns out that Brence starts for Baylor this season, and I have no reason to believe he won't, it'll be because our coaches believe he's the best player for the job. We've already seen in seasons past that they're not afraid to go outside the box a bit to make the defense better. If it was as simple as just replacing Brence, they'd do it. It must not be.
Worth noting: Brence was an all-state player at Plano his senior year of high school. That's pretty stout.
Lee Bristow -- JR -- #34 -- 6-3, 225 pounds
I know next to nothing about Lee Bristow, so I'm going to steal from his BaylorBears.com profile:
Third-year junior walk-on... Reserve "Bear"/nickelback and special teams veteran... Two-time Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll selection.
All right, then. Bristow made 3 tackles on special teams last year and appeared in 8 of 13 games. If he's really 6-3, that's one tall nickelback.
Patrick Levels -- SO -- #21 -- 5-11, 195 pounds
Now we're getting to the young guns at this position. From what I've read, if anybody pushes Brence for the starting spot at NB, it will be either Levels or Blanchard. As a safety and special teams player last year, Levels made 14 tackles total and recovered a fumble (against ULM). Since he's slightly smaller -- the fact that he was listed at 5-8 last year makes me slightly skeptical that he's 5-11 now -- I'm curious if he'll be physical enough in run support.
Travon Blanchard -- RS-FR -- #48 -- 6-2, 190 pounds
Probably the first player recruited specifically to play NB in Bennett's scheme, Blanchard has actually been listed at LB, corner, and (I think) safety during his time at Baylor. I put him on the NB chart last year hoping he might end up here, and he apparently has. He's got a great mix of size and speed, and it's hard not to believe that this position will be his eventually. For now, it sounds like he's battling with Levels to be Brence's backup this coming season, but anything can happen. He redshirted last year and accumulated no stats.
Cordell Dorsey -- FR -- #17 -- 6-1, 190 pounds
Dorsey's difficult road to Baylor from Abilene has been well-chronicled already, so I won't rehash it here. Suffice to say there was a long time when we weren't sure if Dorsey would ever play football again, much less for Baylor. Now he's here and almost certainly going to redshirt this coming season, preserving his eligibility for the future while he makes the transition from OLB to NB.
There's so much movement and uncertainty here that it's hard for me, when asked, to say that anything except nickelback is my biggest worry on the defense. That includes cornerback, where we'll start two new players, outside linebacker, where we lost an all-conference player in Eddie Lackey, and safety, where we'll be breaking in Orion Stewart to replace Ahmad Dixon. This position is so specialized, and the demands on it so diverse, that I just can't help it. If Brence is the player that Bennett thinks he'll be, we'll be fine. If not, we could have a problem. Only time will tell.