A day after rejoicing in a potentially transcendent defensive line, we now mourn the loss of 3-year starter Bryce Hager, along with his 322 career tackles and 3 All-Big 12 selections. At the same time, though, we celebrate the ascendance of Grant Campbell to replace him alongside either freshman All-American sensation Taylor Young or Aiavion Edwards, who might be the Wally Pipp of Baylor's linebacking corps.
We've done things a bit differently the last two days on both lines to view the groups as units rather than merely collections of individual players. Today, I'm going to revert back to the way we were doing things before, and we're going to include nickelbacks for the sake of time (and since there are only 2 designated as such on the roster).
Lenoy Jones, Jr.
Please remember that all of these guys are just listed as "LB" on the roster, so I'm guessing where they fit in a lot of places. Also, it's entirely possible that Johnston is actually a NB, too. Let's hit the high points:
Can Grant Campbell Take Over?
A year and a half after he arrived in Waco and assumed Eddie Lackey's old #5 jersey, Grant Campbell will try to step into Bryce Hager's shoes at the helm of Baylor's defense. How he performs in that role is absolutely critical to the success/failure of this defense. Over the last three years, we probably came to take advantage of just how good Hager was leading the charge for Phil Bennett. He had his limitations, particularly in lateral quickness, but it cannot be denied that he almost always knew exactly where he had to be and how to get there, setting the tone for a defense that has improved dramatically over the last few years.
Now that responsibility will apparently fall to Campbell, assuming he beats out Raaquan Davis for the honor. From what I've seen/read, most observers seem to think that Davis is probably the more talented player overall, but that Campbell will get the nod due to his experience backing up Hager last year and familiarity with the defensive scheme. I guess we'll see.
How Does Taylor Young Improve in Year 2
I don't think I have to remind everyone how skeptical I was before last season if Taylor Young would ever even contribute for the Baylor Bears. Then he racked up 92 tackles, 4 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss en route to freshman All-American honors, proving me wrong in just about the most emphatic way possible.
Now that he's established himself as a no-doubt playmaker, there's two big questions Young will have to face this year: 1) Can he hold off Aiavion Edwards, a pretty talented player in his own right, and 2) How does he improve considering expectations will be so high?
Without the benefit of an updated depth chart or more open information from practices, I can't really speak to the first. I know that coaches are extremely excited about his potential as a pass-rusher, particularly on the blitz. He's also a tackling machine despite his stature. The bottom line is that Phil Bennett loves him, so he's going to see the field.
As to the second, I think the answer is that our expectations really shouldn't matter. Given how good the defensive line is likely to be, our linebackers will be free to roam sideline-to-sideline making plays. With his speed and quickness, that's where Young should shine once again.
That's a Lot of Freshman
Well, four, to be exact. And there's a fifth in the chart below. Somewhat surprisingly, Baylor finished out the 2015 recruiting class with 3 different linebackers that were either lightly recruited until late in the cycle (Williams, Jones, Jr.) or basically not recruited at all (Ogor, because of grade concerns. He would have been recruited much more heavily otherwise.). I don't believe any except Ogor are expected to make an immediate impact, but reports are that Johnston also impressed in camp.
Thankfully for both these guys and Baylor, we've got time. With guys like Campbell, Davis, Young, and Edwards ahead of them this season, at least four of the five should redshirt, giving themselves the chance to become well-acquainted with the college game.
*For the avoidance of doubt, we're talking about Nickelbacks, not Nickelback. I'm not interested in looking at that photograph, thank you.
At NB, the situation is pretty clear: sophomore Travon Blanchard will step in for the graduated Collin Brence after backing him up last year and playing relatively often in Baylor's modified 3-2-6 using two NBs. Behind him will be either Pat Levels, a former safety, or newcomer Eric Ogor, a true freshman. We don't know which one yet, but whichever one it is will probably do this year exactly what Blanchard did in 2014.
With Blanchard taking over, my expectation for this year is that we see a fair bit of improvement from the NB spot. Brence was, at best, serviceable in the spot last year, and his limitations often meant that other players, particularly Terell Burt, had to play out of position or shade over to help him, hurting us in other areas. That's nothing negative against Brence, another Bennett favorite from last year's team; I simply believe that having someone like Blanchard, who is both bigger and more athletic than Brence was, will represent an upgrade at a critical spot.
All in all, there is reason for both hope and concern at LB. Hager was so good, and Campbell is so unproven, that I expect at least a slight dropoff at MLB until Campbell gets his feet under him at the spot. At the same time, Blanchard should be better than Brence, perhaps negating some of that loss. That means if Young or Edwards, whichever starts, improves at all on last season's performance, Baylor could have as good a LB unit as a year ago or better.