Baylor's defense ready to emerge from offense's shadow in 2014
DALLAS -- Shawn Oakman understands that you’re probably not familiar with him. Bryce Hager, too. Andrew Billings (defensive line), Javonte Magee (defensive end) and Jamal Palmer (defensive end) weren’t in Dallas for Big 12 media days on Monday, but as members of the Baylor defense, they likely don’t expect much fanfare, either.
According to Oakman, fanatical Baylor football followers are few and far between, regardless of what position one plays. When he transferred from Penn State in 2012, all Oakman knew about the Lone Star State was “Midland and Odessa -- the places from Friday Night Lights.” He figured every town in Texas was football-crazed, but has found that in Waco, even with a Big 12 championship ring, autograph seekers aren’t all that common. For quarterback Bryce Petty, he of the preseason Heisman Trophy talk, it might be a little different. But for members of the Baylor defense, forget about notoriety.
“The forgotten men, yeah, it’s good and bad,” Oakman said. “But it’s not hard to take a backseat to a great offense.”
It makes sense that Petty and company receive most of the media attention. The Bears set a staggering 82 offensive records en route to 11 wins in 2013, highlighted by the all-time NCAA mark for scoring (52.4 points per game). Waco is home to arguably the best offense in college football -- “this is Wide Receiver University,” Oakman, a defensive end, said proudly -- and pace of play garners headlines all its own. When Art Briles took the podium in Dallas, a reporter referred to the Bears as “Big 12 heavyweights,” prompting the seventh-year coach to chuckle and say he appreciated the distinction. Clearly, he’s still getting used to the idea.
Baylor won’t surprise anyone in 2014. A year after the Bears were ignored in preseason polls, they’re a top 10 favorite heading into the fall. And if they’re to repeat as Big 12 champions, it will be because college football has become familiar with Oakman, Hager and their buddies.
The way Hager and Oakman see it, they’re primed for another run to the top, anchored by a defense that led the nation in three-and-outs (6.38 a game) last year and ranked ninth in yards allowed per play (4.75). After all, it’s only natural to learn a thing or two practicing against one of the top offenses in the country.
“I gotta go against 6-7, 385 pounds every day,” Oakman said, referring to left guard LaQuan McGowan. “I feel like I can beat anybody.”
“Practice is very tiring,” Hager added. “We’ll run 15 plays, bam, bam, bam, in the blink of an eye. They’ll be throwing receivers in and out; they’ll have someone run a fade route, and the corner will be 30, 40 yards down the field then they’ll put another receiver in, and the corner has to sprint all the way back, line up and go again. There is no rest. The tempo we play at in practice, it’s probably twice as fast as games.”
In other words, the Bears’ defense is in phenomenal shape -- it has to be against this offense. It also has to be able to diagnose plays quickly, a rarity for newcomers trying to adjust to a frenetic pace. Baylor must replace seven defensive starters, so young guys could have their heads spinning for a while. Briles acknowledged an offseason rule change allowed coaches a little more time to study with players, but wanted his guys to spend the offseason diffusing and regrouping; the majority of teaching newbies came during spring ball. “We have a real good feel for who we’re bringing to the table and what they’re going to do for us,” Briles said.
One of those guys is Hager. Briles talked on Monday about the need for “a Bryce [Petty] of the defense.” That distinction falls to Hager, and not just because he shares a first name with his quarterback. A two-time All-Big 12 selection, the senior linebacker missed spring rehabbing an abdominal injury, but has recorded 195 tackles over the last two seasons and should be at full strength when the Bears open fall camp. As a veteran, he knows what to expect.
“My first year, I didn’t know what was going on. I was confused, frustrated and having second thoughts about things,” Hager laughed. “Now, the game itself is so much slower compared to practice. It really helps.”
Hager understands why his offensive teammates get most of the hype. “What our offense has is really special,” he said. “But last year, I think our defense did a very good job of stepping up when needed.”
Case in point: 2013 road games at Kansas State and TCU. In Manhattan, Ahmad Dixon’s late fourth-quarter interception set up Baylor’s final score, helping the Bears to a 35-25 win. In Fort Worth, Baylor had two pick-sixes and forced two other fumbles, pulling out a 41-38 victory. Lose either or both of those games, and fewer people are talking about Baylor now.
“We’ve always known we belong,” Oakman said. “It just took time for [everyone else] to realize we belong here, too -- and that we can stick around.”
In the spring, Oakman says Briles tossed around the word “perfection” more than once. Oakman, who totaled 12.5 tackles for loss in 2013 as a reserve and earned All-Big 12 honors, shrugs at the notion that it might be tough to achieve. “Next logical step,” he said. “We’ve won the Alamo Bowl, won a Big 12 championship, so what’s next? A national championship.”
The Bears are the perfect combo of “country bumpkins and city boys,” according to Oakman, a mixture that keeps Baylor both grounded and expectant of great success. Briles likes recruiting guys from small towns, players who are used to pressure and responsibility. Oakman is a fan, too.
“Some of these guys didn’t have a peachy lifestyle,” he said. “Some of them have been working on the farm since they were knee-high to a grasshopper, those people have been working forever. And they fit in our system.”
As for the idea that Baylor won’t sneak up on anyone this season, Oakman isn’t buying it. He believes the shock this year will probably come regarding the defense, as fans learn the Bears boast more than just a great offense. By the end of the season, he thinks you’ll know all their names.
“Why not?” he said. “Why can’t we surprise people?”