WACO, Texas—Andrew Billings cocked his head to the side and pursed his lips. He tried to find a polite way to respond the question, but coming up empty, took a deep breath. "Did I … grow up a Baylor fan?" he repeated, as the obvious answer flashed in his eyes. "Um. No."
Of course he didn't grow up a Baylor fan—did anyone? During Billings's childhood the Bears were a fixture toward the bottom of the standings, winning more than four games in a season just once from 1996 to 2009. They went 4–18 under former coach Dave Roberts, 9–36 under Kevin Steele and 18–40 under Guy Morriss. For years, Baylor was the Big 12's punching bag. But now a dramatically different narrative is being spun in Waco, Billings's hometown, and he has something to do with it.
The second-ranked Bears are 5–0 going into Saturday's contest with West Virginia (3–2), touted as a College Football Playoff contender and riding the wave of a power shift in the Big 12—one for which they are largely responsible. Baylor's high-octane offense, with its FBS-leading 725 yards per game, gets most of the attention, and All-America defensive end Shawn Oakman, he of the Internet memes and cartoon-character physique, gets most the hype. But it's Billings, an unheralded junior nose tackle who has started since his freshman year, who can push Baylor to the top. Outsiders may be unfamiliar with his play, but in NFL circles the 2014 first-team All-Big 12 selection is considered a better pro prospect than his well-known teammate.
The saying goes that you can be anyone you want in college. Billings, an aspiring professional power lifter and a former offensive lineman, decided he wanted to be a defensive star. "I wanted to hear my name called," he says.
So, naturally, he chose to play for a football team known as an offensive juggernaut.
If Robert Griffin III's ascension launched Baylor's rise into college football's top tier, Baylor's defensive renaissance started with Ahmad Dixon. A local star and the 10th-best safety in 2010 class, according to Rivals.com, Dixon signed with the Bears despite having offers from almost every SEC school, as well as Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Texas. Back then Baylor was the conference doormat, so bad that "they were giving away football tickets at the local Wendy's trying to get people to games," says Beau Blackshear, another Waco product who plays alongside Billings on the defensive line. But Dixon's decision to stay home signaled to local kids that it was O.K. to make an unpopular choice, and go somewhere to rebuild.
Billings, then a freshman at Waco High, hadn't even realized he had the talent to become a major college football player. He fell in love with powerlifting first, using his thick 6' 1", 305-pound frame (he is now listed at 6' 2", 310) to shatter national high school records. Glancing at his parents would not lead one to predict Billings's tremendous natural strength: His father, Anthony, is a respectable 6' 1", but Andrew dwarfs his mother, Sylvia, a petite 5' 3". He was born at nine pounds, 14 ounces and made an instant impression on doctors, who pointed to his legs and marveled. "He had huge thighs," Anthony recalls. "They were kinda fat and jiggly and not baby-sized."
Andrew, now 20, wasn't born into a sports-savvy family. Anthony played baseball at Paul Quinn College, a historically black school that competed at the NAIA level, but never pushed either of his boys (Anthony Jr. is 23) on to a field or court. Andrew signed up for baseball as a default of sorts, but when Anthony and Sylvia grew weary of chauffeuring their children to and from practice on a daily basis, they pulled him out. They wanted their boys to do "regular kid stuff" like play musical instruments, not get obsessed with, or feel tied to, any one activity. Though he was a towering figure as an elementary schooler and a legitimate home-run threat each time he stepped up to the plate, Andrew puts it like this: "They took me out, so I guess I wasn't that good."
Then he found powerlifting.
In Texas, powerlifting is not a hobby but its own sanctioned sport, with records and title rounds and state championships. Andrew fell hard for its simplicity—it consists solely of the squat, the bench press and the deadlift—and took immense pride in a phrase men have been using to one-up each other for centuries: Yeah, well I'm stronger than you, and I'll prove it.
Originally pitched to him as a way to stay in shape for football, Billings started powerlifting in seventh grade and got serious about it in 10th. And that, says Anthony, is when he and Sylvia realized what was going on. "We get to high school and suddenly they have a weightlifting team," Anthony says. "I'm like, 'This is a thing?' And it's not just a big deal, it's a serious deal. We're standing around at the weigh in, judges are talking about how good Andrew's technique is and everyone's talking about him maybe breaking Mark Henry's record and I'm like, 'What is going on? Who is Mark Henry?'"
Answer: The holy grail of powerlifting. A Silsbee, Texas, native and a two-time Olympian, Henry—nicknamed "The Strongest Man That Ever Lived"—has won one world powerlifting championship and two U.S. titles, and is currently a professional wrestler with the WWE. As Andrew grew enamored with the sport, he set his sights on breaking Henry's 22-year-old state record. In 2013, as a high school senior and Baylor commit, he won a second state powerlifting championship and displaced Henry in the record books, lifting a combined weight of 2,010 pounds: 805 in the squat, 500 in the bench, 705 in the deadlift.
In track, he used that strength to catapult shot puts. "I had no form and no approach," he says. "But I could just stand and throw it further than anyone."
On the football field, Billings shined as a right tackle, playing only a few snaps a game on defensive line. He cleared space in the ground game, casually tossing aside defensive linemen as ballcarriers cruised into the end zone. It didn't matter if defenders were 15 yards downfield: If Waco's running back was headed that way and you were in his way, Andrew was coming at you. In the stands, Anthony heard fans murmur they had "never seen an offensive linemen do that," and started to understand his son might have a future in something other than powerlifting.
Marty Herbst, Billings's coach at Waco High, says the then 325-pounder dominated other linemen. Billings recorded an astounding 266 pancake blocks over his junior and senior years of high school, punishing defenders with his physicality. Two-way players aren't common at the Class 5A level in Texas, and the Lions needed Billings on offense. But when he subbed in on defense, primarily as a third-down specialist, he overpowered everybody.
"Most kids, they might split a double team once a game," Herbst says. "He did it down after down. If he was going against the center, that center was gonna go backwards, whether he wanted to or not."
Still, Billings was only 6' 1". Most colleges deemed him too small to play defense and moved on. He wasn't even the biggest defensive star at Waco. That distinction went to Will Hines, a safety in the class of 2012 who signed with Arkansas. (Hines now plays at Southeastern Louisiana.) The summer before Billings's senior season he attended a camp at Baylor, and Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett watched two plays, turned to head coach Art Briles and said Billings was going to become their next defensive star. "His flexion, how he got down, how he got out of stance," says Bennett of what stood out. "He could wipe a whole line out on offense."
Now he just had to convince Billings that a position change was worth it. He appealed to Billings's parents by citing Baylor's sterling academic reputation. Then he persuaded Andrew by telling him no offensive lineman gets recognized for delivering a great block on a five-yard run. "But if you get a five-yard sack," Bennett told Billings, "they'll go crazy."
Baylor used powerlifting to build a bond with Billings. Randy Clements, the Bears offensive line coach, has a long history with Briles, working at Stephenville (Texas) High as a football assistant and head powerlifting coach. During visits with Billings, Clements and Briles quizzed Andrew about his lifting technique, while Anthony stood back shaking his head. "How on earth does Art Briles know about powerlifting technique?" Anthony cried.
Baylor thought it had locked up a budding star. Then, just before Signing Day in 2013, buoyed by a performance at a one-day camp, Texas swooped in and offered Billings—as an offensive lineman. That sparked a flurry of recruiting interest, and suddenly the hidden gem uncovered by Bennett had dozens of Power Five programs knocking at his door. Billings visited Northwestern (he has lots of family in Chicago) and Mississippi State (ditto for the deep south) before trimming his list to Baylor, TCU and Texas. On Feb. 5, the day before verbal commitments become binding Letters of Intent, Andrew stood in the Waco High parking lot and told Anthony and Herbst he was going to TCU.
Then, on a local radio show minutes only later, Billings said he would attend Baylor. He'd had a change of heart, unbeknownst to Briles and Bennett. Like everyone else, they flipped on the radio, convinced they had lost their prized target to a school with more recruiting juice. When Billings announced his plans to stay at home, Bennett told Herbst the Bears' office erupted "like it was midnight on New Year's Eve, people running up and down the halls screaming."
Billings says now he couldn't stop thinking about Bennett and Briles's last words during his recruiting visit: "Why go somewhere they just want you? Why not go somewhere they need you?"
Oakman, a physically imposing 6' 9", 275-pound senior, gets most the attention on Baylor's defense, partially because he's an Internet sensation, and partially because he's outgoing and charismatic. Oakman owns a team-leading 6 ½ tackles for loss in 2015, while Billings boasts five in his own right, notable for a player who draws double teams on virtually every down. Through five games he has led the Bears to the 30th-ranked total defense in the country (4.77 yards allowed per play), albeit against inferior competition.
NFL scouts think it's likely Billings will be picked higher than Oakman. Says one Texas-area evaluator: "His one glaring problem is going to be his height, that will limit him a little. But he's very powerful, very strong and the thing that does help him is that being shorter, he's got a lower center of gravity, so it's harder for linemen to move him." Oakman might make a play or two that pulls people out of their seats, but Billings "has a better motor too." If he declares for the draft, he'll draw comparisons to Aaron Donald, a 6' 1", 285-pound defensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams who was named the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Only three years into playing defense full time, Billings is "constantly learning" about his position. Natural strength gives him a huge advantage, which he channels late in games. Says Billings: "When that fourth quarter hits, I know I'm stronger than everyone." Now it's just about perfecting technique. His offensive background helps, too, since he understands attack points. "If you're an offensive linemen, he knows who you're going to block, why you're doing it, who's going to get the ball," Bennett says, "and it helps him."
Russ Lande, a former NFL evaluator and current CFL scout, says Billings's transition makes him unique. Guys who could play on either line typically wind up on offense because of skill or a lack of aggression. "Usually players that go to defense don't become productive," Lande says. "It's hard to teach someone how to be aggressive. Billings is the type of kid teams fall in love with because of what he could be two years down the road."
Oakman's athletic feats are well documented, but Billings's highlight tape is equally impressive. In last November's 60–14 win over Kansas, Jayhawks running back Corey Avery caught a screen pass in open space and took off, a sea of turf in front of him. Billings, all 310 pounds of him, ran the back down from almost 40 yards away. He snagged Avery and slammed him to the ground, a 36-yard gain overshadowed by Billings's stunning make-up speed. On the sideline minutes later, Billings turned to Bennett: "All I could think about was you jumping my ass 'cause I let him sneak out, so I decided, 'I'm gonna catch this guy.'"
"And he did it!" Bennett cries, shaking his head in disbelief.
Bennett came to Waco in 2011, sold on Briles's pitch that a quality defense coupled with an unconventional offensive scheme could help Baylor compete for national titles. "It's always been an offensive show," Briles told Bennett in the lobby of the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel in January '11. "Imagine, if we play defense, we can get some rings on our fingers." College football might be overrun with high-powered attacks, but Bennett believes good defense remains the key to contending. When asked if defense still wins championships, Bennett replies, "Hell yes! And you can ask [Nick] Saban: It might not be 21–20, it might be more like 61–58, but it's still the defense winning."
This season, with a deeper rotation on the Bears' defensive line, Bennett expects an uptick in Billings's production. Billings would like to stuff a stat line, sure, but what he really wants to talk about are his powerlifting goals. Though he knows the NFL awaits, Billings has goals in the weight room. He estimates that most power lifters hit their peak at 32, but, because of football, his will come closer to 27. And so, within the next six years, he hopes to squat 1,020 pounds and bench 700. (He hasn't seriously maxed out since high school, since strength coaches and NFL executives are more concerned with explosiveness.)
"Aww, man, I'd be a lot closer if I didn't play football," Billings says of his goals. "I love squat. It's just a test. When you put the weight on your back, it feels like you're never gonna come up. When they put 800 on my back I was like, 'Boy, this is heavy.'"
He talks about lifting with a childlike glee missing from football conversations. In a sport rife with egotistical prima donnas, Billings is refreshingly unassuming. Adding to his unusual résumé, he plays the violin, guitar and piano. (He is self-taught in the last one.) When asked if he sings, too, Billings smiles. "Everyone sings," he says. "What you're trying to ask is, 'Do I sing well?'" He regularly expresses wonder at his situation: Just a small town kid—he grew up wanting to drive semi-trucks—who happens to be really strong, playing for one of the best teams in college football.
He's a legend at Waco High, revered by young students who gape at his records and chatter about his accomplishments at Baylor. And in a sign that he has become a larger-than-life figure in his hometown, the question asked most often in reference to him is not what's next for Billings. It's Who is the next Billings?
Herbst thinks it's Nakeveyon Vincent, a 5' 11", 300-pound sophomore. Herbst has pegged him as the next standout linemen for the Lions, an underclassman who is already stronger than Billings was at his age. Billings befriended Vincent, a fellow nose tackle, showing him around Baylor and exchanging text messages that break down technique. When Vincent found out Billings wraps his hands in tape like a boxer, Vincent showed up at Waco's game with some tape of his own. He idolizes Billings, saying he's "like a big brother."
And for the record, Vincent says, he has grown up a Baylor fan. It's because of Billings.