Note: Longhorns Country's "Around the Big 12" series will feature stories on all 10 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
ARLINGTON - Dave Aranda knows a thing or two about defense. In fact, he's been where most coaches hope to be at some point in their careers.
Aranda, who now enters his second season with Baylor, understands the value of having a stout defense to match offensive production. In his final season with LSU, Joe Brady and Joe Burrow put together one of college football's most impressive seasons.
It was Aranda's defense though that contained the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Clemson on the way to the team's first title since 2007. The Tigers allowed 21.9 points per game, but managed to hold true in games that mattered most.
For years, the Southeastern Conference was known for its defensive play. As he addressed the media for the first time since being named the Bears' head coach, Aranda thinks the Big 12 could be the next great defensive unit.
"I see this being a defensive conference," Aranda said at Big 12 media days. “And I look at Coach (Gary) Patterson and what he's done. He's been playing defense in this conference for quite a long time. I look at OU and their success on defense and their commitment to defense.
"I think the league has changed. I think it's going to change even more."
Defense will be key in Waco for 2021. It's the Bears' best chance of improving off a 2-7 finish in 2020. The team now has a full offseason to learn Aranda's scheme. On top of that, they'll be returning 10 starters.
Leading the way is Terrel Bernard at the linebacker spot. In his first year under a new staff, the junior thrived as the star of the defense, recording 55 tackles over Baylor's first five games, including a career-high 19 stops in a 27-16 loss to Texas.
"What we talk about what Baylor is, better people make better players,” Aranda said. “And I think Terrel would be the face of that, to me. And so just his heart, right. What's inside of him, the class that he runs with, integrity that he lives with, that makes him a better player."
Bernard suffered a torn labrum and fractured shoulder after recording eight tackles in a 38-31 road loss to No. 17 Iowa State. He'd miss the remainder of the season, thus leaving his time at Baylor in jeopardy.
Bernard represented the defensive side of the ball in Arlington on Thursday, donning a green suit to embody Baylor's tradition. He could have gone pro like fellow starter William Bradley-King, but he elected to return.
There's unfinished business at McLane Stadium, and he intended to "run it back" with his brothers.
“I know I'm a leader on the team,” Bernard said. “So I gotta get guys to follow me and push guys every day and make sure I'm holding myself accountable. Just doing it every day, bringing it day in and day out.”
He won't be alone on his quest to make the seventh-ranked defense in the conference improve. With Bernard missing time, sophomore Dillon Doyle, who finished second on the team in tackles also returns up the middle. Much like his fellow linebacker, the Iowa native had multiple double-digit tackle games on the year.
Bernard believes he plays well off Doyle's direction. In five games, the two were in sync, building a rapport of each other's strengths. Imagine what they could do with a full 12-game season?
"He's a smart, very smart, hard-nose type of player," Bernard said. "Just working together with him has been fun and I'm excited to see what he does this year."
Aranda prides Doyle on his knowledge to adapt to new systems. He says that the two bonded over their love of reading. Constantly looking for a new book, it's a trait Aranda thinks will help Doyle become a great coach one day if he chooses to go down that path.
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"Dylan's like having another coach on the field," Aranda said. "Everything that comes to him filters through real strong events, and a real strong set of organizational skills.
"That allows him to play faster than maybe what he is.”
LSU's been coined for its success in the defensive backfield, currently one of the multiple schools titled "DBU." Maybe Baylor won't be that this season, but Aranda could have brought some of the bayou magic over from Baton Rouge.
The Bears return all five defensive backs, including team leaders Jalen Pitre and JT Woods. Pitre is slotted in as the do-it-all defensive "STAR" role, a hybrid linebacker with defensive back skills. He also led the team in tackles last fall.
Chemistry can only be found when players have time to learn. The good news for Baylor is a veteran secondary means little room for error with a full offseason.
"Great flexibility with that group," Aranda said. "And a great football IQ, a great care factor. The guys are into football, studying it. Watching some of those LSU greats, making cutups of NFL players that they like. Really honing into spring and our calls and scrimmages and games and what we could have done better and what we can improve on."
Ultimately, the offense will be the deciding factor on Baylor’s ceiling. Aranda made the call to move off Larry Fedora as the offensive coordinator, bringing in BYU's Jeff Grimes to call the shots.
Grimes recently saw his quarterback Zach Wilson be selected with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft. Last season in Provo, the Cougars had one of the top offenses in the sport, finishing third nationally with 43.5 points per game and seventh nationally with 522.2 yards per game average.
"I think he does a really good job playing with the offensive line," Baylor tackle Connor Glavin said of the new OC. "He's really helping offensive lineman out a lot. He coaches tight ends too, so he's with us a decent amount of practice."
Maybe that's a good thing Grimes spends time with offensive line. They'll be called upon more than ever with a new quarterback leading the charge. Charlie Brewer, the four-year veteran, elected to play his final year at Utah.
Between Gerry Bohanon, Jacob Zeno or Blake Shapen, one should be the key component in finishing Aranda’s rebuild.
Naturally, they have tools and traits they must improve on.
“I’m excited for the competition,” Aranda said. “I think with Jacob, it’s to increase his accuracy with the long ball and to increase his leadership with the team, his voice, his assertiveness. I think with Gerry, it’s going to be the dropback pass, the quick-rhythm passing game, things where he has to be able to make the reads.
“If you look at Blake, his continued understanding of the offense and language and just feeling comfortable. His ability to respond when there’s adversity and things aren’t going right, and to attack the next play with confidence and vigor, I think is really important to him.”
Baylor and rebuilds are nothing new. Before Art Briles arrived, the Bears finished 3-9 and hadn't had a winning season since 1995. Three years later, they made their first bowl appearance since the Alamo Bowl in 1994.
Under Matt Rhule, the Bears were coming off one of college football's worst scandals. After an 1-11 season, Baylor returned to Arlington within two years for a chance at the Big 12 title.
History has a funny way of repeating itself. It's all about time. Maybe 2021 is the perfect time for Aranda to bring Baylor back to glory.
Sometimes, a rebuild is as simple as taking a year to regroup. Taking it simple might be Aranda's motto in his first full season as Baylor's hopeful next great coach.
"I feel like if you really focus on the simple, the simple can be sophisticated," Aranda said. "You can really take ownership and take base things to new heights. I'm really excited to see where that lands."