ARLINGTON, Texas — Thirty-nine. Thirty-eight. Minus-nine.
Those are the numbers that kept Baylor head coach Matt Rhule up this offseason.
Thirty-nine represents the number of “explosive plays” that Baylor gave up that led to touchdowns last season. The thirty-eight represents the percentage those explosive plays figured into Baylor’s total yards allowed. And the minus-nine represents the Bears’ turnover ratio, tied for worst in the Big 12.
If Baylor is to take a step forward from 7-6 bowl team to Big 12 challenger, those are the numbers that Rhule believes has to change.
“We’ve got to become more of an impact defense, taking the ball away, and I think that starts with our players,” Rhule said on Tuesday.
Those players are much more experienced than they were a year ago. Six seniors top the two-deep roster on defense, including middle linebacker Clay Johnston, who has logged the most starts on defense for the Bears heading into the season with 21. Outside linebacker Blake Lynch follows with 19 games and nose tackle Bravvion Roy with 16.
Rhule and his staff are hoping a scheme change helps create more pressure up front. The Bears are moving from a four-man front to a three-man front. Those types of fronts are usually designed to occupy offensive linemen and create tackling lanes for linebackers like Johnston and Lynch.
“(We’re) hoping we can get more speed on the field and we are as fast a team as I’ve ever been around, and we hope to get that speed to translate come fall,” Rhule said.
The scheme has the possibility of enhancing the production of Baylor’s best defenders. Johnston led the Bears with 99 tackles (64 solo) last season. Senior linebacker Jordan Williams, listed for the moment as the backup to Terrel Bernard, returns with 52 tackles while Bernard has 47. Lynch also had 47 tackles.
Up front junior Blake Lynch was the Bears’ top pass rusher with 5.5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss (he also had 40 tackles). The Bears need much more of that this season. Rhule is hoping the scheme is a match for the talent, but the league’s liberal use of run-pass option packages, and dearth of traditional drop-back passes, makes that more difficult.
“To me the key to be able to be a dominant pass rush team in terms of sacks is you have to get the lead,” Rhule said. “One of the top statistics in football is first-half scoring differential, and the team that is leading at halftime usually wins. So we have never been in control of a game. Even last year the games that we won it came down to the final minutes, and there was never a time when I was relaxing on the sidelines. It was all the way down to the end. We have to get control of the games. We have to get a lead. We have to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional so we can turn it up.”
For the record, the Bears were next-to-last in run defense in the Big 12 last season, giving up 183.5 yards per game. So Rhule has a point.
The Bears are most interested in how defensive end James Lockhart takes to the system. Lockhart, a 263-pound end, has 11 career tackles at Baylor, all of which came last season after sitting out 2017 after his transfer from Texas A&M. With the Aggies, Lockhart had just 15 tackles. Rhule said that Lockhart had one of the best springs of any Baylor player. In fact, Baylor’s media guide even says “hailed by coaching staff for having best spring all the defensive linemen.” Plus, he was named Most Improved Defensive Player in the spring.
If Lockhart can match James Lynch’s production on the other side of that 3-4 formation, and if Roy can occupy a couple of offensive lineman inside, that could make all the difference in Baylor improving on 39, 38 and minus-9 in 2019.
“It’s going to take the whole team if we want to get the numbers up to 40 (sacks), and 40 is where we have to be in my mind to have a great defense,” Rhule said.
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