Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Baylor senior linebacker Joe Pawelek has emerged as one of the nation's most productive playmakers, leading the conference in average tackles per game. Pawelek also led the nation's linebackers in interceptions and finished in the top-10 nationally in tackles and interceptions, regardless of position.
In a wide-ranging interview, Pawelek talks about the challenge of taking Baylor to a bowl game, the changes he's made after his redshirt season and his enjoyment of playing college baseball earlier in his career.
I know you were quite a baseball player in high school and started your career as a catcher for Baylor. Do you get the itch sometimes at this point in the spring where you wish you were still playing?
JP: Yes, sir. Whenever we have a big conference series or some nonconference games it makes me think about still playing. I got to play here for a year. I was All-State twice in high school. I wasn't a superstar, or anything like that, but I could play a little bit.
Is there a little bit of a similarity between playing catcher in baseball and middle linebacker in football because you are so involved in everything your team is doing at both positions?
JP: I think some people like to show that comparison and I agree with it. Just being in the middle of everything, directing the defense and calling pitches and things like that. It's pretty similar.
Back to football, how much more comfort level do you have with defensive coordinator Brian Norwood's defense in your second season of working with his concepts.
JP: We know it now. We're not working on the basics and we're just trying to fine tune some things. But more than anything, we know our coaches and what they want from after learning it last spring.
This season, we're just really focusing on the small details and coming back and watching how we do things this year. The little things are what hurt us. There's nothing big and glaring in what we need to do. But there are just so many little things -- a guy not filling his gap or maybe two guys who might not be on the same coverage. More than anything, we're just need to keep working on the small things.
Your team was very close to qualifying for a bowl game last season. Even though you were 4-8 in 2008, three of your losses were settled by a touchdown or less. How much does going through something like that prepare you for this season?
JP: More than anything else, we have a good core of guys coming back. Sure, we're going to be missing some key guys like Jason Smith and Dan Gay and a couple of our starters who graduated in the offensive and defensive lines. But we've got a good group coming back. Now we know we can play with anyone, whether they are in the Big 12 South or anywhere. I think knowing that gives us a lot of confidence coming into the season.
How much did Coach Briles change the mindset when he arrived?
JP: We've always had that attitude we could play with anybody. But know we've finally seen some results on the field. Last year, we were able to take some big steps. And more than anything else, Coach Briles and his staff have really changed the program.
From the second Coach Briles stepped on the field for us, it was a completely different attitude and mindset. We're no longer just trying to compete; we want to try to win all of our games. And whether people give us a shot or not, there are 100 guys in the locker room who truly believe we can. We've really come a long way.
You had a remarkable year producing turnovers last season with six interceptions. How did you develop that skill?
JP: It's a combination of things. Coach Norwood really made an impression on me that it's more than just studying film. As a linebacker, I never really spent a lot of time learning receiver routes or getting inside their heads. There are just so many little things that Coach Norwood and Coach Hoefer pointed out for me. I study film more efficiently and know what to look for. It's just things like that.
Can you sense an increase of excitement on campus and around the program after what you did? And how is that fueled by the opening of your new football training center?
JP: Sure, the kind of season we had last year definitely helps with that. And opening up the new practice center is exciting and something you can't miss feeling.
And It's really unbelievable what we have here, from the weight room to the new locker rooms to the film room and everything else. It's all top of the line. And to top it off, we have our academic study area right here. It makes it nice where we can come once a day and get everything we need to have done in one place.
You are one of the more notable products of a player who was transformed by having a redshirt season. How did doing something like that help you develop and get ready to play college football?
JP: When I came to school, I weighed about 208 pounds. I weigh about 236 and I really feel good. There's been a big change in what Coach Kaz (Baylor strength coach Kaz Kazadi) and his group have done in getting me ready. It's made everything easy for me.
Specifically, what did the redshirt season do for your development?
JP: The year redshirting was tough. I came from a program in high school where I was used to playing and having to sit out for a year was an adjustment. But redshirting gave me a year to get used to the speed of Big 12 football. It also gave me an opportunity to learn a defense that was far more complicated than anything I had ever been involved with. And from the academic standpoint, it helped me get my work ready and set a good foundation for me in getting my stuff done.
There's been a lot of talk about what Phil Taylor, a transfer from Penn State will be able to do for you this season. How is he going to transform your defense?
JP: Phil is going to be a guy who will come in and really help us from a defensive standpoint. He'll draw a bunch of double teams because of what he can do. As a linebacker, you love to see that in front of you. Phil came in here and worked extremely hard and has really transformed his body. He's going to help us out.
Baylor has the longest bowl drought in the Big 12 and one of the longest in the country with you guys not making a bowl trip since 1994. What would it mean for your senior class to be the group to take your team over the hump and back to a post-season appearance?
JP: It would be huge for us. This group of seniors, a bunch of us got redshirted together and have been plugging along the whole time we've been here. It's our last go and I think we're finally ready to take the next step. It's been way to long for Baylor since that last bowl trip. Our attitude as a team and program is far beyond anything I've seen since we've been here. We're ready to make a run at it.