WACO, Texas -- Defense won the Big 12. Great defense. Art Briles believes that’s why his Bears won the league in 2013, and he knows he’ll need another stellar unit to repeat.
If you listen carefully to Briles, now entering his seventh year at Baylor, you’ll notice he isn’t wasting a second pondering whether his next defense can replace eight starters and still thrive.
“We’ve got good people to be the next person up,” Briles said. “That’s what’s encouraging. It’s not like we’re going out and trying to hustle somebody up off the street.”
The offense gets all the publicity, but Baylor wouldn't be where it is today without those guys. So why isn’t Briles worried?
“We’ve been recruiting, we’ve got good guys, we’ve got seven guys in at midterm that we’ll look at,” he said. “That’s why you coach and why you play; we’ll find guys. We’re not going to take a step backwards anywhere.”
The cupboard certainly isn't empty for defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. There are questions in the secondary and at linebacker, that much seems obvious.
And this should be perfectly clear, too: Baylor has a chance to field a killer defensive line in 2014.
Shawn Oakman wants to be the leader of that group. The monstrous junior end checks in at 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds these days and believes his debut season was the just the beginning of big things.
As a backup, he racked up 12.5 tackles for loss and two sacks off the edge. He says he was just a “free-wheeler” last fall, sent in to pass rush and cause hell.
“It wasn’t a bad role to play,” he said. “It was fun. But this year, I’ve got to take a bigger role and I’ve got to be able to play every down and every snap.”
The former Penn State transfer learned quickly that, in his opinion, this Big 12 is “10 times faster” than what he’d prepared for in the Big Ten. There was a lot of learning last season behind McAllister and Lloyd. Now it’s Oakman’s turn.
He’s on a mission to surpass the bar he and his teammates set in 2013. Oakman has no personal goals in 2014, just this team goal: “Best defense in the country, hands down.
“No one should be better than us,” he said. “We should lead the Big 12 and the nation in tackles for loss and sacks.”
He should get plenty of help from Andrew Billings. The second-year defensive tackle, a Waco native, chipped in 30 tackles and four TFLs as a true freshman.
He also happens to be arguably one of the strongest players in the conference, a former state powerlifting champ who says he squatted 600 pounds five times this winter. He was more proud of his gains in the hang clean, where he can now knock out 340 pounds five times.
He and fellow sophomore Byron Bonds were asked to contribute right away last season. Those opportunities to play in big games will prove invaluable this spring.
“Last year, we were really just learning how to play football,” Billings said. “It was different in college than in high school and there was a lot we didn't know.”
“The leadership is going to have to start coming toward the D-line,” Billings said. “We need to help them out.”
And Briles is just as excited about the return of Javonte Magee. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound lineman played as a true freshman in 2012 but left the program and didn’t play in a game last season due to personal problems.
He’s back on the practice field and trying to get back on track. Can Magee help this defensive line?
“Immediately, yes,” Briles said. “Slow guys don’t get fast and fast guys don’t get slow. Great athletes are great athletes. He’s a great athlete that’s come back with a great dedication, and it’s really heartwarming to see somebody have vision, have focus, have dreams and fulfill them. That’s what he’s got.”
Baylor has more than a few of those driven players back to lead its defensive line. McAllister and Lloyd started a combined 64 consecutive games before departing, and they helped build a foundation. They helped establish the standard.
Their successors -- like their head coach -- are just as confident the new guys can be even better.
“We’re going to cause a lot of havoc,” Oakman said.