They don’t make 'em like Andrew Billings because it shouldn’t be possible.
Just ask Corey Avery, Kansas’ freshman running back. He caught a screen in open space against Baylor this month. Not a defender in sight.
Not for long. As Avery was dashing the first 20 yards, Billings was closing in fast from his left. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound defensive lineman with the 4.97-second time in the 40-yard dash was coming after him full-speed. Imagine hearing those footsteps.
The chase was enough to send Avery toward the sideline. Billings grabbed Avery from behind by his shoulders and slammed him down to halt a 36-yard gain.
Billings knows he must make these rare chances for big plays count. The sophomore’s role as the nose tackle of the Baylor defense can be a thankless one, but the dirty work he’s doing makes this group shine.
On a team with a 6-foot-9 defensive end (Shawn Oakman) and a 400-pound lineman (LaQuan McGowan), led by one of the nation’s most athletically gifted quarterbacks (Bryce Petty) whose new go-to receiver (Corey Coleman) can jump 45 inches, Billings might be king of the athletic freaks.
He is, after all, the top young powerlifter in the state of Texas. In 2012, he broke Mark Henry's 22-year prep record by maxing out for a total of 2,010 pounds (805 on squats, 500 on bench, 705 on dead lift) at the state meet. Today, Billings can bench press 430 pounds four times, squat 610 pounds five times, and hit five reps of 350 pounds on cleans.
And he is 18.
Not long ago, he was wrapped up in his own intense TCU vs. Baylor debate. An ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class, Billings took his decision all the way to the day before signing day.
He thought he was going to TCU when he woke up that day. By 3 p.m., he had a change of heart. Billings still remembers having to call Gary Patterson from the parking lot of a Waco radio station to deliver the news right before announcing his pledge on the air.
"I knew Baylor was becoming a better program, and I knew we were going to win it all," Billings said.
His signing was a coup on par with landing Ahmad Dixon, Baylor coach Art Briles said last month, because the Waco High product electing to stay put sent an important message.
"Getting those guys solidifies the fact that it's OK to stay home and play, especially when home is good, and Baylor is academically, athletically, location-wise good," Briles said. "It just solidifies that fact, and Andrew is a great football player. He's a great kid, too, but he’s an outstanding player that will lead the way for many years."
Billings logged an insane 266 pancake blocks over his final two seasons at Waco High. He wanted to play defense in college.
"I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, to be honest," Billings said.
Billings chuckles when describing his freshman season, five long months of learning on the go. When he first showed up, he assumed his job was to push the guard back as far as possible. Good thing he was already as strong as the upperclassmen.
"Actually, that did help," Billings said. "I didn’t have that much technique, but being stronger helped me stay where I was supposed to be -- even if I might stand high as a kite."
He’s starting to master his craft in Year 2. Billings is typically responsible for closing up the A-gap and taking on double teams. He’s trying to free up backside pass-rushes and keep blockers off his linebackers. In the run game, Billings must coerce running backs to cut back and meet the oncoming pressure.
"That’s really what I try to do every play," Billings said. "What I had to learn was it’s really not about stats."
Not that he doesn’t love a chance to rush the passer. Billings leads the Bears in quarterback hurries this season, and eight of his 27 tackles have come behind the line of scrimmage. And yes, he will happily chase the fast guys if needed.
But against Oklahoma, Billings recorded one stop. The box score won’t often capture his impact. He’s freeing up one-on-one chances up the middle for defensive tackle Beau Blackshear (4.5 sacks in 2014) and forcing backs to try their luck against Oakman and fellow end K.J. Smith, who have combined for 20.5 tackles for loss.
Last year, Billings had strength but no technique. This season, he’s catching up.
"I’m still not playing up to my potential," he said, "but I’m gradually getting up there."
Next year? That is when Billings could become scary. By the time he is full-grown, the freakiest of Baylor’s athletic freaks should be one wild Bear to beware.