Baylor trusting new-look back seven

WACO, Texas -- Orion Stewart knows what pundits are saying about his Baylor defense. He doesn’t like it one bit.

Yes, the sophomore safety knows the Bears lost 13 letterwinners on his side of the ball. He gets why that is concerning. But the offseason buzz that Baylor’s defense is a question mark is almost offensive to him.

“I hate it. We’re going to show them this year,” Stewart said. “Everywhere you look: ‘Baylor’s defense is not this good, it’s not that great, it’s the offense that wins the games.’ They don’t know that we’re going to get it done.”

No one is questioning a defensive line that Art Briles has called possibly the best in America. Middle linebacker Bryce Hager is a proven commodity and a preseason All-Big 12 selection. But it’s the rest of the back seven, the Bears’ linebackers and defensive backs, that raises eyebrows. The development of that group will decide whether Baylor can field another Big 12 title-caliber defense.

“We’re in the proving business,” BU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said Tuesday before the team’s first fall practice. “But they’ve played a lot of football, and they’re talented.”

As Stewart put it: “They’ll know those guys by the end of the year.”

Here’s a closer look at exactly what Baylor is working with in the back seven. These are the names you’ll need to know.

Weakside linebacker: Aiavion Edwards OR Taylor Young

What is Bennett looking for at this spot?

“Eddie Lackey. Remember him?” he joked.

Finding someone to match what the consensus All-Big 12 senior provided last season isn’t easy, and Edwards will battle Young throughout August for the right to start.

Edwards, a sophomore, played in 12 games last season and saw his playing time increase when Hager went down, though he didn’t crack the starting lineup.

“I like him a lot as a player,” Hager said. “He brings physicality. He’s really strong, makes plays happen in the middle, and breaks up blocks.”

But Bennett is just as excited about Young, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound redshirt freshman from DeSoto, Texas. He wowed the coaching staff in spring ball.

“After looking at the spring cut-ups, Taylor Young is going to be hard to keep off the field,” Bennett said. “He has a natural playmaker instinct. The guys I’ve had there had that ability.”

Cornerback: Xavien Howard, Terrence Singleton

Baylor is entrusting its coverage at corner to two players who have never started a game. Bennett isn’t scared for a second about that.

“I’ve coached a lot of NFL guys,” he said. “They’re NFL guys.”

Howard and Singleton each played in 13 games last season and earned praise from Briles and teammates for the potential they’ve flashed in practice.

Howard, a sophomore from Houston, did pick off a pass in mop-up duty against Buffalo and isn’t afraid to cover Antwan Goodley and the Bears’ best weapons.

“He’s a playmaker,” Stewart said. “He’s really good, always going against the best receivers. I feel like he’s going to be ready.”

Like Howard, Singleton is a third-year sophomore who got his first taste of game action last year after a redshirt season.

“He’s fun to watch, in workouts especially,” Hager said. “He’s fast and quick and really athletic. He’s going to help us out a lot.”

Ryan Reid will also see the field, and juco transfer Chris Sanders is dealing with hamstring issues but should contribute. Bennett isn’t ruling out playing freshmen Verkedric Vaughns, Jourdan Blake or Chance Waz, too.

But, again, only Reid (seven games) has any playing experience among the top backups.

Safety: Terrell Burt, Stewart

Stewart is ready to hold down the down safety spot after earning starts in two of Baylor’s final four games last season. Bennett admitted he might be as underrated as the rest of these fresh faces.

“When we made the run to win it, Orion Stewart was a starter for us,” Bennett said. “As we came down the back stretch to win the championship, Orion Stewart was huge. He injured his ankle in the Texas game, plays the whole half with a terrible injury, wasn’t able to play in bowl game.”

He’s healthy now. So is Burt, who Bennett called “outstanding” for most of last season as his cover safety, with the exception of the Fiesta Bowl loss. He totaled 61 tackles and two interceptions, including one for a TD.

“He started 13 games with a torn labrum,” Bennett said. “Terrell Burt is a football player.”

Nickleback: Collin Brence

Never heard of him? That’s understandable. The senior from Plano, Texas, has been a career special teams player who arrived at Baylor as a walk-on.

But there’s just something about Brence that reminds Bennett of the last guy who held this “Bear” hybrid spot, Sam Holl. He’s played in 29 games and learned plenty in the process.

“I’m comfortable with Collin Brence,” Bennett said. “He’s a coach’s son. He’s a football player.”

If the season started today, Brence would be a starter. He proved he deserved the spot in spring ball. Most fans have probably never heard of him, but they’ll find out soon.

“I don’t care. I like him,” Bennett said. “Nobody knew who Eddie Lackey was, either. But I tell ya, he’s a coach’s son. Looking at those tapes, he knows how to do it."