By Cody Soto
Baylor defense looks to continue its dominant ways in the 2014 season after a very successful 2013 postseason run, earning their first Big 12 title in program history. However, uncertainty has factored into this season, causing some sports experts to wonder if Baylor can defend its title.
The 2013 graduation left head coach Art Briles and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett with eight starting spots open on defense. Defensive ends Chris McAllister and Terrance Lloyd, linebackers Eddie Lackey and Brody Trahan, and defensive backs Sam Holl, K.J. Morton, Demetri Goodson, and Ahmad Dixon left big gaps in Baylor’s championship defense.
Being nationally ranked No. 36 in total defense, the Bears gave up an average of 4.75 yards per play. They recorded 99 tackles for loss and 31 sacks on the season.
With stats like these, Baylor was able to use its powerful offense and defense to capture a Big 12 title. Briles and his team have taken a step forward with this record-setting defense.
“Last year, we took a major step defensively placing in the top 30 in America and even the nation in 3-and-out’s,” Briles said. “One of our mottos is ‘don’t take a step backwards,’ so we know we have to go forward and get better in all phases.”
Returning from last year’s defense is senior linebacker Bryce Hager, who played eight games before he suffered a groin injury during the Texas Tech game on Nov. 16. Hager has since been preparing to return as a leader for Baylor’s young defense.
“I’ve worked really hard in this offseason to get back to where I originally was last year, but it’s been a hard recovery,” Hager said.
Hager ranked second on the team with 7.9 tackles per game and led with 10 quarterback hurries last season.
Returning alongside Hager will be junior defensive end Shawn Oakman, who has proved to be a monster coming off the bench and is set to help lead this defense.
“We can’t block him,” Briles said. “And I don’t think anyone else will, either. He’s one out of about six or seven that are going to be dominant, dynamic players for us in the fall, no doubt.”
Predicted to start at defensive end with Oakman is junior Jamal Palmer who made a big impact with 38 tackles, 11.0 for loss and 5 sacks. Another linebacker to watch for is junior transfer Sam Ukwuachu who will push for more playing time after sitting out last season. Ukwuachu started 12 games with the Boise State Broncos before transferring to Baylor.
Junior Beau Blackshear and sophomore Andrew Billings are expected to start at defensive tackle. Both Waco natives had 29 and 33 tackles last season, respectively. Sophomore Javonte Magee is back for the 2014 season after he left the team for personal reasons in 2013. Magee will push for a starting role on the defensive line with opportunities for big playing time.
Juniors Trevor Clemons-Valdez and Suleiman Masumbuko and sophomore Byron Bonds will add some experience to the defensive line as well.
At cornerback, returning sophomores Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid, and Orion Stewart will be the experience in that position. They have the size to challenge receivers and assist in the running game, something that K.J. Morton excelled at a year ago.
“I see myself playing like Demetri Goodson and being physical like K.J. Morton,” Stewart said. “We learned from the players last year. We just have to be like them.”
Stewart was originally an all-state quarterback in high school, but Bennett helped shape him into a defensive threat.
“As we came down the backstretch to winning a championship, Orion Stewart was huge,” Bennett said. “He injuries his ankle in the Texas game and still played the whole half with a terrible injury.”
Even though Stewart didn’t know who Bennett was at time of recruitment, he was able to transition from his previous position.
“Bennett recruited me because he loved how he could switch me from a quarterback to a defensive end,” Stewart said. “[The coaches] believed in me and I had to show that I could do it.”
Briles has confidence that daily practice is benefitting this young defense.
“They’re responding to going against really good people on the other side of the ball,” Briles said. “They’re high motor guys with intensity, effort, and a great attitude that want to prove themselves. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
The nation will be able to watch how this new defense will defend their Big 12 title on Aug. 31 when Baylor takes on SMU for the first game at McLane Stadium.