By Shehan Jeyarajah
Over the offseason, Baylor tweaked the positions of senior safety Ahmad Dixon and senior nickelback Sam Holl in an effort to improve the Bears’ defense throughout the 2013 season.
Dixon, formerly a nickelback, moved to safety in the spring. The move to safety allows Dixon to play in more space and utilize his exceptional speed to track passes in the air and run down opponents.
The physical Holl, moved closer to the line of scrimmage to allow him to play the run.
After two blowout victories over Wofford and Buffalo, the position changes gave paid immediate dividends for a Baylor defense that has allowed a stingy 8.0 points per game.
Baylor is top 20 in Division I in yards allowed per game and rank No. 2 in the NCAA in scoring defense. The Bears have only allowed 16 total points on the season.
The Bears play a 4-2-5 defense typically. In that system, there are two true linebackers [junior Bryce Hager and senior Eddie Lackey] as well as a nickelback. The nickelback is a player who lines up as a linebacker, but also drops back into coverage more than an average linebacker.
“The positions fit their personalities a little bit better,” Briles said. “Ahmad is a gifted guy who can run that’s a very dynamic player in his own right. It gives a little more speed on the backside where we can change some coverages.”
Dixon is arguably the most talented defensive player on the field for Baylor, and has been there since he arrived on campus as a four-star recruit and top 15 player in his class according to ESPN. There was question that taking him further away from the line of scrimmage could take away from his effectiveness.
In the season opener against Wofford, Dixon showed he could be a difference maker all over the field with his speed and athleticism.
Dixon finished with eight tackles and a tackle for loss against Wofford, and followed it up with a five-tackle performance and blocked extra point against Buffalo.
Holl has struggled at times playing in a pure coverage role at safety. His aggressive tackling was often put to waste and his weaknesses were exposed when he was left out in coverage. Perhaps no game accentuated this more than the West Virginia debacle last season. Baylor’s defense allowed 656 yards of passing and Holl contributed two tackles.
“I think nickelback fits me more,” Holl said. “I love safety too, but this position allows me to use my strengths more than I did at safety.”
With the question marks about coverage, Briles opted to move Holl closer to the line of scrimmage.
“Sam is a ferocious tackler and a great ball player,” Briles said. “We think getting him close to the box will help him.”
So far the position changes have benefited both players as well as the entire Baylor defense. In the first game against Wofford, Holl finished with four total tackles, to go along with 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss. Against Buffalo, Holl led the team in tackles with nine and also recorded a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
The highlight against Buffalo for Holl was forcing a fumble that junior linebacker Bryce Hager picked up and ran 91 yards for a defensive touchdown.
Other defensive players are noticing the effects of Holl’s new position.
“Sam has made a tremendous transition,” senior linebacker Eddie Lackey said. “I think it’s nice for Sam to be down close to the box. He’s put on a little bit of weight, and now he’s playing just like any other linebacker.”
Briles is encouraged by the play of both Holl and Dixon, as well as the overall defense.
“I think the transition has been real good,” Briles said. “Sam has made some plays and Ahmad’s been very dynamic. It’s been a good mix so far for both of them.”
Dixon thinks there is room for improvement, but is confident heading forward.
“So far, I think we’re getting the hang of it,” Dixon said. “We’re learning the position better and it’s helping us out greatly.”
Baylor football returns at 3 p.m. Saturday against ULM at Floyd Casey Stadium.