By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor
Being a first-year head coach is hard. It’s even harder in the midst of a pandemic, which is what Baylor football head coach Dave Aranda had to deal with when he took the job. COVID-19 took away everything a first-year head coach in a new program would need to be successful, such as practice time and face-to-face interactions, which resulted in the Bears finishing with a 2-7 record.
Now in his second year with fewer restrictions, Aranda is happy just to get a chance to be closer to his team.
“Excited to be back and excited to be in normal spaces,” Aranda said in a press conference. “It’s a big difference when you’re in a room, and you’ve got the attention of everyone, and they’re all kind of focused in on you, and you can kind of feel it, as opposed to, ‘We’re here and everything is spaced out to such a degree that it’s hard to keep that attention.’”
Aranda has taken advantage of being able to be closer to his team, implementing weekly team dinners and Zoom meetings with families in an effort to allow everyone to get to know each other — something the players appreciate.
“I think that’s what makes a team good,” senior wide receiver R.J. Sneed said in a press conference. “When I know you more off the field than I know you on the field, then I know you’ve got my back on the field. So I think that’s a good thing going into the season, compared to last year where we get on the field and I see a number out there, I’m like, ‘Who is that?’”
Aranda has also made it a point to meet with players individually so that they can pick his brain.
“A couple weeks ago, I sat with coach Aranda and just talked coverages,” junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon said in a press conference. “Man, when I say that he knows so much, it is unbelievable. I couldn’t even grasp it all because I was just writing everything down trying to catch it. And I know when I went home later that day, I had to sit back and just read. I was like, ‘Maybe I need to meet this guy a little bit more; he’s very intelligent.’”
Senior safety JT Woods has had similar experiences with Aranda.
“He just gets in the zone,” Woods said in a press conference. “He kind of sits back, and he just dissects a play. If you really sit in a film session with him, you can really see the defensive mind that he has. It’s just really amazing for me, being a defender. I just love sitting back and getting to listen to him talk, and he can go on and on about plays that happened years and years ago. Just being able to talk about that, and me being able to understand it too, is really, really amazing.”
However, it isn’t always about football with Aranda. One of his biggest points of emphasis is his “person over player” motto, teaching players that they’re more than athletes.
“He’s [Aranda] taught me a lot,” senior safety Jalen Pitre said in a press conference. “I think the biggest thing he’s taught me is just the whole ‘person over player’ thing. Just knowing that I do play football, but I’m not necessarily a football player; it’s what I do, but it’s not who I am. He’s always big on that, and he’s always looking after football into the future. He’s a long-term type of guy, and I think that’s definitely going to help all of us in the future.”
The extra time has also given the players a chance to get to know their head coach better.
“The players probably have a better understanding of what I’m talking about,” Aranda said. “I feel possibly [I’m] not talking as much because a lot of times now, if the relationship is right, it may just be a look and they get it.”
So far, the players have been liking what they’ve seen from Aranda in his second year.
“I think he’s been doing an amazing job,” Woods said in a press conference. “He’s been listening to us. He’s been tailoring things toward us. He’s really opened up his shell a lot. When he first got here — at least to me — it was kind of like he was kind of closed off, but he’s definitely bloomed, and I just love seeing him grow each and every day as a head coach.”
The lifting of restrictions has given Aranda more practice time. With spring camp, summer workouts and fall camp, Aranda has had ample time to instill his philosophy of mastering the simple things in his players.
“It’s spending the time on individual and fundamental work and getting to the spot where you can do simple better and getting people to have ownership of those things,” Aranda said in a press conference. “It’s one thing to understand it in a meeting, it’s another thing to do it well in a drill and it’s yet still another to do something in a walkthrough. But to do it when it matters, to do it when it’s tough, that is when there’s a mastery of it.”
According to Pitre, the players have all adopted that mindset, and it has been paying off.
“It’s wonderful,” Pitre said in a press conference. “It’s good to be out here with my teammates. Last year, we didn’t have spring ball, so definitely coming in I see the preparation that we put in and I think it’s paying off, especially in the weight room and even on the field and in the meetings. Our team is gelling. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
The point of spending so much extra time together this offseason is to build a strong culture of unity and brotherhood, which wasn’t always evident last year.
“We have an offense and defense that plays together,” senior wide receiver Tyquan Thornton said in a press conference. “We come to work every day to make each other better. It’s not me versus you out there; it’s me with you, and that’s the culture we’re trying to build here at Baylor.”