By Michael Haag | Sports Writer
The Baylor Bears are expected to have another strong defense this upcoming season. On all levels of the field, from the trenches to the secondary, the defense is filled with veterans who are ready to make plays.
Most fans like to talk about the offensive firepower on a team. Scoring, explosive plays and chunk-yard gains tend to be what people get excited over. However, there is a whole other facet of the game that is just as important.
Battle in the Trenches
It all starts with the trenches. Baylor’s defensive line is going to be in control of plugging up running holes and applying a consistent pass-rush. Sophomore transfer defensive tackle Siaki “Apu” Ika, who has been with Baylor football head coach Dave Aranda since their days at Louisiana State University, will be at the center of everything and has a chance to shift the balance of the defensive front in Baylor’s favor.
“I think they are going to have to double him or try to cut him,” Aranda said. “[In] the 3-4, … you have your nose in the middle. If two guys have to take him, then you are gaining a number at the point of attack on a play.”
“Oh, he’s dangerous, senior safety Jalen Pitre said. “I feel like when people get to see him on Saturday, they’re going to notice how reckless he is and how much of a game wrecker he is. Him in the middle is going to open a lot of things for a lot of us.”
Apu embraces the role and knows how important it is for him to execute on all cylinders for the team.
“I’m built for it,” Apu said. “I’m a pretty large dude. There’s not a lot of people that look like me on the team; I’m built to be in the middle. I’m built to eat up two blocks, make plays when I can – defense is built for me.”
Junior defensive lineman Brayden Utley and senior defensive tackle Cole Maxwell will be on the defensive line with Ika, and Ika said he has a lot of confidence in them.
“[They’re] fighters,” Ika said in a press conference on Aug. 9. “Our strength is in our numbers. We had some dudes come back from injury, so just having them back, being able to go through practice together, makes us better as a unit.”
Solidifying the Middle
The linebacker group is filled with experienced players in senior Ashton Logan, junior Dillon Doyle, Bernard and Pitre, who also plays safety. Bernard is coming off a shoulder injury, reuniting on the inside with Doyle.
“It is definitely nice to have Terrell back there with me,” Doyle said. “I love playing with 2 [Bernard]. He is just an awesome leader.”
Senior running back Abram Smith, who converted from being a linebacker, also spoke about how important Bernard and the linebacker core will be for this team.
“Those guys are the standard,” Smith said. “You look at Terrell and you’re like, ‘Man, he knows what he’s doing all the time … at a high level, high speed.’ So, it’s like that’s what you want out of a football player.”
Locking Down the Outside
Headed back to the secondary, another veteran group is looking to lock down opposing receivers and control the aerial attack. Senior cornerbacks Raleigh Texada and Kalon Barnes will be shadowing opposing receivers, while senior safeties JT Woods, Christian Morgan and Pitre will be helping them out.
The cornerbacks are referenced as “lock-down corners” and are expected to slow down receiver threats from opposing teams. Safeties Woods and Morgan both expressed how much easier their job is due to the quality of talent at the cornerback position.
“All the corners are really good … you can do a lot of stuff with safeties,” Morgan said. “You can change the coverage, you can leave them on an island, and that just frees up us on the back end to make plays. It’s really good to have guys like that.”
“They have tremendous athletes in that corners room,” Woods said. “We all know they have a lot of speed, so I don’t have to worry about if I have to leave them on an island. ‘Texada Island’ – that’s a real thing out there. It’s no joke. Being able to trust those guys … to make plays and not always have to worry about protecting them over the top is really relieving for me as a safety.”
Having those types of cornerbacks allows for Aranda and defensive coordinator Ron Roberts to have more flexibility in their defensive play calling.
Woods and Morgan will have plenty of space to make plays and less pressure will be put on their shoulders to aid the cornerbacks in one-on-one situations. In obvious passing situations, having them over the top will be important, but in games where a team is more run-heavy, having the ability to bring them in to blitz will be a bonus.
Overall, the defense is an experienced group that has seen it all and they will look to make use of that this season. Winning is dependent on putting points on the board, make no mistake. However, at the end of the day, it starts with the Baylor Bear defense, which seems ready to get the job done.