Seasoned defensive linemen Gabe Hall, TJ Franklin lead new-look defense

Senior defensive lineman Gabe Hall (95, left) celebrates a defensive stop with fifth-year senior defensive lineman TJ Franklin (9, right) during a conference contest against then-No. 23 Kansas State University on Nov. 12, 2022 at McLane Stadium. Assoah Ndomo | Photographer

By Jackson Posey | Sports Writer

Defense wins championships — that’s as true in Waco as anywhere else in the country.

Baylor bulled its way toward a Big 12 title in 2021, largely on the back of a top-10 scoring defense that forced 26 turnovers. After a rough 2022 season, head coach Dave Aranda made some changes by replacing defensive coordinator Ron Roberts with familiar face Matt Powledge and bringing in five defensive transfers.

Consistency is king, and Baylor’s longtime defensive linemen — senior Gabe Hall and fifth-year senior TJ Franklin — are leading their unit through an offseason of transition. Franklin said he feels a responsibility to get the defense headed in the right direction.

“Honestly, it’s been weighing pretty heavy on me, because on those bad days, I feel like I take it worse than anybody, because I can notice it and I can feel the energy,” Franklin said. “Sometimes I feel like I haven’t done enough or like I haven’t helped somebody or asked somebody to help me with the defense. A lot of those times, I could be the one to be blamed for it.”

Franklin doesn’t bear that weight alone. He named Hall, fifth-year senior offensive lineman Clark Barrington and redshirt junior quarterback Blake Shapen as players he leans on when he’s being too hard on himself.

“Whenever those things happen, I just reach out to people and ask them for help, tell them I’m feeling a little down,” Franklin said. “We’re a brotherhood, and we take care of each other.”

Hall especially has stepped up in leadership alongside Franklin, who highlighted Hall’s “intensity” as uniquely important to the team’s dynamic.

“He’s like the enforcer,” Franklin said. “If I ask him to do something, he’ll always do it. If we need him to get the team going, he’ll set the tone to get the whole team rolling.”

Meanwhile, Hall described Franklin as more of a “rah rah rah” guy.

“[He’s] just a vocal dude,” Hall said. “He’s played a lot, so he has a lot of experience, and when you have somebody like that on the field, you look up to him and want to know his wisdom. So when you talk to him, they listen, and it’s good for the team to have experienced people.”

Despite losing several starters from last year’s team, Baylor will have plenty of veterans this season. Its five newest defensive transfers bring a combined 17 seasons of college football experience. Among them is fifth-year senior linebacker Mike Smith Jr., who played three seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before spending last season at Liberty University.

“When you have a veteran leader like Mike Smith, we have more leaders on the team [and] more people to step up,” Hall said. “It makes it easier because you always have somebody holding other people accountable and holding you accountable as well.”

After years of grinding his way to the Power Five level, Smith said he’s ready to take the next step — beginning on the practice field. He named Franklin specifically as another key leader on the defense.

“Me and TJ, we just accept the role that coach [Aranda] puts on us,” Smith said. “We know we have to show up and show out and try to lead the way for our defense and stuff. So we know when we step on the field, it’s the standard, and we’re just trying to play to the standard every time we’re on the field.”

The Bears open the season at 6 p.m. Saturday against Texas State University. They should receive their first significant challenge the following week against No. 14 University of Utah, which ranked 11th nationally in scoring offense last year. But the Bears have the personnel to cause problems for their future conference-mates. Hall earned a spot on the Bronko Nagurski Watch List for the best defensive player in the country, and five other defensive players earned preseason All-Big 12 nods.

“Personally, I feel like we’re in a good place,” Franklin said. “I feel like our defense is headed in the right direction, and the offense is in a good place. So if we stay on this track we’re on right now, we should be able to have a big [impact come] first kickoff.”