Before a pair of high-profile implosions in two of last season’s biggest games, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said his unit played its first eight contests “as good as anybody in the country. Bar none.”Left unmentioned is the season-ending groin injury suffered in the Bears’ ninth game by middle linebacker Bryce Hager, Baylor’s defensive leader and team captain. Although the Bears claimed the Big 12 title with an 11-2 record, teammates consider it no coincidence that last year’s record breaks down this way: 9-0 with Hager, 2-2 without him.Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, a Heisman Trophy candidate who threw for 4,200 yards last season, noticed tangible and intangible differences in the Bears’ defense during daily workouts following Hager’s injury and throughout his rehabilitation process.“You can definitely tell when he’s not out there. I’ll put it that way,” Petty said. “The difference is huge. They jell when he’s out there. It makes it really difficult on our side of the ball when he’s out there playing against us.”During fall drills, teammates have seen Hager (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) in action for the first time since tearing his groin in a 63-34 victory over Texas Tech on Nov. 16. Hager underwent surgery but sat out spring drills while nursing an abdominal injury.His return has lifted the spirits, and improved the down-to-down alignment, of Baylor defenders who depend on the fifth-year senior to be their coach on the field. The son of former NFL linebacker Britt Hager, Texas’ record-holder for career tackles (499), the younger Hager has collected 208 stops in three seasons for the Bears. Of those, 71 came last season when Hager received All-Big 12 recognition for the second time in his career.“When you play these no-huddle offenses, Bryce calls most of the game,” Bennett said. “This league makes you have so many automatics and Bryce knows what I want. We spend a lot of time together. Bryce has a presence about him, and his presence makes everybody around him better.”Hager, an Austin Westlake graduate, said he will take “a different appreciation for the game” to the field this season. Missing the Bears’ final four games of last season, including a 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, has renewed his hunger to outwork and outthink opponents as Baylor seeks to improve on its No. 10 ranking in the preseason coaches poll.“This is my third year as a starter. I know the system. I know what coach Bennett wants and how he wants it,” Hager said. “It’s my last chance as a college athlete. We have a lot to prove and we’re using that Fiesta Bowl as an example.“That’s not how our defense usually plays. That was a fluke. Everyone on our team knows that. So that’s one of our big motivators. As long as we can get everyone on the same page, the sky is the limit for this defense.”Based on job description, Hager will be the Bear most instrumental in making that happen this season. He will anchor a linebacker corps that will miss Eddie Lackey, last year’s leading tackler (108 stops, 13 TFLs), as well as three departed secondary starters: safety Ahmad Dixon, cornerback Demetri Goodson, and nickel back Sam Holl.But the defensive line, said coach Art Briles, has the talent and depth to be nation’s best, minimizing pressure on the other units. Hager, the player tasked with pulling all groups together on the field, agreed with Briles’ assessment. He said the defensive line has “crazy depth” and predicted the Bears, despite three first-year starters, will “be better in the secondary than we were last year.”All of that will remain speculation until Baylor opens its season Aug. 31 against SMU at McLane Stadium (6:30 p.m., FS1). What has been verified is how much impact Hager makes on this defense beyond last year’s season statistics: 71 tackles, 2.5 tackles for losses, nine quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and one 91-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Buffalo.To teammates, the most telling stat is Baylor’s 2-2 record with Hager watching from the sideline. That is a situation none of them want to face again this season.“Last year, we had to switch things around when he wasn’t there because he was a big centerpiece for our defense,” safety Terrell Burt said. “Having him back will be great. It will be a lot easier mentally.”Defensive end Shawn Oakman said: “My captain is back and I’m excited that he’s back. He’s going to get us lined up and we’re going to fly to the ball.”How often that happens for a rebuilt Baylor defense will have a huge bearing on whether the Bears contend for Big 12 and national championships this season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch