College Sports

Defensive line could be difference-maker in Baylor’s playoff quest

For decades, Baylor fans have been singing That Good Old Baylor Line at football games. This year, it should qualify as more than just an alma mater.

To the guys in the defensive huddle, that phrase applies to a unit coach Art Briles called “as talented and dominant” as any in college football. If the Bears live up to that billing, Baylor could build on last year’s 11-2 record and become a participant in the College Football Playoff’s inaugural four-team bracket.

Players are counting on a relentless pass rush from a rotation of nine linemen to keep opposing quarterbacks harried enough to offset some inevitable growing pains in a rebuilt secondary.

Linebacker Bryce Hager said Tuesday that the plan should work well enough to help Baylor climb from its perch at No. 10 in the coaches’ preseason poll to one of the four teams in the January playoff.

“I believe that,” Hager said. “We have crazy depth on the line. Those guys are the best in the country. Those guys up front, they make this defense really good.”

One of the few dissenting opinions Tuesday came from Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who urged reporters to “not get ahead of ourselves” in praise of the pass rush.

Bennett remains miffed by the Bears’ season-ending performance in a 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. Before Tuesday’s first practice of fall drills, he made it clear to his troops that they needed to be every bit as angry as he is or they had no business joining him in the locker room.

“When you ... finish up like that, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Bennett said. “There’s a determination, a sense of urgency of what I’m looking for.”

If that sense of urgency surfaces in defensive ends Shawn Oakman (6-foot-9, 280 pounds) and Jamal Palmer (6-3, 240), a pair of projected first-year starters who combined for 23.5 tackles for losses in backup roles last season, Bennett indicated he will be more comfortable joining Briles in praise of the Bears’ dominance in the defensive trenches.

“There was a reason that Oakman and Palmer were not starters. They’ve got a lot to prove,” said Bennett, who was more generous with praise of his five-man tackle tandem of Andrew Billings, Beau Blackshear, Byron Bonds, Javonte Magee and Suleiman Masumbuko, a Euless Trinity graduate. “Now, do I think that Oakman and Palmer can do it? Yes.”

So does every teammate wearing a green jersey. So does Briles, who called his defensive line “exceptional” before taking the field to oversee Tuesday’s initial practice.

Much of the buzz centers around the upsized Oakman, a transfer from Penn State who made his presence felt on selected snaps last season (12.5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks) and spent the summer shoring up his fundamentals.

Asked where he has improved, Oakman said: “Footwork and hands. Standing on my feet and staying off the ground.”

Palmer, the team’s top returning sack artist from last season (5), will rush from the side opposite Oakman.

Eventually, Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu is expected to join the mix at defensive end. But the Pearland native, who earned freshman All-American honors for the Broncos in 2012, was not at Tuesday’s practice.

Bennett said Ukwuachu has “some issues right now and won’t practice until we get them straightened out.” He did not elaborate.

At the tackle spots, the Bears return one full-time starter (Blackshear), a proven commodity who redshirted last season (Magee) and a part-time starter, Billings, who is one of the strongest players in college football.

Billings set a high school weightlifting record (2,010 combined pounds in the squat, bench press and dead lift) in 2013, breaking the mark held for 22 years by Mark Henry, a former professional wrestler who still bills himself as the “world’s strongest man.”

Billings also collected 29 tackles and 4 tackles for losses in his freshman season. As a sophomore, teammates expect much more in 2014.

“Andrew clogs up the middle. He may be double-teamed, but he’s not going to move anywhere,” Hager said. “That frees up everyone else to make plays.”

Troy Baker, a fifth-year senior who starts at offensive tackle, marveled Tuesday about the difference in facing today’s defensive linemen in practice than the group he encountered three years ago.

“Back in 2011, it was a clear advantage for us,” Baker said. “Now, it’s very scary. There’s literally some times you cannot block Shawn Oakman. He’s got long arms, he puts them into your chest and you can’t reach him. That’s just part of it. And Billings, everybody knows how strong he is. But the whole bunch of them can play.”

Ideally, Briles hopes they play well enough to help Baylor mask the losses of five key contributors in the back seven, notably linebacker Eddie Lackey, safety Ahmad Dixon and nickelback Sam Holl.

“I’m excited to see them show their stuff,” Briles said of his defensive linemen. “They’re a very talented group. I think they’re exceptional.”

At Baylor, that sounds like a group worth singing about on Saturdays.

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