The 2012 Holiday Bowl was the moment when it became clear that Art Briles' Baylor Bears had broken through their old ceiling as a program. They'd just finished a 5-1 stretch to conclude their first season in the wake of the RG3 era with a 49-26 thumping of Brett Hundley and the UCLA Bruins. They were also about to sign a recruiting class that would be ranked in the nation's top 30 classes and included a pair of defensive blue-chippers in DE/OLB Brian Nance and DT Andrew Billings.
Offense has always come easily to Briles but building defenses strong enough to form a championship program has been much tougher. The signing of Billings seemed to indicate that those days may be in the past as athletic, elite DT prospects are probably the hardest position to stock at the college level and the hardest to keep around.
As Briles noted in the recent 2016 Baylor spring game,
More from Briles on going to 3-man fronts: "It's hard to find interior guys defensively. If you find 'em, they leave after 3 years."— Max Olson (@max_olson) April 2, 2016
Briles was doubtlessly referring to Billings, who actually gave Baylor two very strong years as a starting DT but is now moving on to the NFL before his senior season and leaving the Bears wondering how to fill the massive hole he left. Since he left they haven't been swimming in other 4-star DTs recruits.
So Baylor's search for answers on defense continues...
Baylor's philosophy on defense
The Baylor philosophy makes a great deal of sense, they've always tried to be aggressive, simple, sound, and keep numbers around the box in order to pressure opponents into either punting, scoring, or turning it over and to achieve that result as quickly as possible. In any of those three events the Bears get they what they want most, which is possession for their offense.
Their schematic approach to actualize this philosophy has been the Michigan State 4-3 Over-Quarters defense. That's a 4-3 front with a space-backer who always aligns to the wide side of the field, a 9-tech strongside DE, an aggressive deployment of the linebackers, and a tight alignment and aggressive deployment of the safeties. You can read more about Baylor's usage of this system in this breakdown of their 2015 defense.
In the 2015 season, Baylor actually ended up toning down their defense some for reasons that aren't totally clear to this writer. Either because their veteran free safety Terrell Burt was in decline or because Briles and his DC Phil Bennett just decided they needed to become more conservative, the Bears removed Burt from the starting lineup and replaced him with Chance Waz.
Burt was basically a 3rd corner on the field and his best attribute was an ability to pick up slot receivers in man coverage, which then freed up the Bear space-backers to play the edge aggressively. When those space-backers were Sam Holl and Collin Brence, who were solid underneath but weren't guys you wanted carrying a slot on a vertical route, this skill was invaluable.
In 2015 the space-backer role was occupied by Travon Blanchard, who's the most athletic player Baylor has fielded at the spot since Ahmad Dixon's time at the spot. Blanchard's athleticism in 2015 was utilized to spend an extra beat sticking with slot receivers before addressing the run game so Waz wouldn't have to handle vertical routes without help as Burt had often done.
So Baylor's deployment of the space-backer on the edge went from this, where he'd attack the edge if he saw run blocking and leave the free safety to play the slot in man coverage:
The "Rocket" avatar represents Baylor's 5-10, 225 pound plucky weakside linebacker Taylor Young, now no longer paired with his "Groot" Shawn Oakman. Baylor moved away from this aggressive deployment of the space backer to this more conservative approach, in which that edge player would respond to run blocking by first denying the slot a two-way go in order to protect the free safety, and then minding the edge:
Perhaps they felt this was necessary regardless of whether Burt was still effective covering slots or not, hence the move to Waz who was the better tackler. Either way, Baylor ended up evolving their approach here in a way that might make sense for them in the future.
However, there was another function that Burt's coverage abilities served for the defense that now have to be addressed.
The fundamental issue confronting the Baylor defense
Often the hardest thing for a 4-3 defense to develop is a base pass-rush. You're usually relying on the DEs in that scheme to provide most of that rush but in today's game you also need some interior rush because the ball gets out so quickly. The Bears struggled to get to get enough of either in 2015.
Despite returning their entire DL, including DEs Oakman and Jamal Palmer for 2015, the Bears ranked 58th nationally on passing downs by S&P and 65th nationally in defense (despite finishing 8th in rushing, 6th on standard downs, and 34th against the pass). Palmer produced 5.5 sacks while Oakman only had 4.5 as teams figured out how to handle his bull rush and largely neutralized him.
So what is a team to do when they don't have DL that can consistently get a pass-rush? Blitz!
There's one area where Baylor has departed from Michigan State's defense and that's with their blitz package. Rather than using the Sparty zone-blitzes, which require a lot of commitment to do right and would have a questionable prognosis in the Big 12, Bennett usually prefers zero-blitzes which bring six or seven defenders while leaving all of the receivers in man coverage with "zero" safeties deep. This was workable when Burt was essentially performing that role on run downs anyways but with Waz out there it's more vulnerable.
So Baylor was unable to blitz as effectively as they had in the past and didn't have a DL that could get the job done without help, thus a poor performance on passing downs.
For 2016, Oakman, Palmer, Billings, and DT Beau Blackshear are all gone and Baylor is looking at starting over along the entire DL, though they return 5/7 of their defensive backfield. Now Baylor has to figure out how to match a defensive backfield that features players that are good when deployed conservatively with an unproven defensive front that may need help.
In a big picture sense this is going to be a problem for Baylor every year unless they can consistently recruit and develop DL or else load up on tons of excellent coverage players, both of which are hard to come by even for programs that can consistently recruit blue-chippers.
So Briles and Bennett have made a move to help find solutions in 2016 and position the Bears to avoid problems here in future seasons.
Solution? The 3-4 defense
Baylor is basically going the 2015 Iowa State route next year and taking advantage of LB depth to answer DL scarcity. They'll obviously be hoping it goes better for them than it did Iowa State, who finished 68th last year in defensive S&P.
Much like Iowa State a year ago, Baylor is bringing in a smaller, explosive JUCO DL in Jeremy Faulk (6'2" 290) who is expected to fit in at nose tackle this season and rotate with returning tackle Byron Bonds. At DE the Bears have the once highly heralded Brian Nance (6'3" 245) and returning veteran KJ Smith (6'2" 260).
Nance showed some potential a year ago as an edge rusher while Smith is a sturdy player and solid pass-rusher that has played when Baylor mixed in odd fronts in the last few seasons. Faulk is probably the key piece after a JUCO season in which he had 7.5 sacks from an interior pass-rusher position.
With this DL paired with an athletic and experienced LB corps, the Bears figure to deploy a defense that looks like this:
In essence, they're trading a 3-technique defensive tackle for an extra inside-backer. There are a number of different ways they could align the DEs and LBs to account for the interior gaps, but there are a few main principles that will always be applied in this front.
One is that the DEs need to be able to protect the linebackers, they aren't looking to aggressively set the edge or get wide and after the QB in this front but need to be helping to maintain the line of scrimmage and occupying blockers and gaps so the LBs can flow to the ball.
The nose-tackle could be a 2-gap anchor in the middle or an "interior disruptor" who's chosen for his ability to slant, penetrate, and cause problems and pile-ups in the middle of the field with his quickness. With Faulk stepping in to this role you can expect to see more of the latter than the former.
Pressure in this defense comes primarily from the blitz package, and in the instance of the Baylor quarters-based defense, frequently sending pass-rushers in groups of four and five.
The advantage the 3-4 can bring to Baylor is helping them maintain the more conservative coverages in which this current DB group will thrive by offering more options for sending conservative pressure. It also makes great use of Taylor Young's unique versatility. For instance, the Bears could try to manufacture pressure by firing one of their inside-backers on an A-gap blitz and fitting everyone else into their natural roles:
All that's happened here is that Baylor has created their old 4-3 Over-quarters defense after the snap with Faulk slanting over into a 3-technique, an inside-backer crashing into the a-gap rather than a nose-tackle, and Young assuming his normal weakside linebacker position and role. Because of Faulk and these DEs ability to slant and stunt combined with the presence of all these versatile linebackers in the box, the combinations are pretty extensive.
They could also bring an overload pressure by playing man coverage behind it on the boundary while still playing a safe brand of quarters over the passing strength of the opposing formation:
With the 3-4 alignment combined with the old split field/quarters coverages there are more options to allow the Bears to help their pass-rushers find advantages without having to field fantastic coverage players at every spot in the secondary. The 2016 Baylor defense will still depend on finding some good corners and ideally one on the boundary that can play lockdown coverage and allow them to roll the safeties to the other side of the formation, but at least now they have some ways to get pressure.
Of course, in all of life's choices people face trade-offs.
Baylor's defensive front wasn't really recruited to play this style of defense and neither KJ Smith nor Brian Nance are ideal 3-4 DEs as both lack length and weight that would help them grapple with tackles and slant inside where they could be double-teamed. This isn't as big a deal in the Big 12 as it would be in a league like the Big 10, but you still wonder what will happen if/when OU or Texas envelop one of these ends with their massive tackles, blow open a crease with a lead blocker, and then unleash 234 pound Samaje Perine or 240 pound Chris Warren into the second level with momentum.
That concern aside, this solution probably gives Baylor the best chance of fielding a competitive defense in 2016 and this adjustment long-term could allow them to field better defenses in the future as they are freed up to play more tweeners and use fewer numbers along the defensive line. If Briles can get just a little more out of his defense from year to year, Baylor won't be going anywhere.