Baylor: Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

Yesterday we took an in-depth (as always) look at the Baylor offense.  While Robert Griffin should continue to develop, it's hard to see the Bears being too much more potent with what appears to be a pretty iffy line up front and few potential new difference-makers.  On the defensive side of the ball, however, things get really interesting.  Art Briles was never known as much of a defense guy at Houston, but he (or more accurately, Defensive Coordinator Brian Norwood) had some toys to play with on that side of the ball in 2009.  If the baseball truism about the importance of up-the-middle defense (catcher, 2B/SS, CF) is similar for football (DT, MLB, S), then Baylor could have a pretty dangerous defense in 2009.

Okay, not really dangerous, but this unit could improve a pretty decent amount.

 

Defense

Overall Stats

S&P+: 102.1 (#58)
Success Rate+: 97.4 (#68)
PPP+: 108.1 (#49)

Standard Downs S&P+: 107.0 (#42)
Passing Downs S&P+: 99.8 (#65)

Redzone S&P+: 108.6 (#41)

Q1 S&P+: 98.8 (#68)
Q2 S&P+: 100.7 (#63)
Q3 S&P+: 119.6 (#20)
Q4 S&P+: 100.6 (#56)

1st Down S&P+: 111.9 (#26)
2nd Down S&P+: 103.6 (#49)
3rd Down S&P+: 98.5 (#64)

Rushing Stats

Rushing S&P+: 100.4 (#65)
Rushing SR+: 94.1 (#81)
Rushing PPP+: 110.2 (#45)

Standard Downs: 103.8 (#48)
Passing Downs: 108.3 (#51)

Redzone: 109.4 (#40)

Line Yards+: 92.3 (#90)

Passing Stats

Passing S&P+: 102.4 (#56)
Passing SR+: 100.7 (#54)
Passing PPP+: 104.4 (#53)

Standard Downs: 109.9 (#28)
Passing Downs: 97.1 (#70)

Redzone: 110.6 (#32)

Sack Rate+: 84.0 (#81)


With tackling machines Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake on the case, Baylor was able to pretty effectively limit opposing offenses' explosiveness (i.e. PPP+), especially as it pertained to the running game.  However, the overall lack of talent on the field limited what Baylor was able to do in terms of efficiency (Success Rate+).  Aside from one giant exception at defensive tackle, the personnel doesn't change much.  Six starters among the back seven return, which is either good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

Other thoughts:

  • This defense showed one of the hallmarks of a hard-working, less-talented unit: good first down/Standard Downs numbers and horrendous third down/Passing Downs numbers.
  • While the BU offense peaked by far in the first half, the defense was pretty consistently mediocre aside from apparently making pretty nice second-half adjustments--they ranked between 56th and 68th in Q1, Q2, and Q4, while jumping up to 20th in Q3.
  • You have to wonder what BU could have done without an atrocious D-line.

Defensive Line

All eyes are on this man.  And I mean, MAN.

2008 Unit Ranking: #91 in the nation (#12 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
DT Phil Taylor (6'4, 355, Jr.)
DT Trey Bryant (6'2, 310, Sr.)
DE Zac Scotton (6'7, 260, So.)
DE Tracy Robertson (6'4, 260, So.)
DT Jason Lamb (6'5, 270, Sr.)
DT Nicolas Jean-Baptiste (6'1, 300, So.)
DE Jameon Hardeman (6'1, 230, Jr.)
DE Fred Plesius (6'1, 260, RSFr.)

Baylor loses three starters from the aforementioned atrocious line, and I don't think Bear fans are losing too much sleep over that.  Two main reasons for that: 1) they weren't very good, and 2) OHMYGOD WHO IS THAT GIANT AT DEFENSIVE TACKLE??

That would be Phil Taylor, a former four-star recruit from suburban DC (Clinton, MD), had 20 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 6.5 TFLs, and 2 fumble recoveries for the Nittany Lions in 2007 before getting into an on-campus fight, getting one year of probation, and getting kicked off the team.  He transferred to Baylor because new BU Defensive Coordinator Brian Norwood had originally recruited him to PSU when he was Secondary Coach in Happy Valley.  He was recently voted the Big 12's Preseason Newcomer of the Year (what a silly award this is, when you think about it), and expectations are high, to say the least.  If Taylor keeps his nose clean and thrives, then suddenly Baylor has all-conference talent at DT, LB, and safety.  If not, if he's a bust, then this unit could very well be worse than it was last year.

Beyond Taylor (and let's be honest, at 6'4, 355, it's hard to see beyond this guy), there's not much to write home about.  Jason Lamb (0.5 sacks, 1.5 TFL, and a blocked kick in 2008) moves from end to tackle, giving the Bears decent experience at tackle when you throw in Trey Bryant (4.0 sacks/TFL, 5 QB Hurries).  That paves the way for a bunch of unknowns to get a shot at end.  Zac Scotton and Tracy Robertson certainly look the part at DE, but they and speed rusher Jameon Hardeman combined for just 2.5 TFL/Sacks and 4 QBH in 2008.  Scotton and Robertson could both turn it on as sophomores, but let's just say I'm not tremendously optimistic.

Basically, this unit will go as far as Taylor takes them.  If he's a truly dominant force, then the rest of the line starts to look pretty good.  If he's a bust, then this unit will rank about 80th at best this year.

Linebackers

Okay, you've won me over, Pawelek.

2008 Unit Ranking: #51 in the nation (#9 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Joe Pawelek (6'2, 240, Sr.)
Antonio Johnson (6'0, 210, Jr.)
Antonio Jones (6'2, 225, Sr.)
Earl Patin (6'2, 225, Jr.)
Chris Francis (6'0, 235, Jr.)
Elliot Coffey (6'0, 220, So.)

For the first two years of his Baylor career, I brushed aside Joe Pawelek as just a "somebody had to make the tackles" guy at LB on a bad defense.  Bad defenses always have a linebacker or safety with ridiculous tackle numbers, and Pawelek was Baylor's guy.  But last year he caught my attention not for the number of tackles he made, but the number of plays.  He intercepted six passes, racked up 6.0 TFL (not too bad for an LB), broke up seven passes, forced a fumble, and recovered two.  I'm still not sure if he's quite an all-conference talent, but he should be quite good as a senior.  Meanwhile, the Two Antonios (Johnson and Jones) combined for 14.5 TFL/Sacks, two forced fumbles, and two recoveries.  The LB unit still didn't put up amazing numbers by any means (9th in the conference), but this is a solid, experienced unit.  Let's put it this way: if the Baylor defense is as bad or worse than it was last year, the linebackers won't be the reason why.

Secondary

I can't decide if Jordan Lake is actually good, or if my view is clouded by the fact that he was in Chase Daniel's head all game long last year.

2008 Unit Ranking: #57 in the nation (#9 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
S Jordan Lake (6'1, 210, Sr.)
CB Antareis Bryan (6'2, 190, Jr.)
CB Tim Atchison (6'1, 205, Jr.)
S Jeremy Williams (5'11, 205, Sr.)
S Jeremy Sanders (6'2, 210, Sr.)
CB Clifton Odom (5'11, 195, Jr.)
S T.J. Scranton (5'11, 190, Sr.)
CB Trentson Hill (6'0, 185, So.)

Late in the Baylor-Missouri game, Jordan Lake read Chase Daniel perfectly and almost picked off a pass that, according to the radio announcers, he would have easily taken to the house.  If that happens, Baylor potentially beats Missouri.  Think of how that would have changed the 2008 season--Mizzou doesn't win the North (unless the kick-in-the-balls from the Baylor loss spurred them on to beating KU), and Baylor gets to five wins.  You could conceivably say that with the confidence from a big win over Missouri, they may not have completely fallen apart down the stretch in Lubbock and beaten Tech too.  But alas, Lake dropped the ball, Jeff Wolfert kicked the game-winning field goal, and 2008 unfolded as we remember it.  While he didn't make as many plays as Pawelek, Lake proved himself as a hard-hitter and all-around solid safety, and the secondary as a whole was...well, downright decent.  Not great, not even very good, but decent.  And that was a step up from recent years.  The unit should improve in 2009, as it returns most of its decent play-makers from 2008.

Lake returns for his senior season; he will team with Jeremy Williams (6.5 TFL/Sacks, 4 PBR) to make a dangerous tandem at safety, and while junior corners Antareis Bryan, Tim Atchison, and Clifton Odom won't be confused for OU's corners or anything, they've put together quite a bit of expeirence in their first two years.  If the defensive line is helping to leverage teams into passing downs and getting pressure on the quarterback, this secondary is good enough to take advantage.  They won't make a lot of plays without help from the front seven, but they could be a good complement.

Special Teams

My nominee for punt returner.  And I'm only half-kidding.  Okay, two-thirds kidding.

2008 Rankings: #7 Net Punting, #118 Punt Returns, #29 Kickoff Returns

Projected Starters
K Ben Parks (6'2, 205, So.) - 39-for-44 PAT, 6-for-9 FG (long: 42)
P Derek Epperson (6'3, 240, Jr.) - 38.8 Net
KR Mikail Baker (6'0, 205, Sr.) - 25.3 Avg, 1 TD
PR Krys Buerck (5'11, 180, Jr.)

The Baylor special teams unit should be pretty decent in 2009.  Ben Parks was okay as a kicker--a 67% FG rate isn't terrible, though the five missed PATs are about four too many.  Derek Epperson filled the role of Daniel Sepulveda II pretty nicely (Baylor always seems to have a good punter), and Mikail Baker is a relatively dangerous kick returner.  If Parks improves, this unit will be something of a strength.  If he doesn't...meh.

Summary

It's funny--when I'm writing about Baylor, I type out very so-so, mediocre phrases ("decent experience at tackle," "not quite sure if he's an all-conference talent," "didn't put up amazing numbers by any means," "not great, not even very good, but decent," "could be a good complement") in an intrigued, encouraging manner.  I'm not going to pretend that, even with Phil Taylor thriving, Baylor will have a dominant, potentially Top-Four-in-conference defense.  But what they could have is a play-making one, a bend-but-don't-break-and-hope-somebody-makes-a-sack-or-INT defense not unlike what Mizzou had in 1998, when they almost literally scored a defensive touchdown in every game.  If they can make enough big plays to counteract what will likely be pretty high yardage and point totals, the Hot Tub Griffin III-led offense should do well enough to keep Baylor in most games.  And if Griffin begins to thrive in the clutch (something he very much did not do in 2008 as a true freshman), then Baylor becomes a very viable bowl team.

Without giving away any results, Friday's BTBS projections will show that Baylor has eight games projected within eight points.  Clearly stat projections aren't going to take "the defense could potentially make big plays and score some points of their own" into account, but clearly they're going to have some opportunities in 2009.  Unfortunately for Baylor, a) I think their offense is still a year away from being able to consistently take advantage of those opportunities, and b) a year from now, the BU defense will be without Pawelek, Lake, Williams, Jones, and potential Taylor, if he lives up to the hype.  As I mentioned yesterday, there's no more fun non-Mizzou player to root for than Hot Tub Griffin III, but while I'm almost positive Baylor will sneak into a bowl game before he leaves Waco, I don't think it will be in 2009.  Might not be in 2010 either, but we'll see.

---

Projections on Friday.

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