Ask any Baylor fan why their Bears weren’t invited to the four-team playoff last season, and you’ll get two answers: penalties and defensive backs. When coach Art Briles was asked about fixing the former, he responded, “You know, I mean, trying not to commit them, first of all.”
He’s obviously not worrying about that. It’s their brand of play — the nation’s fastest offense with a play every 18 seconds — that is part to blame for the refs throwing yellow all over the field last season. That intensity they bring on offense doesn’t translate as well to defense, where they had similar patterns of penalties, but those turn into free yards.
The offense can make up for a penalty with a big play, and they often do. Mistakes on defense are harder to make up for since they aren’t in control, particularly when a weak spot is in the secondary like Baylor proved last season.
Grading position groups of defenses can be difficult, as stats like yards per pass or game have weight shared across the field, not just the defensive backs. But Baylor ranked outside the top 100 in nearly every metric against the pass except for their ability to bring down the quarterback, sacking QBs every 12 plays (ranked 27th in the nation). Their ability to get to signal-callers comes at the hands of their menacing front four, Shawn Oakman in particular. The rest of the struggles against the pass comes at the hands of the secondary, though.
Offenses took advantage of that as often as they could.
Baylor’s opponents passed 51.5 percent of the time, ranked 108th in the nation, compared to 48.5 percent run plays ranking 21st in the nation. Teams knew they couldn’t run against their defense that allowed the ninth least yards per carry at just over three yards. Instead, they would look to the air where four teams passed for over 300 yards including a 609-yard performance from Texas Tech.
This is where Baylor took visible action to fix this problem that cost them their two losses against West Virginia and Michigan State.
Two weeks after the Cotton Bowl loss, Baylor hired former All-Pro cornerback Cris Dishman as the defensive backs coach. Dishman was previously brought on to help the San Diego Chargers in 2009 where his influence was immediately seen, as they allowed over 600 yards less than the previous season.
Baylor does have a talented, athletic group of guys in the backfield, but they have poor tendencies in coverage, lacking ball awareness and too much physicality. Dishman can fix that as a position coach can bring the influence of technique and break bad habits, Baylor’s secondary consistently showed.
It’s difficult to say how well he’s done so far, as all we’ve only seen them workout in seven on sevens and spring games against Baylor’s public showings where they all but pulled out all of the stops. However, what we’ve seen is promising. Safeties and corners alike have exhibited much better control and awareness and when you can stop multiple passes from landing in one of the nation’s premier receivers in Corey Coleman, you know they’re doing something right.
If this is all smoke and mirrors, though, the Bears will trip up at least one game this season, and they’ll be on the outside looking in on the playoffs once again. But safety Orion Stewart and cornerback Xavien Howard look to be leading the charge at making this a more than serviceable group.