Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
WACO, Texas -- The Big 12 South is a tough place to play defense.
That fact was re-emphasized to Baylor senior safety Jordan Lake when he watched the postseason college award shows and saw a lot of familiar faces receiving hardware.
"It was amazing watching all the postseason awards shows," Lake said. "For the John Mackey Award all three players were from the Big 12. Same thing with the Biletnikoff Award. The Maxwell, all three were from the South Division."
Such an array of talented opponents sometimes made it difficult for the Bears, who struggled at times facing the cream of Big 12 offenses in their first season operating new coordinator Brian Norwood's philosophy.
"It made it tough, especially with us working with a new defense, but it's just part of playing in the Big 12," Lake said. "You know in the Big 12, you're always going to end up playing against the best people. And that was the case last year."
That difficult baptism of fire has helped the Bears coming into the upcoming season. Baylor returns nine defensive starters from last season's 4-8 record, including all of its starting linebackers and defensive backs.
The second season working with Norwood's philosophy is also proving to be easier to Lake and his Baylor teammates. That fact is clear at each spring practice where Lake's unit looks more comfortable in its operation of the defense.
"The biggest thing for us this year is that we're not learning the defense, but we're just kind of fine-tuning it," Lake said. "There's a lot more precision stuff and getting ready for the upcoming season. It's not new to use anymore. We're just learning how we operate in our defense and it makes it very exciting as we get ready for the season."
Lake developed last season in the defense without the benefit of spring practice as he recovered from shoulder surgery. He returned ready for the regular season, leading the defense with 66 solo tackles and two forced fumbles and leading the Baylor defensive backs with three interceptions.
The transition came with some growing pains along the way. Lake said he didn't feel comfortable playing in the defense until late last season because of the different responsibilities from his previous defenses with the Bears.
"In the past, I was 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, flat-foot sliding for the run," Lake said. "Now my first four steps are headed back in the deep middle. It was a big adjustment for me. The first four or five games, I was just kind of feeling the defense out."
Despite learning against the best of the Big 12's potent offenses, Lake said the last several games finally convinced them he was learning his new responsibilities.
"By the end, I felt like I was finally getting the defense and settling into it. Everybody else feels that way too. Now, we're just fine-tuning it and getting it better than it ever was."
That improvement was noticeable to Lake as he watched game films from late last season compared to early in the year.
The Bears' hopes will improve with the arrival of massive 340-pound defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a transfer from Penn State who has immediately boosted Baylor's moribund pass rush. Baylor ranked 84th nationally with 19 sacks.
The growth from last season and the new arrivals have boosted Lake's belief heading into the upcoming season.
"The team we stepped on the field with against Wake Forest was completely different than the team we had against Texas Tech (for the season finale)," Lake said. "That improvement was light years from the beginning. And the excitement we have is we don't lose many players from that final product and we're building on it and making it better."
Because of that, Lake is confident that this team has a strong chance of snapping Baylor's 14-season bowl drought -- longest in the Big 12 and one of the longest in the nation.
"Making a bowl game would mean the world to me," Lake said. "And we're going to do that this year. To be the senior class to make a bowl trip would be unbelievable and something you could hold onto for the rest of your life."