- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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WACO, Texas -- Spend an hour in the office of Phil Bennett and you’re likely to hear the term “football playin’ fool” thrown around a few times. For the Baylor defensive coordinator, that’s high praise.
He had a bunch of them last season, at every level of his Bears defense. Freaky athletes, experienced studs, players who exceeded expectations. They’re ultimately the reason why Baylor won the Big 12.
Those players had been building toward that breakthrough season for years. Now Bennett has to repeat it, and do so without 10 seniors from last season's two-deep.
“To get back,” he said, “we’ve got to have those guys play at a level we played last year.”
As Baylor wraps up its final week of spring ball, Bennett sees plenty of reason for optimism all over his roster. Replacing leaders such as Ahmad Dixon, Eddie Lackey, Sam Holl and Chris McAllister will be a tall task, but the cupboard is far from empty.
In fact, Bennett is a bit offended by the implication this Baylor defense is starting over. Defensive ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer played as many snaps as the starters in 2013, and often more than them. Defensive tackles Andrew Billings and Byron Bonds were virtually starters, too, as true freshmen.
Defensive backs Xavien Howard and Orion Stewart received major playing time. Linebacker Bryce Hager and safety Terrell Burt, both out for the spring, are trusted starters. The pieces are in place to maintain Baylor’s production level on defense.
But that’s just the core of the defense, and Bennett is just as excited about the more unknown commodities.
Coach Art Briles and Bennett both speak highly of Howard, a big, 6-foot-2 sophomore corner who shined in a small role last season, and defensive lineman Javonte Magee, a big-time talent playing end and tackle this spring after sitting out 2013.
Bennett says he’s “tickled” by the comeback that Terrence Singleton has made at corner after several injury setbacks. He has been impressed by the impact senior walk-on Collin Brence is making in the “Bear” nickel role that Holl played.
And Bennett has found another one of those so-called football playin’ fools in redshirt freshman linebacker Taylor Young.
“Whatever the 'it' factor is, he has it. He’s 5-foot-9½, 225 pounds, runs a 4.5 [40-yard dash] and he finds the ball,” Bennett said.
Never heard of these guys? You’ll get familiar this fall. Bennett and Briles see no reason why Baylor should take a step backward on defense, even with so many top players being replaced.
That’s because the Bears understand their mission on defense. Bennett swears that his time working with Briles has changed his entire perspective.
His goal, quite simply, is to complement Baylor’s high-powered offense. Get the ball back to quarterback Bryce Petty and all his weapons as fast as they can, in the best possible position. Stops and turnovers and punts lead to points.
“That was our plan when I came here,” Bennett said. “Get two sides of the ball that could complement each other, and if need be, carry each other. We’re getting closer to that.
“The yardage deal, I can give a rat’s ass. It’s takeaways, it’s red zone, it’s three-and-outs and it’s scoring. Get them the ball.”
Baylor was about as good as it gets on those fronts last season. This was a top-10 defense in points per drive that forced 29 takeaways, second-most in the Big 12. No team in the nation forced more three-and-out drives (63) than the Bears.
Those are the ambitions Bennett and his players aim to replicate. When they trot out of the football facility and smack the white “BE THE STANDARD” sign hanging on the chain-link fence on their way to the practice field, this is the standard to which they refer.
After years of struggles, Baylor’s defense set the bar high in 2013. The next step is exceeding it every season, no matter which football playin’ fools Bennett plugs in.
“I don’t want to say tradition,” Bennett said, “but we’ve started building expectancy.”