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Baylor's Defensive Growth Under Phil Bennett - An Exercise in Patience

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David Purdy

In Art Briles' first three years at Baylor, the spread guru installed a fast-paced offense that redefined concepts of offensive spacing and capitalized on a simple, but fluid rep intensive offense to push the football vertically in an era where offensive coordinators are seemingly resigned to "taking what they give us", rewriting the college football landscape to the tune of...a 15-22 record.

You weren't expecting that, were you?

Though that record was a significant improvement over what had come before his tenure, Briles was still largely dismissed by most, questioned for his lack of commitment to defense (he also had poor defenses at Houston) and dismissed for gimmickry during a time when Alabama was winning titles playing "proper football."

In 2011, Briles replaced his failing defensive coordinator (Norwood) with long-time veteran DC Phil Bennett. From that point on, Baylor went 33-10.  While much of that is attributable to improvements in recruiting and the consolidation of Briles' system to his talent (and proof that it was not just about RG3), beginning in mid-2012, it's difficult not to credit the Baylor defense equally for their success.

At the time, Bennett was an unremarkable, underwhelming hire.  He possessed the classic journeyman veteran coach's resume - excellent stints at Kansas State and Texas A&M in the 1990s (he left A&M due to RC Slocum's interference in his defense - later Slocum would claim he fired him), a humiliating head coaching stint at SMU and dismissals at 8 different programs.  Sometimes those firings were performance-based, sometimes due to hitching his wagon to the wrong program or head coach. If you think Shawn Watson has had an up and down career, he's got nothing on the 58 year old Bennett.

Briles trusted Bennett's experience and long-term defensive vision and installed him to lead the Baylor defense.  Like Briles, Bennett committed to his system, even if short term results might have been improved with a different philosophy.  Getting the system in place trumped short-term results.  And short-term results weren't very pretty.  Baylor fans lamented the awfulness of yet another defensive coach who was holding back the program from achieving its full potential.  Did Briles even care about defense?  Was he a head coach with a coordinator mindset who had no interest in a complete football team?

Until Year 3....

2011  FEI - 86, S+P- 95, 37.2 points per game allowed

2012  FEI - 85, S+P- 60, 37.2 points per game allowed

2013 FEI - 27, S+P- 21, 23.5 points per game allowed

2014 FEI- unavailable, S+P- 3, 13.8 points per game allowed (limited data, poor opponents)

Baylor's pace inflates all statistics - on both sides of the ball.  So advanced statistics are the only credible way to examine defensive performance.  Baylor went from an execrable defense in 2011 to a pretty good one by the latter part of 2012.  In 2013, their overall performance was well within the top quartile of FBS football.

Aside from recruiting to his philosophy: finding psychologically resilient corners who could press man, small linebackers who could cover ground instead of just stand it, starting big safeties who could play deep and also support against the run - Bennett also committed to a defensive system that emphasized pressure, speed and inflicting negative plays on the offense - occasionally at the expense of safe (some would say smart) football.  Bennett and Briles followed a different math.  A 70 yard touchdown pass could be shrugged off if the four possessions previous were 3 and outs or turnovers.  Getting run on didn't matter if the opposing offense wasn't turning it into touchdowns. Still the early results for his inexperienced defense were horrific.  Bennett started youngsters in 2011 and 2012 like Ahmad Dixon, KJ Morton, Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey - all players that suffered early in their careers before blossoming into 2013's stalwarts, the core of the new Baylor defense.

Players can actually improve over time in real programs.  And it appears some old dogs can learn new tricks.

Bennett's defense is a lot like Briles' offense - it has a certain bullying factor - an amplification of results, for good or bad depending on what your opposing unit is capable of doing.  If your QB and OL can't answer the questions his defense asks, the results aren't just disappointing, they're gruesome.  Pick sixes, a lot of 3rd and 14s and a cascade of negativity.  Re-watch the 2013 game if you have the courage to do so.  The same Longhorn offense that produced against Oklahoma and TCU was utterly humiliated in Waco.  Baylor's style of play dictated that result.

Like all bullies, however, offenses that pop their single man coverage in the mouth and push around a smaller back 7 in the running game by disallowing easy penetration from run blitzes find outsized positive results.  Bennett's defensive offensive begins to look unsound without inflicting negative plays and cracks turn into chasms.

Is that a formula the Texas offense can achieve?  Absent an amazing week of growth, it doesn't seem likely.