WACO, Texas — Baylor football’s defense struggled mightily in the first season under coach Matt Rhule. But now with a year in the system, things are becoming a little clearer.
“A lot of people were really nervous about how they were going to practice [last year],” cornerback Grayland Arnold said. “It was new to us. Now, we all are starting to play with an edge.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s defense is admittedly complex. “Yoda” — as some around the program affectionately call him — has more than 40 years of coaching experience at the high school, college and pro levels.
But while the knowledge is valuable, implementing was far more difficult in 2017.
“It was new — change is not easy,” safety Verkedric Vaughns said. “Everybody is adapting to it really well now. We’re focused, everyone is just flying around every day.”
After playing a very reactive defense under former defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, the Bears transitioned into a more NFL-style defense. It called on players to make far more decisions. The responsibility on each player to make tackles in space grew quickly. It was clear at times last season that players were lost.
Baylor ranked No. 111 nationally in total defense, and gave up a dreadful 456.9 yards per game. Only Kansas was worse in the Big 12 (468.3), and not by much.
Plenty of the issues can be traced to the secondary. The Bears gave up 267 passing yards per game, which ranked No. 114 nationally. Even many of the explosive rush plays the defense allowed were because of missed tackles in the secondary.
“For me, it was always second-guessing,” cornerback Jameson Houston said. “Now that I’ve had a year under Coach Snow, it’s second nature to me. I know what to do.”
Now instead of worrying about impressing the coaches, the defenders are simply working to improve on defense. There’s a level of confidence in the process that wasn’t there a year ago.
“I feel like not only is everyone getting more comfortable — their confidence is raising,” Arnold said. “We’re not worried. We’re excited and we’re ready to go for two hours every day. There’s more joy and happiness on the field.”
Baylor also has plenty of talent returning in the system, which helps. Vaughns is one of the lone experienced seniors on defense. Arnold and Houston have significant starting experience. The Bears also added grad transfer Derrek Thomas from Temple, and early enrollee safeties Christian Morgan and JT Woods.
The steady improvement on defense has been obvious. Everyone associated with the program thinks a turnaround is close to happening.
“That’s what happens when you study film for a whole year, study a playbook — it allows you to be comfortable and see the game. It slows everything down,” Vaughns said.