Last season, as the Baylor Bears defense was giving up 200-yard rushing game and 300-yard passing game on a consistent basis, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's job was not exactly looking secure as his unit gave up 37.2 points per game.
The rushing performance in the surprisingly lopsided bowl game against UCLA helped Bennett earn some reprieve, as did the defense allowing only 26 points. And the adjusted numbers from S&P+ had the defense sitting at No. 60 nationally after making it through the gauntlet that was the Big 12 last season from a defensive stand point.
The venerable coordinator who has been a defensive coordinator at seven other stops during his long career ended up keeping his job and the decision has paid dividends in continuity for a much-improved defense.
Texas play caller Major Applewhite sees some major changes with this Baylor defense over past groups.
"I think number one, Coach Bennett has those guys playing better," Applewhite said. "They are more aggressive outside, more bump and run, more press, more man coverage. The linebackers, Hager, Trahan, (Sam Holl), and Lackey, those guys have seen so many snaps now they are breaking on things, they are jumping on things. Lackey did a (heck) of a job of jumping a slant last week and taking it to the house, he looked like a sprinter."
After four interceptions last year, two of which were returned for touchdowns, the undersized but talented linebacker has only two this season, but he's still a threat dropping into coverage in the way that Caleb Lavey was for Oklahoma State when he intercepted a Case McCoy pass that helped consolidate momentum for the Cowboys.
And Lackey's playmaking ability goes beyond intercepting passes -- he's the team's leading tackler with 84 stops on the season, adding 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks for good measure. In all, he may be the league's best linebacker after starting out at Northwood University in Michigan, a Division II school, before transferring to a junior college and then making his way to Baylor. Pretty incredible story.
According to Applewhite, experience has transferred into confidence and effort for the Baylor defense when asked about the biggest change that he sees.
"The way they play," the Texas co-offensive coordinator said Tuesday. "I think they are playing harder. In '08 when we played them here, and then we went up there and played them in '09 and we didn't really do much in the second half in '09. I just remember seeing them after the game and saying, I know the game did not turn out how you want, but your guys are playing different than how they did last year."
"So I think they are playing harder, and with playing harder is experience. You see things, you anticipate things, you are able to react to things faster, you are a faster player, you are a more physical player. That is what appears like you are playing harder. So I think with all these guys getting older and seeing more snaps and more games, that is what you are seeing with them."
Another change that the Bears made entering this season was to move Holl from his former safety position to the nickel, where he is less likely to be tested in as much space as he was playing in previously. The move of senior leader Ahmad Dixon back to safety has paid dividends, as he's a much better athlete than the 210-pound Katy product.
The recipe will remain the same for the Longhorns on offense -- run the ball and then look for shot plays over the top. For whatever reason, Bennett has been able to anticipate some of those plays, perhaps by down-and-distance and field position tendencies, because many teams like to take shots down the field once they get across the 50 to avoid having to score in the red zone, though the Bears have been rather average in stopping touchdowns once opponents make it that far (58% red zone touchdown rate).
"Sometimes teams have their shots dialed up and they have magically gotten in cover two when teams have their shots dialed up, so they have done some things to protect those," Applewhite said.
The range of the other safety, sophomore Terrell Burt, helps in that regard to ensure that opposing wide receivers have more trouble getting behind the last level of defense than perhaps they had in the past.
Meanwhile, at the cornerback position, greater athleticism means the ability to take more risks with press coverage.
Senior junior college transfer KJ Morton missed most of last season after suffering a groin injury against Texas, but has emerged as one of the conference's best lockdown corners with his reported 4.48 40 speed and a 42.2-inch vertical that he confirmed with a ridiculous leaping interception coming on a blitz against Texas Tech.
On the other side, former Gonzaga point guard Demetri Goodson has adjusted well to major college football after starting two years at point guard for the Zags. Two season-ending injuries have slowed down his career, but allowed him to stick around for a senior season that has seen him intercept two passes and break up 10 others.
Both cornerbacks are extremely physical -- there were a handful of plays early in the game against the Red Raiders that looked like they could have gone for pass interference penalties that went uncalled. If the officials are going to allow that amount of grabbing and holding against the Longhorns, the Texas wide receivers will have to respond with similar physicality to create separation and beat the press coverage they will see.
The end result is a defense that currently ranks No. 20 nationally in S&P+, including a remarkable No. 24 ranking against the run (Baylor was No. 71 in that category last year), a number achieved by holding opposing rushing attacks to 3.15 yards per carry. Texas Tech came close to average four yards per carry, but other than that, the only team this season to eclipse that mark against Baylor was Kansas State, which racked up 327 yards on 58 carries thanks to a 199-yard performance from an unleashed Daniel Sams.
Unfortunately, the Longhorns don't have a Daniel Sams on their roster. There is a Tyrone Swoopes, but head coach Mack Brown isn't even teasing that he's going to play this week.
The play of Lackey at linebacker, as well as strong efforts from the injured Bryce Hager, have helped the run defense. The real improvement, however, is in the front. Adding 6'9, 275-pound physical freak Shawn Oakman has helped make up for the departure of former five-star prospect Javonte Magee, as the sophomore Penn State transfer has 12 tackles for loss from his defensive end position. The other defensive end, 6'5, 255-pound senior Chris McAllister, has 11.5 tackles for loss of his own.
In other words, the Texas offensive tackles will have their hands full trying to run block those guys on the edge.
Sophomore defensive tackle Beau Blackshear and Suleiman Masumbuko have done a solid job on the inside with some help from former Texas -- this is no longer a front that opposing offenses can just push around in the running game, a fact that makes the task for the Longhorns all the more difficult.
The one area where the Longhorns may benefit is the suspension of senior safety Ahmad Dixon for his hit on TCU wide receiver Trevone Boykin, a vicious shot that resulted in his ejection and the post-game rant from Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson that made news around the conference.
It's Dixon who has helped change the defensive culture at Baylor since arriving there as part of the 2010 class. Now part of that culture change means that there is more depth -- a couple of years ago, the Horns probably would have ruthlessly targeted his back up, but Applewhite said that wouldn't necessarily be the case this weekend.
"There will be times when you want to check out his backup, see if he is on point, but he played most of the game against TCU and he played well," Applewhite said. "So, the whole first half will not be about attacking that one position, there will be times we have to do stuff like that, but Dixon is a great football player and he will be ready to roll come the third quarter."
Experience, effort, and quite a bit more talent and depth than the past -- this certainly isn't the Baylor defense that Texas fans remember from previous seasons.
Both Art Briles and Mack Brown faced choices about whether to fire or retain their defensive coordinators after last season. Only one of them made the right choice -- while Texas is still paying for Brown's mistake, Briles is reaping the benefits of his.