WACO, Texas - Baylor's offense was the main reason the Bears had perhaps the greatest season in school history - 10 victories, a bowl triumph and a Heisman Trophy winner.
The defense? When Baylor didn't have the football, Bears fans were nervous ... at least those who were brave enough to watch. Baylor ranked 118th nationally against the pass, 102nd against the run, 116th in total defense and 113th in scoring. Opponents averaged 488.5 yards and 37.2 points per game.
For second-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, those numbers were unacceptable but in some ways understandable. Two of his corner backs showed up on campus the day before the team opened the season with TCU. Injuries in the secondary limited depth plus the defense was still learning Bennett's system.
"I've said this many times, we were in dire straits in our secondary last year; we had no sub packages," Bennett said Friday before Baylor held its first practice. "I honestly believe that we will be able to be so much more multiple on third down than we have been in the past."
In the pass-happy, offense-intensive Big 12, teams lacking secondary depth usually give up big numbers. Last season, with Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III running a potent offense, Baylor was able to offset its defensive shortcomings.
This season, Nick Florence steps in for RG3 - and the senior says he only fielded about 50 questions on that topic at Big 12 media days and 100 times overall - while the Bears must also replace last season's leading rusher (Terrance Ganaway) and leading receiver (Kendall Wright).
Coach Art Briles, though, rarely fields an offense that can't pile up yards and points. If the defense shows improvement and the offense is effective, the Bears could again find themselves in the top half of the Big 12 standings.
"We're gonna be light years better," junnior defensive back Ahmad Dixon said. "Last year we were trying to get in the groove, get better, figure out what coach Bennett wanted. We know each other, what coach wants and we're ready to roll. We'll be faster on defense because we're reacting, not thinking. You have to stop and think, you're always a step slow."
Not Running In Place
Going into last season, a big question for Baylor's offense was replacing running back Jay Finley, who in 2010 gained a school-record 1,218 yards. In his first season as a full-time starter, Terrance Ganaway broke Finley's record, running for 1,547 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Senior Jarred Salubi appears to be the heir apparent at running back - and make no mistake, in the Art Briles Playbook, running backs are expected to gain yards in bunches.
"It doesn't hurt to think about that kind of stuff," Salubi, a Waco native, said of keeping the running back position productive. "It's really motivating ... This year I'm hoping for the same, hopefully better."
Salubi won't be lacking for competition for carries. Junior Glasco Martin and sophomore Lache Seastrunk, eligible after transferring from Oregon, are both capable of being productive runners.
"The running backs are great," senior quarterback Nick Florence said. You have three guys back there who can do a lot of different things well. You'll see a lot of them in there. I'm not worried because we have a ton of experience and talent back there."
No Quarterback Controversy
Coach Art Briles was asked if Nick Florence was the team's starting quarterback. Seemed like an unnecessary question. The other option is sophomore Bryce Petty, who had a solid spring.
"Nick's our guy right now. He's our starter," Briles said. "If we were playing SMU today, he'd go out on the field first. He deserves that right. We'll evaluate him and (Bryce) Petty throughout fall camp. We have a lot of confidence in Nick and a lot of confidence in Petty. If we were teeing up today he would be the guy to go out there first."
Those who might doubt Baylor's defensive abilities can take a look at Oklahoma State, the 2011 Big 12 champions. The Cowboys had ugly defensive numbers but led the nation by forcing 44 turnovers. Those extra possessions allowed Oklahoma State's explosive offense more "at bats."
Last season, over the last five games (which the Bears won), they forced 18 turnovers (three at Kansas, three vs. Oklahoma, four vs. Texas Tech, six vs. Texas and two vs. Washington).
"When people look at that five-game run, I think we led the nation in takeaways," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "And not only did we get them, but we got them in bunches. I you can keep doing that and remain consistent with the three-and-outs, you become a different defense."
* Baylor scored a school-record 589 points last season. That broke the record of 406 scored in 2010. In coach Art Briles' first season in Waco, the Bears scored 336 points, the sixth-most in school history.
* Here's a sign that Baylor's recruiting continues to keep pace with the powers in the Big 12. The Bears signed just one junior-college player last February. In Art Briles' first seson, he signed three JUCO players followed by four in 2009, three in 2010 and five in 2011. Signing fewer junior-college players is a sign that Baylor is making strides in signing top high school players. And, according to Rivals.com, Baylor's recruiting class has ranked in the top 50 nationally each of the last three years.
* It's impossible to have a productive offense without talented offensive linemen. Baylor has had productive offenses of late, ergo the Bears have had talented offensive linemen. The NFL agrees. Baylor, Wisconsin and Iowa are the only three FBS that have had at least one offensive lineman taken in each of the last four NFL Drafts. Baylor and Wisconsin are the only schools to have a lineman drafted in the first rounds each of the last four years.