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Skywriters Tour: Baylor Defending Its Defense
August 05, 2014
Wendell Barnhouse is a nationally-known and respected columnist who has spent over 20 years covering collegiate athletics. He has reported from 25 Final Fours and more than three dozen bowl games and has written about the Big 12 and its schools since the conference's beginning. Barnhouse will be updating the Big 12 Insider on happenings and behind-the-scenes information about the conference.

By Wendell Barnhouse | Correspondent

WACO, Texas - In Phil Bennett’s first season as defensive coordinator, the Tuesday before the season opener with TCU Baylor added two defensive backs – K.J. Morton and Joe Williams – who played 90 snaps in the Bears’ 50-48 upset of TCU.

That sort of plug-the-hole desperation was indicative of a program that was finding its way, especially on the defensive side. Going into this season, the Bears are set to defend their Big 12 title with succession plan that is considerably more stable.

“You still have an anxiety about whether they can do it when the bright lights come on,” Bennett said Tuesday before Baylor’s first practice. “What I saw in the spring is that the guys who have to take over starting roles in the secondary proved they can play going up against some very good receivers.

“I expect us to be good. Our saying is, ‘It’s a proving business.’ We’ve got to prove we belong among the elite.”

Bennett’s unit needs to replace seven starters from last season including play makers like linebacker Eddie Lackey and defensive backs Sam Holl and Ahmad Dixon. With quarterback Bryce Petty back leading one of the nation’s most explosive and productive offenses, the defense needs to make sure it doesn’t regress.

Baylor finished 28th in total defense last season as the team finished 11-2 and won its first Big 12 title. In the two losses, the Bears allowed 49 and 52 points (to Oklahoma State in Stillwater and to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. Both of those games came after linebacker Bryce Hager was sidelined with a groin injury.

 “This league demands you have a guy out there who can call your defenses and that’s what Bryce does for us,” Bennett said. “He knows what I want. When you play these no-huddle offenses, he calls most of the defenses. We spend a lot of time deciding how we want to defend certain looks.

“And he has a presence about him. He makes everybody around him better.”

Hager is one of just two seniors on the depth chart. The lack of familiar faces on defense has the so-called experts wondering if Baylor can maintain its status.

“You’re always gonna have the doubters and the way we finished the season in the bowl game kinda proved them right,” Hager said. “This is my fifth year here and I have a different role, I have to be more of a leader.”

The Bears’ defensive line is being touted as one of the best in the country. Bennett, though, wants to tap the brakes. He did say that he has nine linemen – five juniors, three sophomores and a red shirt freshman – who all will play. Hager, however, is happy to hype the guys playing in front of him.

“I think we’ve got the best defensive line in the country,” Hager said. “They’re fast, strong, quick, they can get to the quarterback. I think our defense is gonna be really special this year.”

Short Yardage
* Senior quarterback Bryce Petty told reporters his parents are planning to take out an insurance policy that would protect his future NFL earnings. Such policies are fairly common for high profile student-athletes who want to insure themselves in case of injury.

* Sophomore nose tackle Andrew Billings, who is 6-2 and 300 pounds, set a high school weightlifting record (2,010 combined pounds in the squat, bench press and dead lift) in 2013, breaking the mark held for 22 years by Mark Henry, a former professional wrestler who still bills himself as the “world’s strongest man.”

* Coach Art Briles on the start of practice: "There's something about every year at this time. They're all the same. I don't care how long you do it or what expectations are - it's always a great time. There's been a lot of anticipation, hope and energy. There's a lot of belief, and there's no difference this year. We are excited and ready to go."

* Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett on the Fiesta Bowl loss: "I told them if your ass isn't a little bit red, then you don't need to be here. When you ... finish up like that, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. There’s a determination, a sense of urgency of what I’m looking for.”

* Bryce Petty on what the team learned from losing to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl: “We learned we’re the hunted now, and we have to prepare and practice that way. “At the bowl game, we listened to what people were saying unfortunately. That won’t happen again. We have to know that people want to beat Baylor. We’ve got to know how to handle that.”

* Offensive lineman Troy Baker, a fifth-year senior on how the program has changed: "Everything is totally different. I wouldn't even get recruited here anymore."

Skywriters Tour, Year Seven
So what is the Skywriters Tour? It was born in a previous era of college football … and media/communications. In the late 1960s and 1970s, sportswriters and broadcasters would gather in a central location and embark on an annual conference-wide tour, traveling from campus-to-campus to cover preseason practices and conduct interviews with coaches and players. The tour provided fans with unprecedented daily coverage from each school by moving the group between campuses by charter bus or air service and thus was dubbed the Skywriters Tour. Since 2008, the Big 12 has revived the tradition and staged its own preseason campus tour to preview the football season.

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