Baylor football: Why Bears are experimenting with three-man defensive front

By Pat Carrigan

Baylor coach Matt Rhule revealed at Big 12 Media Days that the Bears have experimented with a three-man defensive front during the offseason. 

"We have gone to a three-down structure as opposed to a four-down," Rhule said. "We're hoping we can get more speed on the field. We are as fast a team as I’ve ever been around and we hope to get that speed to translate come fall."

Baylor has run a base four-man defensive front for years, across multiple defensive coordinators. However, Iowa State has revolutionized moving to more of a three-man front with three linebackers in order to get an extra defensive back on the field. 

“We did a lot of that at the end of last year,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “Against TCU for a lot of the game, we were in a three-man front...we have the three-man package in and we’re able to use it.” 

Snow’s three-man front calls for a 3-3-5 alignment, with a “robber” in the secondary who plays in a safety mold. Names that came up for the position include projected starting safety Chris Miller and standout sophomore Christian Morgan – athletic bodies who are physical enough to make plays at the line of scrimmage too. 

“[The robber's] really a safety,” Snow said. “Our safeties, we involve in the front anyway. They’re just going to be involved in the front based on keys. It’s not that different than what we’ve done before, just where he’s at is different.”

Up front, the defense puts much more on the three base linemen. James Lynch is a dynamic, versatile player, and he’ll likely line up as a three-technique defensive end in this front. The staff is optimistic about the progress of defensive tackle Bravvion Roy and feel comfortable with the 333-pound Roy running the interior. James Lockhart has quickly become a favorite of the staff too; he’ll play the other defensive end, and will be especially relied on as a pass rusher. 

“Sometimes guys will be like a run down the outside and pass downs they’ll move inside,” Rhule said. “Those are some of the roles we’ll be trying to compete for and test out in fall camp. But we played a lot of three-down last year so our guys had a lot of experience in it. We did it pretty well at times.”

Along with the nickel (five defensive back) package, Baylor wants to try and keep three listed linebackers on the field. However, do-everything athlete Blake Lynch allows the Bears to still stay versatile on the back end. The three starters understand how much extra pressure will be on their shoulders. 

“I know it asks a lot of the linebackers because linebackers have to two-gap in certain situations, but Coach Snow knows what he’s doing. They’re geniuses,” linebacker Clay Johnston said. 

Why they’re experimenting

Baylor has spent the last two years building its depth back to a Big 12 level. The Bears have reached that point in certain areas, but there are a few glaring holes. The odd front package minimizes some of those issues. 

The biggest hit on the defensive front came last week, when it was revealed Deonte Williams was medically retiring and Marje Smith was leaving the team. Those were the two players that we projected to play the RUSH end, which Haason Redick played at Temple. There aren’t obvious candidates to play the position full time, other than JUCO transfer Niadre Zouzoua. 

Conversely, the Bears have a plethora of talented bodies on the back end trying to see the field. At corner alone, Grayland Arnold, Raleigh Texada and Jameson Houston are all veterans, while Byron Hanspard, Kalon Barnes and Mark Milton are all highly-touted underclassmen who are fighting to see the field. Chris Miller and Henry Black are experienced options at safety, with JT Woods and Christian Morgan as young guys ready to play. 

Linebacker doesn’t have a ton of proven depth, but Clay Johnston is one of the most consistent defenders on the team, and there are bodies with some experience. Every defensive coordinator is tasked with getting the most talent they can on the field, and working in a nickel package will help do it. 

Additionally, the front is focused on getting more closing speed on the field. The Bears were among the worst teams in college football in giving up big plays. Snow cited that 50 percent of the yards that Baylor gave up occurred on just 10 percent of their plays. We wrote about the Bears’ issues with big plays last season. 

“You get all these teams that really spread out so if you miss a tackle, there’s speed on the field to recover,” Snow said. “And then you can blitz from a lot of different angles in a three-man front.”

When a team takes a rusher from the front to play on the back end, it adds another line of defense down the field, and gives Snow more versatility to call different blitz packages thanks to the more angles available. 

Baylor ranked No. 7 in the Big 12 in total defense a year ago, and was ninth against the run. The Bears conceded 5.4 yards per rush. A three-man front can often cause extra issues stopping the run, especially with as few as five men in the box at times. However, the staff is still confident that through DB alignment and limiting plays at the second level from getting to the third level, the defense as a whole can take a step forward. 

“I think it will be a live to fight another day defense, which I think is really good, especially with the speed we have on defense,” Johnston said. 

Baylor opens the 2019 season against Stephen F. Austin at 6 p.m. CT at McLane Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN+.

"I remember when Coach Rhule got here and they all said it would take about three years for you to really understand the defense, and they were spot on," Johnston said. "Over the first two years, we were slowly getting there, and now there’s no excuses anymore."  

Other notes

  • Henry Black, Christian Morgan, JT Woods and Chris Miller have all played the robber position in practices.
  • Niadre Zouzoua is the typical rush end when the Bears line up in an even front.
  • Ryan Miller and Rob Saulin project to be backup nose tackles. Both started their careers on the offensive side of the ball.
  • Snow wants to get sophomore Jacob Copeland more involved in the weakside linebacker battle.
  • James Lynch could flip between inside or outside, depending on the package.


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