Baylor was the surprise team in college football a year ago, and became the first Power Five team in history to swing from one win to 11 in just two seasons. The performance was impressive enough to reach the Big 12 championship game, win a Sugar Bowl berth and eventually earn Matt Rhule the Carolina Panthers job.
To keep the momentum going, the Bears are doubling down on defense. Baylor hired LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda as its next head coach just days after the 43-year-old helped lead the Tigers to a national championship.
LSU made Aranda the highest-paid defensive coordinator in America, and his defenses live up to the hype. Whether at Wisconsin, Utah State, Hawaii or in Baton Rouge, Aranda has a knack for turning defenses into consistently elite units. When he saw Baylor’s defensive renaissance in 2019, he felt Waco could be next.
“It felt like a great fit,” Aranda said. “The mission statement, the embrace of Christian faith, the importance of a strong academic track record and the ability to win a national championship, I think you have those things at Baylor.”
Stepping into a strong culture was a big draw. But perhaps more importantly, Aranda was given carte blanche to put together an elite staff. He started with defensive coordinator Ron Roberts – his longtime mentor and former head coach at Delta State. Cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart coordinated in the NFL. Passing game coordinator Jorge Munoz and defensive line coach Dennis Johnson supported LSU’s title run. Joey McGuire just earned a spot in the THSCA Hall of Honor for his storied high school career at Cedar Hill.
However, Aranda’s splashiest addition came on offense. Aranda landed former North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, who led the Tar Heels to their best years since Mack Brown and turned Mitchell Trubisky into a top NFL draft pick. Fedora emerged as a candidate for the head coaching job at Baylor both in 2007 and 2016 because of his deep ties to the school dating back to the Grant Teaff era. Getting him to lead the offense is a coup.
With a strong coaching staff in the door, expectations are high. The big complication? Baylor ranks No. 127 nationally in returning defensive production and didn’t hold a single spring practice before losing time to COVID-19. However, these are the moments when the “process” needs to carry over. Injuries and suspensions helped key depth pieces get playing time too.
“I think if those guys watched Denzel Mims and Sam Tecklenburg and all those guys, they’ve seen up close and personal what it takes,” senior quarterback Charlie Brewer said. “The guys who get a shot this year will have the role models of those that graduated. I think we’ve got some real talent.”
If the Bears are going to repeat the success of 2019, they’d better be prepared. Road trips to Norman, Austin, Lubbock, Ames and Morgantown makes the 2020 schedule far more difficult, even without losing practice. The latter three will all be extra motivated after heartbreaking losses in Waco a year ago.
Plus, after earning a trip to the Big 12 championship game, Baylor won’t fly under anyone’s radar. The Bears won’t get the benefit of a 25-point cushion against Oklahoma or 20-point lead against Iowa State again. Baylor is the hunted.
“Guys know to win,” Fedora said. “They know what it takes. They understand it’s a lot of hard work and it doesn’t just happen. They’ve definitely raised expectations and that’s a great thing. You want to coach somewhere where winning is important.”
But while the task of maintaining is difficult, Baylor has plenty of reason for optimism. Brewer ranks among the top returning signal-callers in the conference. Six offensive linemen with starting experience return. The top rusher and two of the top three receivers are back. Only two defensive starters return, but both have a shot to be all-conference players.
Baylor spent the last three seasons undergoing a complete rebuild from the ground up. Aranda steps into a program that now expects to win at the highest level – and believes it has the pieces to do it.
“The heart and soul of what Baylor has built, the intention is to build on that,” Aranda said. “But I think that struggle is the walk between continuing on and adding your own thoughts and values. I think we’re creating something and making new things better.”
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