WACO – The Baylor offensive line needed to improve before the Bears could reach their desired heights as a football team. Head coach David Aranda knew it. Baylor allowed 31 sacks in nine games in 2020. As a team, the Bears averaged 2.7 yards per rush and finished Aranda’s first season in Waco with a record of 2-7. The offensive line was a weak spot for the program dating back to at least 2016.
Aranda needed to make changes, so he hired offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes away from BYU, which is Baylor’s opponent on Saturday. Grimes brought offensive line coach Eric Mateos with him to Waco, and the duo began to install a wide-zone system capable of improving the play along the offensive line.
The change is working. Baylor is 5-1 entering the home game against BYU, a future Big 12 opponent, on Saturday afternoon. The Bears are averaging 461 yards per game (16th in the FBS) and six yards per carry (sixth in FBS). The group has only allowed six sacks through six games and the team is averaging nearly 15 more points per game in 2021 than it did in 2020.
“Coach Mateos brings a love of the game," senior offensive lineman Xavier Newman-Johnson said. "He’s made the game fun again for me, and I think that is true for a lot of guys. He tells us not to play so tense all the time. Go out there and enjoy it. “If you mess up, don’t let that one mess up create other mess ups. Take it in and move on. Help each other out and pick each other up. He helps us uplift each other.”
The journey from weak link to strength began in the spring when Grimes and Mateos were able to install the new system. Baylor wasn’t running wide zone under previous staffs. The move forced the offensive linemen on the roster to adapt. Instead of taking on an individual defensive lineman each snap, the Baylor offensive line would be tasked with gap assignments. This requires more running and a leaner group. The unit took the previous failings and the new scheme seriously.
“Towards the end of spring ball, we started to understand the plays and assignments, and the timing required,” starting left tackle Connor Galvin said. “It clicked after our first scrimmage of fall camp.”
It was a welcomed change from 2020 when Aranda and a new staff took over but had to do most of its early teachings virtually due to COVID-19. Baylor, and the rest of the country, couldn’t practice in the spring and the summer sessions weren’t normal. The play of the offensive line suffered, and no one knew it more than the players responsible. Instead of dwelling on the past, the group focused on the present.
“Due to everything we’ve been through, we decided to fix our play for the team. We felt like we let the team down last year,” Newman-Johnson said.
“We made a choice after the spring game to put the work in, grind, get bigger, stronger and faster. We wanted to lead the team, and we needed to do that by example.”
The duo witnessed a lot of change during their first few years at Baylor. Newman-Johnson was an elite recruit out of DeSoto in the Dallas area who joined the program in 2017 and was immediately thrust into action. Galvin, from Katy, showed up a year later and was also put into the fire as a freshman. Heading into 2021, Galvin had played in 33 games and started 23. Newman-Johnson also started in 23 games prior to the start of the season.
Despite a pair of coaching changes, no one left the program. The Bears stayed together when Aranda arrived on campus. Not an easy feat in the age of the transfer portal.
“It shows how close we are as a group. We’ve gone through changes and some ups and downs, but we’ve never turned our back on each other or this program,” Newman-Johnson said. “We’ve always been there for each other, and we’ve stuck it out together. None of us have left. We decided to stick it out together.”
No longer the new kids on the block, the pair are focused on helping the young players on the roster avoid mistakes made in the past.
“It is not about us personally, and that is something coach Aranda has talked to us about. It is not about you; it is about the person next to you,” Newman-Johnson said. “Our motto is 'team, unit, me.'" First, it is about the team. Then, it is about the unit. After that comes yourself.”
The offseason work, mentality and scheme change are working together to form one of the best offensive lines in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus. Baylor’s offensive line routinely grades out as the best, or one of the best, units in the country. That’s allowed the team to average 38 points a game in the first season under the leadership of Grimes and Mateos. But don’t expect the Bears to buy into the hype. The offensive line knows what failure tastes like, and that bitter feeling continues to fuel their daily fire.
“We try not to focus on the praise because in a snap of finger, people could be talking bad about us again,” Newman-Johnson said. “We see the accolades and that is fine, but it can become rat poison if we focus on that instead of the next assignment. Our focus remains in front of us.”
That next assignment is BYU. Galvin and Newman-Johnson won’t be around when BYU becomes a member of the Big 12, and they said the team hasn’t even thought about that wrinkle in the contest. They’re also not worried about it being the previous stop for a couple of their coaches. The goal is to trust the process. The results come later.
“We don’t put a ceiling on ourselves. On Tuesday for example, our only goal was to have our best Tuesday practice of the year,” Newman-Johnson said. “We went out there and have fun. Then we go watch film and try to make the Wednesday practice our best practice. If we looked into the future, we’d miss what we are doing today.”
And what they are doing today is obviously working.
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