With over 300 tackles returning to the Bears in the three linebacker spots (I count nickel back as a linebacker position) the middle of the Baylor defense has as much experience as any in the country. Though we have a newcomer to the nickel back position, the new starter has 23 starts at safety. In between the three starters, there are 46 starts. That is a lot of productivity and experience for Coach Phil Bennett in his 3rd year in Waco.
Leading the linebacker group is senior Eddie Lackey, a 6-0 tall 225 pound outside linebacker who plays fast and aggressive. You could make an argument that he became the Bears best defensive player in the back half of the year, with his game-turning play against Texas Tech as the feather on his 2012 season hat. Lackey was second on the team with 104 tackles, and led them with 10.5 tackles for loss. His 4 interceptions were also tops on the team highlighted by his touchdowns against Tech and Oklahoma State in back to back weeks.
Early in conference play, Lackey seemed to struggle with the size and strength of the lineman he was trying to get around. The Bears were using him as a blitzer quite a bit, and he was struggling in that role. However, the staff adjusted and started using him more in coverage, allowing Lackey to utilize his speed and newfound playmaking ability to impact the game. He was all over the field in the last to Iowa State, especially the second half and that was the start of the turnaround for Lackey and the Baylor defense.
Another player that had to go through adjustments and struggles is returning middle linebacker Bryce Hager. The son of former Texas great Britt Hager, Bryce was the Bears leading tackler for the whole year. He finished with 124 tackles including 9.5 for loss. The first four games as the starting linebacker for the Bears all ended with double digit tackle totals. But Hager struggled mightily in coverage and was a major hindrance in their pass defense. His playing time against TCU, Texas and Kansas decreased significantly as Rodney Chadwick was named the starter. However, with Chadwick suffering a career ending injury against Iowa State, Hager was thrust back into the lineup.
Luckily for the Bears, Hager used his time on the bench as motivation and came back with much better performance in the passing game. He took better angles and though his tackle numbers were lower, he was a better all-around player. He also discovered success blitzing late in the year, with sacks in 3 of the Bears final 5 games. Hager was asked to cover less and blitz more later in the year, flipping most of the responsibilities with Lackey and putting both in their best positions.
The final starter for the Bears might be a first year starter at Nickel back, but he is a guy that the Bears have leaned on for 3 years now. Sam Holl will make his long-waited and debated debut closer to the line of scrimmage after 3 years playing strong safety. Last year, he came up as a 4th linebacker quite a bit and played very well in that role. Holl is a ferocious hitter and is excellent in run support. He is very good at covering routes in front of him or across his face, but struggles when he has to turn and run with receivers past him. The move to nickel back should put him in better positions to do the things he does well, rather than being the last line of defense.
Backing up Holl are two players that looked an awful lot alike when they first got to Waco. Both Prince Kent and Kiante Griffin were four-star recruits capable of playing all over the football field. Kent though is a senior, looking to find a home on the field and to finally breakthrough for the Bears. He has been a linebacker, a safety and finally a nickel back. Griffin though is just a true freshman after not qualifying last year out of high school but finally making it to Waco in January.
Joining Griffin as freshman making their first appearance for the Bears are Kendall Ehrlich and Aivion Edwards. Ehrlich is the primary backup for Hager in the middle, and the former weight-lifting champion brings a ton of strength to the position. Edwards is the backup at WLB and the former safety has excellent coverage skills. He has put on 25 pounds during his redshirt year and looks to get some good playing time on special teams while backing up Lackey.
Coming to campus to join the team this summer are three very successful high school athletes. The first is Raaquan Davis, a 3-star outside linebacker from Rockwall, TX. The 56th ranked linebacker in the country, Davis has great speed and has a very good frame to add strength to his current 195 pounds. Also joining as a possible outside linebacker or nickel back is Xavier Phillips, another 3-star recruit from Fort Worth, TX. Phillips has excellent speed as well, something the Bears look for on both sides of the ball. Rounding out the 2013 class was late commit Taylor Young, the 5-A defensive player of the year. The undersize 2-star linebacker from DeSoto, TX is only 5-10, but has the production to match any inside linebacker recruit in the country.
With four linebackers graduating after the upcoming season, the Bears are currently looking at bringing in another 3 or 4 member recruiting class in 2014. They currently have the verbal commitments of just two players that are projected to play linebacker for the Bears. The first is 4-star T'Kevian Rockwell, a very highly recruited linebacker from Wylie, TX who looks to join his former teammate Quan Jones in Waco. Rockwell has the ability to play at the nickel back position, weakside linebacker spot if he puts on enough weight, or even safety due to his top end speed. Joining Rockwell is committing to the Bears is James David, a long time rumored commit for Baylor who finally pulled the trigger on June 10th. David is a 3-star linebacker probably destined for the inside due to his strength and play diagnosing ability.
With two commits in the bag, the Bears are still recruiting a few linebackers looking to bring maybe one more in. The leader for that last spot is Christian Sam, another 3-star linebacker who could play inside or outside. They also have an offer out to junior college linebacker Dvonta Derricott, who has offers from pretty much everyone. The Bears are also looking at Josh Mabin for the inside spot as well, where he could a long-term starter.
Overall, the Bears have an excellent mix of experienced starters and some excellent freshman who have the talent and the pedigree to lead the defense for the next 3-4 years. Add to that the increased recruiting exposure for the Bears and the linebacker position is in great hands.