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April 6, 2011

Bennett faces bear of a challenge at Baylor

ALSO: Rivals.com 2011 Coordinator Carousel

When Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt and his coaching staff were pushed out in December, Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Bennett wasn't worried.

His defense was ranked eighth in the nation last season. He had supervised units at Kansas State that ranked among the nation's top five for three consecutive seasons (1999-2001). His Texas A&M defense was ranked third in the country in 1995.

Bennett knew it was just a matter of time before he got another job. Preferably, it would be in his native Texas, where he still owns a home in College Station.

But at Baylor?

Waco doesn't appear an attractive destination for a defensive coach. Baylor plays in the offense-centric Big 12, where it faces the high-octane attacks of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. This fall, Baylor faces six FBS opponents that averaged at least 30 points last season. Furthermore, Baylor seemingly hasn't fielded a strong defense since Mike Singletary was playing linebacker there from 1977-80.

"I've been a mercenary for a long time," Bennett joked. "But it's about who you're associated with. I've been a fan and a friend of [Baylor coach] Art Briles for a long time.

"Obviously, I was disappointed with what happened at Pittsburgh because they don't come any better than Dave Wannstedt. But I was anxious to get back to Texas. I really feel like Baylor has made a commitment to becoming a top-notch football program."

Bennett faces the task of patching gaping holes in the Bears' defense, such as creating a pass rush, and instilling a sense of confidence in a unit that ranked 89th in the nation in points allowed last season. The Bears gave up at least 38 points seven times, produced just 20 sacks, forced only 20 turnovers and ranked 104th in the nation in total defense and 114th in pass defense. In addition, the top two defensive players -- tackle Phil Taylor and safety Byron Landor -- completed their eligibility.

"I know this sounds egotistical, but Art and I were watching tape and he said, 'What do you think?' " Bennett recalled. "I said, 'I think I can help you.' Of course, anybody worth his salt thinks they can do the job. I think we can put guys in position to be successful."

There will be skeptics. The adage that "Jimmys and Joes beat Xs and Os" reminds that even accomplished coaches need good players to be successful. And while Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State often bring in celebrated recruiting classes, Baylor's highest-rated class of recent vintage was the 2010 group that ranked 39th.

Yet, Bennett has maintained that there is talent on the roster. He said cornerback Tyler Stephenson could have started last season for Pitt. The Bears also have highly touted sophomore safeties Ahmad Dixon and Prince Kent, who were four-star prospects in 2010.

"From what I've seen, Art and them have recruited well," Bennett said. "I'm a speed guy. I'd take speed over size any day from the time that I had [former Texas A&M linebacker] Dat Nguyen at 202 pounds. Speed kills. I do believe we have some talent here.

"The biggest problem we had [last season], to be honest, is we could not get lined up right. If you can't get lined up right, it doesn't matter what kind of athleticism you have. That's the first thing we have to address."

Some theorized that former defensive coordinator Brian Norwood, who remains on Briles' staff as safeties coach, didn't adequately adjust to Big 12 offenses. Before arriving at Baylor after the 2007 season, he had spent seven seasons as an assistant at Penn State and his defensive schemes seemed more tailored for the types of offenses seen in the Big Ten. Maybe that's why Baylor gave up seven touchdowns on offensive plays that covered between 49 and 76 yards last season.

There were positive signs during spring drills, particularly in a pass rush that produced five sacks in last weekend's final spring scrimmage.

But the defense also gave up 587 passing yards and four touchdowns in that scrimmage. That was against an explosive offense led by senior quarterback Robert Griffin III that averaged more than 30 points last season, so Bennett remains optimistic.

"We've got to make [opposing offenses] earn everything; nothing is going to be given to them," Bennett said. "During the last seven practices, I [was] tickled to death. I really thought we made some good strides. I told them we can be anything we want. There are no limitations."

What they want is to be among the top 10 defenses in the nation.

"The first thing we have to do is dismiss what happened last year," said senior linebacker Elliott Coffey, a returning starter who had 61 tackles last season. "We have to play with a chip on our shoulder, but everything we do has to focus on now and the future to be the best we can to be a top-10 defense.

"Last season was bad. We know the stat -- giving up seven plays over 50 yards. You can't do that. But I believe we can be a top-10 defense. If you don't believe that, you shouldn't be out there. We have weapons up front. We have tall, strong and fast guys who can make plays. They were there last year, but we didn't put the pieces together. We're just now seeing what this defense can be."

Bennett said he saw signs that the Bears' defense could be significantly better the first time he evaluated last season's game tapes.

"Like a doctor, the first thing you do is evaluate and see what the problem is," he said. "I can look at how a defense lines up and just about tell you if they have a chance to be successful. We just had a lot of matchup problems.

"In today's college football, with the multiple formations, the only control you have as a defense is you dictate the attack points by the way you place your people. You have to match up the way they distribute the ball. We were not able to do that. We had people outnumbered in the pass and in the run."

Bennett plans to use blitzes to produce more pressure on quarterbacks, and he's hoping that through that aggressive style of play, the Bears will develop an attitude in which they expect to make big plays rather than give them up.

"Every great defense I've been around, we always got them to play with a presence, a body language and an attitude of expectancy," Bennett said. "At K-State, we were not always the biggest, heaviest, strongest or fastest, but we had more expectancy than any team I'd ever been around. It was that way at Pittsburgh and with the [A&M] 'Wrecking Crew.' "

Bennett isn't saying Baylor's defense will rank among the best in the nation, but that may not be necessary.

Briles has a reputation for fielding explosive offenses. In some of their losses last season, the Bears put up solid offensive numbers: 38 points against Texas Tech, 30 against Texas A&M, 28 against Oklahoma State and 24 against Oklahoma.

If the defense is a little better, Baylor could be a lot better.

"They were very close to winning 10 games last year," Bennett said. "They could have won the A&M game and the Tech game. In my mind, as good as we are on offense, if we can get them the ball three or four more possessions a game, we're going to have some good times."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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