Baylor speed, from practice field to game day, is catching on fast
Art Briles has it going at Baylor. The offense is humming. BCS-bound Bears? Maybe, if the not-quite-irrelevant defense does its part.
WACO, Texas -- The urgency starts the moment cleats click-clack across the short distance from the Simpson Athletic and Academic Center to the Highers practice complex. In those 30 feet or so, the transformation begins. Student-athletes at a prestigious religious flagship shed all pretenses as they become kids again entering Art Briles' Practice Field Fun House.
It is a grass-stained carnival. For the next two-plus hours, the Baylor Bears drill like it is the last Tilt-A-Whirl they'll ever ride. To call it practice would be an insult to the ticket takers. They are Baylor strength coach Kaz Kazadi and a handful of assistants who -- as is tradition -- form a human gantlet for each of the 100-plus players to run through.
"D-tackles shouldn't wear tights, man!" taunts one of Kaz's Kommandos. "Blasphemy!"
The Bears make their entrances, high fives slapping, mouths yapping.
"Gets the blood boiling, man," said massive 345-pound guard Cyril Richardson.
Some, like tailback Lache Seastrunk, have orchestrated an entrance that suggests he is about to take the field on Super Bowl Sunday. On this early October day, Seastrunk pauses before Kaz's gantlet, makes a gesture to the heavens, takes his right hand and brushes the ground.
"Sssswiiipppe!" the Kommandos scream with glee.
Before you ask, yes ... "it is possible for Baylor to have an attitude," Seastrunk said. "We have great swag."
As a wise man once said: We talkin' 'bout practice.
For another day, the carnival has begun.
• • •
Remember the not-so-old line, "There's speed, then there's SEC speed"? Sure you do. It's arrogant. It's pretentious. It also might as well summarize the past seven years of college football.
The SEC has ruled. In 2013, it has been corrupted. There's a bug in the machine. Georgia had to score 44 to win by three against LSU. Alabama gave up its most yards ever in surviving Texas A&M. Going into Week 6 there is one SEC defense in the top 19 in the country.
The likes of Baylor are the reason. The Bears are in the process of taking that old saw about SEC speed, giving it a protein shake and attaching some afterburners. On the offensive side. As much as has been chronicled about Oregon's Blur Offense, the Great Plains version at Baylor might be faster, more destructive.
We have, it turns out, an eyewitness on the scene.
"Chip [Kelly] was fast," said Seastrunk, an Oregon transfer who has played for both up-tempo masterminds. "This seems a whole lot faster."
So ... there is speed, then there is Baylor Speed? Perhaps, just don't blink.
The Bears are snapping the ball once every 20.5 seconds, averaging almost a point per play (.912). Wyoming snaps the ball faster (every 18.2 seconds). Cal runs more plays (94.7 per game). But none of them are more efficient, more powerful, in such limited possession time, scoring almost 70 points per game.
None of them have Art Briles and his vision of that Baylor Speed. No-huddle, wear-you-out. Get up, do it again. Then, blow you out.
"Honestly, it's kind of due to the way society is," said the Bears' pure-bred 57-year old Texan in his sixth season at the school. "We're an instant society. It's not a deal where you sit around the supper table anymore and talk about what the day's events where. Everybody's on the phone or watching TV.
"It just translates to how we live our lives."
Fast. In this case, Blade Runner with a pig bladder. Briles' philosophy is separate from Kelly's Oregon or Rich Rodriguez's West Virginia. The offense's godfathers all came from different regions with different ideas. Briles chatted briefly with Kelly when he took the job in 2008 but that's it.
Baylor begins Big 12 play Saturday against West Virginia as one of the season's early curiosities. Bombing three nonconference weaklings back to the Stone Age has produced as much skepticism around the country as giddiness in Waco. Either way, Baylor matters to college football in 2013.
Briles has a new book -- and perhaps a new job if his star keeps rising. Sic 'Ems aren't the only ones who believe their team can win the Big 12. Forget that the league is down. Forget that the opponents have been Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe.
This is different. The Big 12 no longer wipes its feet in Waco. Since 2011, Baylor has produced 21 wins, a Heisman winner and a tie for the nation's fourth-longest winning streak (seven games). There are receivers with verticals (jumps) as impressive as their verticals (routes). There are offensive linemen who will play in the NFL. Speaking of which, 16 pro scouts have already been credentialed for an anticipated Nov. 7 showdown with Oklahoma.
A third consecutive 3-0 start predates the opening of a sparkling new $260 million stadium in 2014. Contractors are already in no-huddle mode with the opening night 11 months away. Will a BCS bowl banner hang in it ?
"That's a great question," quarterback Bryce Petty said, considering a Big 12 title. "Why not us? Why not now? We've said that since I've been here but we've never really meant it until this summer."
What makes Baylor potentially great is balance. Briles' perceived pass-happy offense features a power running game. Currently No. 5 nationally in rushing, Baylor has finished no lower than third in the Big 12 in that category since 2010. The defense is no longer the potential subject of a Comedy Central roast.
Eight returning starters are coached by a veteran defensive coordinator war dog who gets it.
"It used to be if you hold people to 17 points you'll win. I'm not sure that's always the case now," said 57-year-old Phil Bennett, born on the same day as his boss. "The new 17 might be 28. You've got to understand that. It's trickled to the SEC. I watched A&M-Alabama. Nick [Saban] and I grew up in this business. I know him. How are you that happy when you give up 600 something yards? It's not in our DNA."
But winning is. So when the average offense in the country is scoring 31 points per game, the term "quality defense" has been redefined.
Change percolates out in those practices. The (up) tempo is set. The last thing players see before they meet Kaz each day is a sign reading "Be The Standard." Each of them slap, elbow, punch or touch it. The strength coach is in charge of the music blaring from a bank of speakers that have to be towed in.
It helps the Bears get used to both crowd noise and any random outbreaks of speed metal they may encounter. It also reflects Briles' philosophy: We live fast. We play fast, might as well have fun doing it. The playlist ranges from hip-hop to R&B to Rage Against the Machine's apocalyptic Testify.
"Who controls the past now, controls the future," screams Rage's Zack de la Rocha.
Meanwhile, That Future smiles blithely as he considers his practice routine that mandates an even faster pace than games -- approximately one snap every 10-14 seconds.
"We want to snap the ball as quick as we can snap the ball," Briles said. "The yardage and the number of plays are all kind of irrelevant."
Still, the numbers through three games have been equally apocalyptic. Baylor is the first team since 1930 (LSU) to score at least 60 points in its first three games. It would have to average only 50.7 points over its final 10 games (assuming a bowl) to break Oklahoma's modern record for points in a season (716 in 2008). That seems entirely possible after averaging 69.7 points in the first three.
Twenty-four of the 25 touchdown drives have lasted less than two minutes; 11 have lasted less than a minute. The average drive has lasted only 5.3 plays and 85 seconds. Following his predecessors who won a Heisman (Robert Griffin III) and set the school passing record (Nick Florence), Petty, a redshirt junior, leads the country in pass efficiency and is second in completion percentage.
Petty has had to wait so long for his chance he had his degree before he started a game. He was hurt twice in his senior year at Midlothian High but juiced his profile on the camp circuit. Phil Fulmer offered him at Tennessee. Petty was committed and ready to head to Knoxville until Fulmer was fired.
"Coach [Lane] Kiffin," Petty said, "he just never called."
Entrenched for now as one of the nation's elite quarterbacks, Petty came into the season having thrown just 14 college passes since high school in 2008. After grayshirting and attending a junior college in 2009, Petty redshirted in 2010 and played sparingly in 2011 (RG3's Heisman year) before backing up Florence last season. The last time a Baylor quarterback has played in an offense that finished out of the top 13 nationally was 2009.
"The game's changing, it really is," Petty said. "No one wants to see 7-6 ballgames."
It was put to the quarterback how many points Bryce Petty and the heartbreakers could really score if this were NCAA Football '14. You know, where it's just a couple of buds on the couch with no thought or reason to sub out.
"Man, I don't know," he said. "I would have loved to have seen it but there is sportsmanship involved."
Well, yes, there's that.
Teams like Oregon and Baylor and Oklahoma and Texas A&M and Washington and Houston and pretty much everyone using the offense have caused a sabermetric up-tempo underground to develop. Mere points and yards no longer offer a clear picture. The coaches of those quick-scoring offenses seem content with leaving their defenses on the field 35 minutes a game. Damn the consequences.
Baylor, 114th in time of possession, has been stunningly efficient in its 229 plays. It averages 2.67 points per minute of possession. It is ahead of Oregon, second-to-last in time of possession, which is averaging 2.52 points.
That sort of burden is upon Bennett. This is a man who in a 35-year career has coached both champions and had his face ground in the dirt. Last year's 70-63 loss at West Virginia was one of those times.
"It's almost like you've got to break serve," he said.
An already weak defense has hurt by the loss of two secondary players covering the opening kickoff. It was Geno Smith at the height of his powers, chasing a Heisman at the time. Bennett was the one who had to answer for a loss after Briles' offense has scored 63.
"Once you give up some throws, you lose some confidence," Bennett said. "We had to take it."
These days they are a dynamic duo, the head coach and his D-coordinator. They bonded over their Texas roots and shared tragedies. Bennett's wife Nancy was killed by a lightning strike in 1999. Briles lost his parents in an auto accident in 1976. They like to say one from East Texas (Bennett) met one from West Texas (Briles) to thrive in Central Texas.
Briles wouldn't take no for an answer when he was looking for a coordinator almost three years ago. At the time, Bennett already had an NFL job lined up while he was the interim coach at Pittsburgh after Dave Wannstedt.
"We sat down. Art told me, 'I think we have a Heisman Trophy quarterback but we've got some work to do defensively,'" Bennett said. "After that first spring practice I told him, 'You told the truth so far.'"
Briles developed his offense in tiny high school burgs such as Hamlin (the Pied Pipers, of course) to Georgetown to Stephenville to major college. At Texas Tech, he coached running backs for Mike Leach. At Houston, he preceded Kevin Sumlin in helping develop quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and NCAA career passing leader Case Keenum.
Baylor hasn't been the fastest turnaround. The Bears first won seven in Briles' third year. The next season RG3 won the Heisman. The Bears kicked off 2012 upsetting then-No. 14 TCU. They haven't been 4-0 since 1991.
West Virginia minus its awesome weapons of 2012 may be the perfect victim, er, opponent.
"Is this a revenge game?" Bennett asked. "To me it's a proving game. We feel like we can complement our offense."
Maybe that's all defense has to be in this era, a momentary distraction. Bennett already has seen on film the Bears' offense spread out so wide, a Buffalo cornerback lined up out of bounds. The tailbacks became so worn out that a safety buried on the depth chart moved over to offense to finish up the Wofford game. Sophomore Anthony Webb rushed for 71 yards.
The third-string defense has been able to play in the second half of all three games. Backup defensive end Shawn Oakman is second nationally with 2.7 tackles for loss per game. Sooner or later the starters are going to have to play a full game.
"We hope not, but it's going to happen. We understand that," Briles said.
How's this for balance? A year after scoring 63 and losing at West Virginia, the Bears beat Louisiana-Monroe by 63 and are looking ahead.
That's how much things have changed. That's also a hell of a carnival each afternoon.
"Coach Briles is honestly one of the easiest people to wake up and play for," Petty said. "He just makes the game so much fun."
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