July 28, 2014
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Numbers don't lie.
With a healthy Bryce Hager at middle linebacker, Baylor had one of the most dominant defenses in the country. Through the first eight games of last season, the Bears were ranked in the top 10 nationally, giving up just 15.4 points and 306.1 yards per game.
But with Hager going down in the second quarter of the Texas Tech game with a pulled groin and missing the remainder of the season, Baylor had a serious dropoff over the last five games. Including losses at Oklahoma State and to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, the Bears allowed 36.6 points and 446.2 yards per game without its defensive anchor.
"My captain is back," junior defensive end Shawn Oakman said during last week's Big 12 Football Media Day in Dallas. "I'm excited that he's back. He's going to get us lined up right, and we're going to fly around to the ball."
That was certainly the defense's M.O. with Hager. The Bears held six of their first eight opponents to 14 or fewer points and half of them to less than 300 yards.
"It definitely put us on the map," said Hager, a second-team All-Big 12 pick who finished with 71 tackles despite sitting out the last 4 ½ games. "Winning the first Big 12 championship for Baylor was huge."
The toughest part for Hager was that he wasn't suited up for the "Close the Case" finale, when Baylor knocked off Texas, 30-10, to win the outright title. Especially since his dad, Britt Hager, was an All-America linebacker for the Longhorns in the 1980s.
Hager also sat out the 52-42 loss to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, which was the Bears' first-ever BCS bowl game.
"We're using that Fiesta Bowl game last year; we know that's not how our defense usually plays," Hager said. "That was a fluke, and everyone on our team knows that. That's one of our biggest motivators. . . . As long as everyone buys in and just sticks with the program, the sky's the limit for the defense."
Spending most of his time in the training room, rehabbing the injury, Hager said you "feel distant from everyone."
"I definitely have a different appreciation for the game now after my season was cut short last year and missing those big games like Oklahoma State, the game against Texas at Floyd Casey and the Fiesta Bowl," said Hager, a preseason All-Big 12 pick who is on the watch lists for the Bednarik, Butkus, Nagurski and Lombardi awards. "I have a new appreciation for the game and how much it actually means to me. This season is very important to me. It's my senior year, my last go-round as a college athlete, so I'm going to try to take it all in and take it day by day."
What got him through the tough days was "just talking to my dad and talking to (defensive coordinator Phil Bennett)."
"Coach Bennett helped me a lot. (Head coach Art Briles and defensive coordinator Jim Gush), just people around me, were very willing to talk about it and help me through it."
Oakman said Hager has a tremendous work ethic with the added pressure of "having to live up to a father that played in the NFL." Britt Hager was a third-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1989, playing six seasons with the Eagles before finishing his career in 1997 with the St. Louis Rams.
"He's got great bloodlines," Briles said of Hager, who led the Big 12 in tackles in 2012 with 124. "His dad was a great player in the NFL for many years."
This year's defense certainly has its share of holes to replace with safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerback Demetri Goodson both taken in the NFL Draft and three other players signing pro contracts.
"It's given opportunity for the young guys to step up, just because there's not really one guy out there that has all the experience," said Hager, one of just four returning starters on that side of the ball. "They're all kind of feeding off each other, so they're trying to find someone to look up to."
Without a doubt, Hager is that guy. Not only is he the middle linebacker, he's a two-year starter that has seen the defensive transformation under Bennett.
"That's the middle linebacker's job is you've got to make all the calls," he said. "These past two years, I had to grow into that position and be more vocal. And I think just being put in that position where I had to, I've gotten a lot better at (being more vocal)."
One of the keys for Hager and an inexperienced secondary will be a defensive line that Briles called "as talented and dominant as possibly anybody in the United States of America." Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear are returning starters at the two tackle spots, while Oakman and Palmer rotated with senior starters Chris McAllister and Terrance Lloyd at end.
"Just having those guys helps everyone else," Hager said. "If you have a good d-line that puts pressure on the quarterback, they only have three or four seconds, at most, to hold the ball. It makes it easier on the secondary; they don't have to play man as long. And especially for the linebackers, too, it keeps those big guys off of you. I don't have to worry about being blocked by a lineman. I just have to worry about finding the ball-carrier."
The Bears report Aug. 4 and begin workouts the next day in preparation for the Aug. 31 season opener and debut at McLane Stadium against former Southwest Conference rival SMU. Kickoff has been set for 6:30 p.m., with the game being nationally televised by FS1.