Bears establishing tougher attitude in drills

March 31, 2018

Near the end of Baylor’s spring practice Thursday afternoon, running back John Lovett and safety Chris Miller had a collision that caught the attention of everyone.

Lovett was already playing with a leg injury, so the Baylor coaches wondered how he would react to the blow he took from Miller.

But Lovett popped back up and drove for a 1-yard touchdown on the next play.

Though it was just one play in a spring practice, Lovett displayed the kind of toughness Baylor coach Matt Rhule wants throughout his team during every workout and every game.

“Lovett got banged in the leg the other day, so he didn’t feel maybe 100 percent,” Rhule said. “And to see him show the toughness to No. 1, get out there; No. 2, take that hit from Chris Miller; and then come back on fourth-and-1 and score a touchdown, I think that was really an impressive play. It was an exciting play. I think it shows why he’s a single-digit (jersey No. 7) and why he’s where he is.”

Lovett likes to play a physical brand of football, but he also wants to show the Baylor coaches that they can depend on him even at less than 100 percent healthy.

With a lot of competition in the backfield from players like JaMycal Hasty and Trestan Ebner, Lovett believes he needs to be available as much as possible to earn a shot to play extensively on Saturdays in the fall. Playing in all 11 games last season, Lovett was Baylor’s leading rusher with 445 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman.

“Sometimes injuries can be nagging or whatever, but we can always fight through it,” Lovett said. “We always have an extra gear on us that we don’t know about it. You’ve just got to find it.”

Thursday’s practice marked the midpoint of Baylor’s spring drills. The Bears have now finished seven practices since starting March 15, and have seven more remaining before playing the spring game April 21. Rhule will give his players a break for Easter before returning for practice next Thursday.

Though at least a dozen players are recovering from injuries or surgeries from last fall, the Bears have more depth than last season. Rhule believes workouts have still been highly productive even without injured players who will play key roles in the fall, including offensive lineman Blake Blackmar, wide receiver Chris Platt and linebacker Clay Johnston.

“I’d probably always like to be further ahead than we are, but I really am pleased with the mentality and the toughness and the brand that the guys are building,” Rhule said. “I like the way we’re playing defense. I like the young players. The leadership by our seniors has been outstanding, and that’s from injured guys like Chris Platt and Xavier Jones, all the way to healthy guys like Greg Roberts and Ira Lewis and Patrick Lawrence.”

Now in their second year under defensive coordinator Phil Snow, the Baylor defensive players have a better grasp of the system. They can react more quickly to plays instead of wondering if they’re in the right place.

Rhule has also seen how much stronger the defensive players have become since last year when they often got pushed around by more physical, experienced teams.

“They know what they’re doing, that’s the biggest thing,” Rhule said. “When you get to Year 2 in Phil’s system, the older guys can teach the younger guys. Year 1, you’re all trying to figure it out at once, and Phil doesn’t compromise. He might compromise in terms of volume, but he doesn’t compromise in terms of detail. And I think the biggest thing is we’re just so much stronger. We’re so much better looking. We’re so much more physical.”

Though the Bears don’t have their entire linebackers corps available due to injuries, Rhule has liked the way some younger players have stepped up.

“I thought Demarco Artis has had a really good camp so far,” Rhule said. “Really the whole group. Henry Black made the move there in the middle of the year. I think he’s learned the position now and can really attack it. Jordan Williams, you talk about a guy who’s really on the rise in terms of his physicality. And then the young guys like Bryson (Jackson) and Ashton Logan and Chad Kelly. That’s a good group of guys for us, that’s one of the strengths on our team, I think. And they’re getting a lot of good experience.”

Rhule has also seen the safeties develop into a potentially dependable group. It was a problem area last year as the safeties often took bad angles on tackles that allowed offenses to make big plays.

“I think they’re all doing a really nice job,” Rhule said. “Verkedric (Vaughns), now that he’s in it, he’s doing a great job. Blake Lynch has been just an outstanding football player. Blake has taken to the position and he’s doing great things. Chris (Miller) is really, really working hard, because he’s got so much athleticism, to work on his body control. And then the two young kids are really good players, JT Woods and Christian Morgan.”

The biggest offseason move was Blake Lynch moving to safety after shuffling between wide receiver and cornerback as a sophomore last season. Rhule likes Lynch’s football IQ, which has helped him adapt to different positions.

“Blake Lynch is a quiet young man, but he’s one of the scariest, smartest guys I’ve ever been around in terms of football,” Rhule said. “He loves football, and it comes really easy to him. Not many guys can play corner and receiver in a game, and he was able to do that this year. He has a unique football instinct. Football makes sense to him. I think that, plus his work ethic, he really wants to be good, have made him really go a lot further than I thought he would be at this point.”

After returning from Easter break, Rhule expects his players to hit the ground running. The volume of practices and the intensity will pick up as the Bears head toward the spring game.

“We’re going to come back Tuesday after the break and do some recovery things and make sure that we’re loose and stuff and get ready for Thursday,” Rhule said. “That following week, we’re doing four practices in one week, so we’re going to challenge them a little bit.”

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