Newcomers leading Baylor defensive line

It’s almost November, and the Big 12’s leader in tackles for loss has zero career starts.  His name’s Shawn Oakman, and he’s an enormous person. He’s the guy wearing No. 2 and looking like he belongs under the backboard battling for rebounds, not driving offensive tackles into the backfield.

LeBron James is 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds. Oakman is 6-foot-9 and 270.

Seniors Chris McAllister and Terrance Lloyd are holding down starting spots at defensive end, but the Bears’ depth has pushed them to the Big 12 lead in tackles for loss per game, at 9.17. Only two teams in college football are averaging more.

Oakman has 11 of the Bears’ 55 total tackles for loss, enough to seize the league lead.

The Bears’ might have had Oakman’s services a year ago, but he sat out 2012 after transferring from Penn State.

“You don’t keep an animal caged up and let him go and think he’s not going to bite you,” Oakman told Fox Sports Southwest this week. “So, I’m just biting.”

Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien booted Oakman from the team after an incident at an on-campus convenience store. Oakman detailed the incident to CBS Philadelphia last July. His ID card with meal points had run out of currency, so Oakman attempted to steal a hoagie in his jacket and pay for a fruit juice that cost less than a dollar. A worker from the back of the store came to the front and asked Oakman if he planned on paying for the sandwich. He grabbed the cashier’s wrist and took his ID card from her hand, leaving the sandwich and juice behind.

Oakman had missed a class earlier that semester and had also been falsely accused of robbing a pizza delivery man. O’Brien saw the final incident at the store as Oakman’s third strike, and told him he was off the team. The next day, Oakman wrote a letter of apology and placed a copy in each of his teammates’ lockers.

Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson helped Oakman get in touch with Baylor safeties coach and associate head coach Brian Norwood, who coached at Penn State from 2001-07.

The Philadelphia native chose to try and reboot his career more than 1,500 miles away in Waco. He was a four-star recruit and the nation’s No. 19 defensive end when he originally signed with Penn State, so after two years of being stuck on a scout team, his early impact shouldn’t be a total surprise.

“I just expected to be able to produce and do what I bring to the field, with my aggressive nature that I play with,” Oakman said. “Playing without a doubt in my mind that I’m one of the most aggressive pass rushers in the game.”

He’s playing alongside two fellow newcomers who have helped Baylor’s defense ascend to the top of the Big 12 in scoring defense and yards per play. For all the attention the Bears’ record-setting offense has gotten so far this season, the defense has been one of the Big 12’s best heading into Saturday’s game at Kansas.

“They’re playing a lot of seniors, and a lot of those guys are playing better than they have last year. The fact that their offense is scoring so many points means those pass rushing defensive ends can turn it loose,” Jayhawks coach Charlie Weis said. “They have speed and athleticism and depth at the defensive end position, which really allows them to sit back in their cover four scheme and play coverage, because those edge rushers play so well.”

Big 12 All-Name teamers Suleiman Masumbuko and Beau Blackshear are sophomores, but talented true freshmen Byron Bonds and Andrew Billings earned spots in the rotation at tackle alongside Oakman.

“I think they’ve been very active and we’ve been able to roll a minimum of eight guys. We’ve got a bunch of guys who are contributing and doing a great job,” Baylor coach Art Briles said.

Bonds and Billings added three tackles for loss along with Oakman’s 11.

“They’re just good players,” Briles said. “If you’re talented, and you’ve got a little fire burning, you can make some plays.”

Billings came to Baylor with the unofficial title of the nation’s strongest football player, after breaking the Texas high school weightlifting record with an 805-pound squat, a 705-pound dead lift and a 500-pound bench press.

Briles and the Bears signed the nation’s No. 12 defensive tackle, overcoming the 6-foot, 305-pounder’s strong desire to leave his hometown of Waco.

“I kind of came in and had the size and strength. What we do on the defensive line, I was kind of already doing it, I just had to learn the words for it here,” Billing said. “(Strength)wasn’t just going to work here. I had to get better. I had to come here and get stronger.”

He was one of the highest-rated recruits in Baylor history, spurning TCU and recruiting juggernaut Texas. Some thought Billings might start from Day 1 at Floyd Casey Stadium.

“I was thinking more just learn, learn learn and not be playing much, probably redshirting and looking to help out,” Billings said. “But now, it’s pretty crazy that this is happening.”

The Bears are 6-0 and the defense has been a big reason why. Briles has continued to build Baylor from the Big 12 laughingstock he inherited in November of 2007. The 2013 team is Briles’ best in six seasons at Baylor, and newcomers like Oakman, Billings and Bonds give plenty of reason to believe it won’t be the last time the Bears contend for a Big 12 title.