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September 29, 2011
Walk-on to starter
Bears middle linebacker Elliot Coffey tells a funny story about the first time he saw nose guard Nicolas Jean-Baptiste.
It was the summer of 2007, before each of their first classes at Baylor, and Jean-Baptiste was walking around campus wearing a gold "Baylor Line" jersey, the campus organization established in 1970 of new incoming students to support and cheer on the Bears.
Of course, Jean-Baptiste stood out in the crowd at 295 pounds. Then Coffey heard the big freshman from Stafford, Texas was going to walk on the football team.
"I'm thinking he's a joke," Coffey said. "I see him like that and I'm like, 'he's not going to be a player.' The dude stepped on the field from day one, busted his hump every day trying to get a spot. It wasn't even about getting a scholarship, it was about making the team better."
Four years later, Jean-Baptiste is one Baylor's most consistent defensive players. He has stepped in at nose guard and replaced first-round draft pick Phil Taylor - now with the Cleveland Browns - and been a bigger producer than Big Phil (Jean-Baptiste also stays on the field more than his heralded ex-teammate).
Nic, as his coaches and teammates like to call him, has gone from walk-on - he and Coffey, recruited out of Sugar Land, redshirted in '07 - to getting playing time in '08 and '09 to getting a scholarship. Jean-Baptiste has started 12 of Baylor's last 15 games going back to the start of last season.
He has gone from the Baylor Line to one Baylor's best defensive linemen, and a potential All-Big 12 caliber player.
"I'm proud of myself," Jean-Baptiste said. "I still haven't accomplished everything I want to yet. At this point right now, I feel pretty good just to make it to this point and get to be a starter. It was a great feeling knowing I was a starter.
"I still have a lot more stuff to accomplish so I'm not going to just sit there and hang my hat on that," he said. "I have other things that I want to do."
Those other things by the way are to help Baylor win a Big 12 championship and to get to the next level, the NFL. So how big of a long shot was it that Jean-Baptiste would get to this point, to helping the Bears rise to No. 15 in the polls and for him to get notice by pro scouts?
Not as big as you would think, Bears coach Art Briles said.
"I don't know that it's a long shot," Briles said, "because the thing about walking on at a D1 university is you have to be a pretty good player to stay on the team. Because we have a lot of guys that try out and a very small percentage of those make it."
Briles said once a walk-on makes the roster, playing time comes down to need at that player's position and whether that player's ability warrants playing time. Then, Briles said, you have a chance to eventually work up the ladder, get playing time and possibly get a scholarship.
What worked in Jean-Baptiste's favor is he's a big dude - he checks in now at 335 on the official roster, though he said earlier this week he's more like 325. That's still up 30 pounds from when Coffey saw his current roommate prancing around campus four years ago.
"In the recruiting world, if we're going to miss, we're going to miss big," Briles said. "So, that gives you a chance to get looked at. Once we found out his mentality and his heart and his desire, then you have a chance to have a player because Nic's not going to stop. He's not a guy who's ever going to quit at anything he does.
"So if the ball keeps rolling forward," Briles said, "it's going to keep getting better and that's what he's done."
Jean-Baptiste has been more than productive. He's been a terror up front. He has 13 tackles, fifth most on the team and the most of any Baylor defensive lineman. He is tied for the team lead with a sack. He has two tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.
Want more? He blocked an extra point against TCU, taking over another of Big Phil's roles. He had a career-high seven tackles against Stephen F. Austin. He has played in 38 of 39 games at Baylor, missing only last year's Texas Bowl because of an injury.
"He's one of the best players in the conference, and I even say nation," Coffey said. "I'm just excited to see where he takes it from now. He's learned the defense. He's put in the work in the summer. He's gotten stronger. He's gotten quicker. He's even lightened up a little bit even though he's still a hefty 330-plus pounds. He's put himself in a position to make plays and help this team out."
So how does Jean-Baptiste tell the story of how he went from the student spirit group to starting nose guard?
He came to one of Baylor's summer camps and then talked to then defensive line coach Don Wnek - on Guy Morriss' staff. He talked to Wnek again when the Bears assistant was on Jean-Baptiste's high school campus scouting one of his teammates.
Jean-Baptiste's coach gave Wnek some game film and the Baylor coach told him he'd be interested in the big lineman walking on. Jean-Baptiste said he didn't get any Division I scholarships. There a few Division II schools that showed interested. He decided to give Baylor a chance.
"I felt like I just needed a shot, that's all I wanted," Baptiste said. "I felt like I had the talent. It would take the opportunity to present itself, plus having to work hard in everything I have to do on the field and off the field and make sure they knew that I deserved to play."
Baptiste said he found out the first time the Bears' put on pads in fall camp in 2007, during one-on-one drills with the offensive line, that he was good enough to make the team.
"I beat one of the guys consistently," Jean-Baptiste said, "and I was getting some praise from the coaches that were here and then from my teammates that told me I'm pretty good and that I should keep working. They gave me tips and stuff. I felt like if I kept listening to these guys and just kept working hard that I could play one day."
Jean-Baptiste said Bears defensive tackles coach Chris Achuff, who arrived with Briles the spring of his freshman year, is the coach who deserves the credit for turning him into a starter.
Achuff talked to Jean-Baptiste the first day he was on campus and told the player to get ready. That he might be playing as a redshirt freshman for the 2008 Bears.
"That was motivation enough coming into the spring," Jean Baptiste said. "I worked hard. He basically helped me where I am today. He helped me get a scholarship. He's helped out a lot since I've been here."
Achuff said Jean-Baptiste was a great student of the game - he graduated in May with a degree in General Studies. And Jean-Baptiste was willing to put in the work it took to get better.
A walk-on has to show a commitment, and Achuff saw in the spring that Jean-Baptiste was a willing pupil.
"Defensive line is not a sometimes thing, it is an all the time thing," Achuff said. "He had tremendous desire. He wanted to get better. He wanted to do well. He was willing to challenge himself more than some walk-ons are willing to do. He had size. Every day he came to work."
Jean-Baptiste gained the respect of his teammates. He worked with Taylor on the art of getting off the ball - that crucial first step. They worked on pass rush moves, learning how to use your hands.
"And slowly but surely he picked it up and he started to produce," Coffey said. "He was out on the field, making plays in crucial Big 12 moments. The coaches saw it, gave him a scholarship and now he's one of the most dominant forces I've played with on the defensive line."
Jean-Baptiste made 27 tackles his first two seasons playing about 20 snaps a game. He was still a backup headed into last year's TCU game when an injury forced him into the game. He has started every game, except for the Texas Bowl, since then.
Jean-Baptiste proved he could play 50 snaps a game, something Taylor couldn't do. Coaches like it went they can keep a starter in the game. They are after all the best players at their position.
"His motor didn't stop," Achuff said. "No matter what , his motor didn't stop running."
Jean-Baptiste also never stops talking once you get him started. He appears quiet when you first meet him, but that lasts about five seconds.
"He's very talkative," Coffey said. "I didn't know he had that much to say either."
He's also a good roommate, Coffey said.
Well most of the time. As long as he keeps Coffey and their other roommate, offensive lineman John Jones, out of the trainers room.
"Nic is a funny roommate just because every so often he'll leave his TV on for like days at a time," Coffey said. "So I'll go in there and turn it off and I literally almost broke my ankle the other day trying to walk through there because he had stuff scattered all over the ground.
"But no, Nic's a good dude man."
For his part, Jean-Baptiste said he's learned some things about living with friends. He's roomed with Jones for four years. This is their first year rooming with Coffey.
"I can't lie, my room is not very clean all the time," Jean-Baptiste said. "John makes sure I'm not going to sit there and keep the apartment dirty. Elliot too. They'll tell me when I'm doing something wrong or if I'm being a bad roommate."
So where does it go from here for Jean-Baptiste?
He said Monday that his main goals are being responsible and consistent play after play. He said as your role expands, and you play more plays, that's a must - to do your job.
"When it's 50 plays and you're in there every single time and every single snap you have to know every single time what you're doing," he said. "Not everybody will see that you're doing your job but they'll notice when you're not doing your job."
He has always visualized himself making big plays, like the fourth-down stop he and Tracy Robertson combined on against Stephen F. Austin. He dreamed about making big plays like his blocked kick in the TCU win, knowing that when opportunities are presented, you have to take advantage of them.
"Making plays, that makes me proud of what I've been able to overcome," Jean-Baptiste said.
For the Baylor coaches, NJB - hey initials aren't just reserved for RG3 - is a reminder of the player that can get away. And just how important taking in walk-ons and evaluating them can be for a program.
"Recruiting is not an exact science," Achuff said. "If it was, he would have been recruited and maybe would have gone somewhere else.
"The simple case is walk-ons have something inside of them that someone else might not see. Second team. Starter. Then all-conference."
And who knows, maybe NFL. Jean Baptiste believes in himself, and why not after the story he's told so far.
"Clay Matthews did it, maybe I can," said Jean-Baptiste of the USC linebacker who went from walk-on to first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2009 to Super Bowl star and All-Pro last season. "I don't know about first round but I'm working toward first round. I'm working to it."