LSU At the Game: "D" is for Dominant
Communications Student Assistant
Linemen Thrive in Revamped LSU Defense
As the 2016 season started, supporters of the Tigers were anxious to see how the addition of Dave Aranda, LSU's new defensive coordinator, would benefit such an experienced group on defense. Six games into the season, Aranda's effect on this upperclassman-filled group has been nothing short of remarkable.
Dating back to last season, the Tigers have made changes in their coaching staff, positions of players, defensive scheme and the practice schedule. Even with all of these alterations, the defense led by sophomore Arden Key, junior Davon Godchaux and senior Lewis Neal have maintained consistency and dominance throughout the 2016 campaign.
LSU's defense on average this season has allowed a mere 14.8 points per game, good enough for the seventh-best average in the nation. An explanation of these remarkable numbers can be credited to where roughly all games and plays are decided, the line of scrimmage.
When LSU hired Aranda, numerous fans of the Bayou Bengals were concerned about replacing a down lineman with a linebacker in Aranda's 3-4 defensive scheme. The non-believers of Aranda's philosophy were quickly silenced after the Tigers' defense has allowed only five touchdowns in as many games.
One of Aranda's changes was sliding Key from defensive end to outside linebacker. This change typically reduces the player's chances to rush the passer - Key's specialty - but a quick glance at Key's sack numbers prove this assumption wrong.
Moving from a down lineman to an upright linebacker spot alters the physical and philosophical approach of the player, but under Aranda's guidance, Key has shown to be up to the task.
"The big thing is recognizing the different formations the offense can run and dropping back into coverage," Key said.
He added, "Coach Aranda and I have a great relationship. He's doing a great job at making me feel comfortable with dropping into coverage and other things I hadn't done before."
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Although Key is being asked to drop into coverage more than last season, having him in a two-point stance rather than a three has increased his sack numbers. The confusion of deciding whether Key is rushing or covering for opposing offensive lineman is evident as Key enters the game against Southern Miss ranked second nationally in total sacks with seven. Key also leads the Tigers with seven-and-a-half tackles for loss.
Along with Key, Godchaux also changed positions as the former defensive tackle moved to defensive end.
"There's some different schemes and different aspects you have to learn to play the position," Godchaux stated. "It's close to the same as playing defensive tackle. You just have to trust in your techniques."
While Godchaux is learning the ways of his new position, his previous position coach is also learning a new spot. Head coach Ed Orgeron was previously the Tigers' defensive line coach, but his new responsibilities haven't altered his actions towards the team.
"Coach O is the same guy," Godchaux explained. "He's actually helped take care of our bodies by having shorter practices. It gives us the energy we need as a team."
When Orgeron moved to head coach, he decided to appoint Pete Jenkins to coach the defensive line. Jenkins previously coached the Tigers from 1980-90. During that 10-year span, Jenkins held defensive line, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach positions. Jenkins then returned to Baton Rouge for the 2000 and 2001 seasons as defensive line coach, and the 2016 team, including Godchaux, was pleased to have him back for a third time.
"He's a great guy with a lot of knowledge," Godchaux said. "Knowledge is power, and he presented a lot of similar techniques as Coach O. He's been around the game for a long time, and he brings a lot to the table."
This season, Godchaux leads the Tigers in fumble recoveries with two. He is also third on the team in sacks with three, only trailing Key and Neal.
It's clear that having Godchaux and Key switch to different positions has been beneficial to the team's effort. However, for cases like Neal, stability in terms of position for a senior also proves to be essential to LSU's success.
Neal is one of 18 seniors on the team, and unlike teammates Godchaux and Key, he was asked to remain at defensive end for this season. Neal elected to come back to LSU for his senior season as many other seniors did, bringing back an experienced group on the defensive side of the ball.
"We knew a lot of great things could happen," Neal said. "I feel like it really helps us out with leadership. The leadership of the seniors can help the younger players."
Neal has compiled 29 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He benefits from lining up on the opposite side of Key, especially when the opposition focuses too much of its attention to Key's side of the line.
"It helps a lot. Teams have to try and figure out who they're trying to double-team," Neal explained. "When they decide who to double-team, the other guy makes a play and vice versa."
Another wrinkle added under Coach Orgeron was deciding to bring in one guest speaker a week, usually a former player at LSU. Neal has responded positively to this addition and feels that it has had a positive impact upon the team's performance.
"We love seeing former players and others come in because it motivates us. We love to see their point of view on things," Neal said.
Having former Tigers come speak to the team provides the current players with perspective on how to cope with certain situations that may arise throughout the year. Guest speakers that play or played in the NFL also provide guidelines for the collegiate athletes about what it takes to compete at the next level.
Key, Godchaux and Neal are all leading contributors to one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the nation, but their trust in each other - along with the rest of the defense - to do their jobs is the true root of the unit's success.
"I would consider our D-line to be the leaders of the defense," Godchaux responded when asked about the reason for the impressive start to the season. "We try to come out and shut people down with our defensive backs and our linebackers to come together as a whole."