Tigers Mixing, Matching, More Aggressive on Defense
Digital Media Reporter
Dave Aranda is sprinting.
It’s a Monday practice in fall camp on one of the hottest days of the year. The breeze refuses to blow, but Aranda is wearing a dark gray windbreaker, and sweat sprays off his face as he runs.
As he runs, a player cuts in front of his path, and for a second, Aranda seems to consider tackling him. His better instincts prevail, though, and so he simply lowers a shoulder, bumps the player affectionately, and offers a running, “Let’s go!”
He’s fired up. He’s having fun. Because the tape is out on Aranda, and he knows it.
Three full seasons of Aranda’s defenses at LSU are available to any offensive coordinator in the country. Three full seasons of tite fronts and peso packages and all the Aranda favorites that make him one of the best defensive minds in college football.
In the past, that wouldn’t bother him. He’d stick to what he’s always done and demand his team out-execute the opponent.
But football has changed. His personnel has changed, too.
So Aranda has listened to his better instincts, and he’s changing with both.
“I've always been a believer in, 'You’ve got to beat us. You may know what we're in, but we're going to out execute you,’” Aranda says. “And I think I still believe that.”
“But I am bending to doing more,” he adds. “And I think it stems from what our players can do.”
ATTACKING UP FRONT
The differences start in the trenches, where the Tigers are looking to be more aggressive with their front. Gone are the days of defensive linemen eating blocks and freeing up alleys for the linebackers and safeties to scoop up the spoils.
“Our mentality on the defensive side of the ball is more of an attacking defense,” says junior safety JaCoby Stevens. “We're going to try to make plays behind the backfield. Coach O always preaches about getting pushback. There's no more holding blocks and linebackers running through. It's the D-line getting pushback, being aggressive, and all 11 playing behind on the offense's side of the ball.”
It’s a significant change in philosophy from the past, when LSU’s front played with less freedom. Playing to the strengths of speedy linebackers like Devin White and Duke Riley, previous lines focused more on occupying blockers and plugging gaps. Those principles will still come into at times, but the balance has shifted more to aggression and penetration from the big boys in the trenches.
"This year, we're going to be attacking, getting off, making plays in the backfield, stunting more,” says head coach Ed Orgeron.
The shift in mindset is driven, in part, by data. Orgeron said LSU’s analysts found the team gets off the field without allowing a point 75 percent of drives when it forces a tackle for loss or sack.
In recent years, such plays have been hard to come by for the Tigers. In Aranda’s three seasons combined, LSU’s 233 tackles for loss or no gain rank 12th in the SEC. The Tigers also rank 12th in forced fumbles and 14th in fumbles recovered during that stretch.
It’s perhaps the lone statistical blemish for a unit that continually ranks in the top 10 nationally in points and yards allowed, and it’s part of why Aranda’s scheme has evolved.
“I think front-wise, we're letting the front go more than what it's done,” Aranda says. “They're on edges more. They're attacking the line of scrimmage more. And so I've talked to Breiden Fehoko and Rashard Lawrence about that. They've asked for that for a while. And I know Coach O's excited about that.”
The unit expects to feature more four-man fronts than in past years, when Aranda’s tite front – three defensive linemen, one of whom is a nose guard directly lined up over the offense’s center – was the primary package. Aranda’s even tweaked that base defense, moving nose guards Tyler Shelvin and Apu Ika from directly over center to a shade either direction. Aranda expects this will lead to more one-on-ones for Shelvin and Ika, and, if they execute, more pushback.
“I think the ability to move that nose now, where he's not just shaded all the time, I think is the big difference,” Aranda says. “We can have that one on one and have that be one of our better players. That's a positive for us.”
RAISING THE STANDARD
Devin White was not happy.
The first-year pro with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the reigning Butkus Award winner as college football’s best linebacker still talks to his former teammates. He has every player looking to fill his seemingly unfillable shoes in the linebacker room on a group text, and when he saw a clip on social media of freshman running back John Emery breaking off a long run during camp, White let his displeasure be known digitally.
“Whoa," White messaged. "What's this all about?"
“He always stays in touch,” says Michael Divinity, who moves from outside linebacker to inside to offset White’s departure. “We will send him film, and he will tell us what we could do here better and what he winds up seeing.”
Other than Emery’s run, White’s seen a lot of good things from the unit, which features four players – Patrick Queen, Jacob Phillips, K’Lavon Chaisson, and Divinity – on the preseason Butkus Award watch list.
They have no interest in letting the award leave town.
“The standard he set is high,” Divinity says. “We're trying to achieve it. We want to bring that (award) back. We talk about it every day. We talk about how we want to compete. PQ said he was going to get it. I said I was going to get it, K'Lavon, we all are pushing each other to set the bar higher, so when the young guys come in, they can go higher, and we can just be a better LSU football team every year on defense.”
One of those young guys stepping up is Damone Clark. The leading tackler in Saturday’s first preseason game, Clark is pushing Phillips and Queen for the starting job next to Divinity, combining elite athleticism with a developing football IQ.
“He’s really an elite athlete,” Orgeron says. “He’s about 6-foot-3 and 235-238 (pounds). He can run. He’s always first in sprints. In the weight room he lifts everything you put in front of him … He just had to learn to play stack linebacker and diagnose and be in the right gap at the right time. He’s doing that now. He can tackle in space.”
Like the front, the linebackers’ role has changed. Divinity says unlike White, who was a gap-shooter last season, the role of the Tigers’ linebackers this season is to maintain that aggression while maintaining more gap soundness and displaying more patience.
However, he’s still trying to mimic some of the qualities that made White elite – and that makes him so angry when he sees freshman running backs breaking into the secondary untackled.
“Devin always knew what play was coming,” Divinity says. “He would see what the personnel was like, he just knew what the offense was running. He literally was the field general. Me moving inside, I’m the field general now.”
He’s also a bit of a wildcard Aranda can deploy anywhere he wants. No one in the SEC comes back with more pressures generated in 2018 than Divinity’s 45, and Aranda plans to move him inside and out depending on the situation.
“What was kind of a question of 'Where do we play him? Is he best outside? Well, he does some good things inside,'” Aranda says. “We're trying to make that a strength now and really feature that, and I think he'll benefit from it.”
Chaisson’s return to the outside also offers a different dynamic to the Tigers’ pass rush. In 2018, with Chaisson sidelined by a knee injury suffered in week one vs. Miami, Aranda felt he had to generate pressure schematically – a well-designed blitz here, an unexpected stunt there.
With Chaisson – a 12-15 sack per season candidate, per Orgeron – back in the fold, Aranda’s options are far more flexible.
Imagine this staring you down pic.twitter.com/DoEqnu6l0v— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) August 2, 2019
“Without K'Lavon, we'd have to work really hard to get something just right,” Aranda says. “With K’Lavon, as long as he's doing it, it's probably going to be OK.”
Kary Vincent sees it the same way, but with a different choice of words.
“We already know we’ve got superstars in the back here,” Vincent says of Chaisson. “That's a superstar on the line.”
QUARTERS AND NICKELS
Vincent has the sprinter’s curse. He’s impatient – in a hurry to get to the finish line on the track, and in a hurry to make plays on the football field – and he always wants more to do.
No question, he says: every LSU defensive back takes pride in man-to-man coverage. No SEC defense played more Cover 1 snaps over the past three seasons than LSU’s (139), and none played fewer Cover 2 snaps than LSU’s 8.
But Vincent, LSU’s returning starter at nickel, wanted to show Aranda he could do more than lock up receivers in the slot.
“At first, players here felt like we weren't doing enough,” Vincent says. “You know when you play LSU, you’re going to get great cover guys that are going to play man to man. Guys would complain and say they wanted to switch it up.
“Now, Coach Aranda is showing us that we can do more, because we showed him that he could trust us.”
Perhaps more than any unit on LSU’s defense, the secondary illustrates one of its primary facets: its versatility.
Take, for example, the Quarters package. At times this fall, the Tigers will deploy as many as three safeties – Stevens, Todd Harris, and unanimous All-American Grant Delpit – with Vincent in the slot, as well.
Three safeties, a nickel, and two corners? Dime packages featuring six defensive backs are far from new, but LSU’s version is bigger, which is why Aranda calls it Quarters.
“A big dime,” Aranda quips.
Like the shaded nose guard above, the Quarter was something Aranda began using last year as a midseason adjustment and plans to implement more in 2019. When Chaisson went down early, in an effort to generate more pressure, Aranda started moving Delpit into the box as an edge rusher. That small tweak led to the creation of an entire package built on big safeties, which LSU has in abundance.
“It's the abundance of safeties that are athletic, that can run and hit and cover and that have the instinct to play low,” Aranda says. “It kind of started with Grant, and then JaCoby kind of came on and took a liking to it, and so I think both of those guys can play that position really well. We're getting another one in Marcel (Brooks), and so we're continuing to add to that position.
JaCoby Stevens’ last two games of the 2018 season:— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) January 3, 2019
• 20 tackles
• 4.5 tackles for loss
• 0.5 sacks
• 1 interception
• 7 pressures
• 4 hurries
• 49 NFL passer rating vs.
• 7 run stops
“It tests the creativity to find ways where we can play with a lot of those guys at the same time.”
From Stevens’ perspective, Aranda’s utilization of that versatility puts LSU’s defense in attack mode. They aren’t reacting to offensive packages. Instead, they’re doing the dictating.
“I always brag on this defense, we just have a lot of versatility,” Stevens says. “There's all these guys that are athletic and very versatile. It's hard for an offensive coordinator to personnel us. We have guy(s) that can, in base, play a field linebacker, but (are) also athletic enough to cover and play nickel, or can cover enough space to play free (safety). You just have a lot of guys that can do different things.”
Then there’s Vincent, who has quickly taken to the nickel position. After working both outside and inside last season, Vincent says he’s strictly working at nickel this year, thanks to the depth recruited at cornerback. Freshmen Derek Stingley, Cordale Flott, and Jay Ward have performed well enough in camp alongside senior Kristian Fulton to keep Vincent working at his preferred nickel position.
“Nowadays, the nickels are getting the big bucks in the league,” Vincent says. “Coach Raymond's preached that to me. You don't just cover, you don't just blitz. You run zone, you do everything. I look at myself as a hybrid, so I can do it all -- jack of all trades.”
What excites Vincent this year is a liberated defensive scheme that will allow him to showcase those hybrid skills. Last season, in 609 defensive snaps, Vincent rushed the passer just six times, generating two sacks and a hurry in that limited action.
"I feel like I'm the fastest player in college football,” he says. “I know that, to be honest. This year, I plan to really show that. I feel like I haven't showcased my speed on the football field as much as I'm capable of. This year I plan to do that."
"The coaches have put me in a lot of positions to make a lot of plays this year. We've opened up our playbook. We've really opened up our defensive playbook this year, so you'll see me doing a lot of stuff. I won't just be in coverage this year, I'll tell you that."
Vincent isn’t the only person who the playbook has opened up for. Delpit and Stevens offer plenty of pop in the box and plenty of speed in centerfield, and Harris can cover any gap he’s asked.
“You never know what each person is doing,” Vincent says. “Grant can cover, Todd can cover, I can cover. I could be blitzing, Todd could be in the middle of the field, Grant could be in the box. You never know what you're going to get from us.”
It starts with Aranda, who is taking what he’s been given – a defense full of speed, versatility, and aggressively-oriented athletes – and evolving his philosophy. He’s mixing and matching, experimenting with his approach to change the results.
The core of his mission hasn’t really been modified, though. As Stevens says, “what makes Coach Aranda great is he plays to his players’ strengths.” Aranda’s only changing as much as his players’ strengths have changed.
“I look at this year's group, whether it's K'Lavon or it's Mike Divinity or it's JaCoby Stevens or it's Grant Delpit, there's a bunch of guys that do a lot of things individually really well,” he says. “And it's our task to take those things and blend that into a defense. I think that's the challenge..to try and find roles for all these guys and build it where it can be a collective group.”
He’s changing, because it’s necessary. And he’s changing because it’s fun.
“I'm excited about it,” Aranda says. “I know they are. “When your creativity and your schematics are built from the players, from that standpoint, I think that's always the way to go.”