By GLENN GUILBEAU | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
New LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada is not only opening up and spreading the Tigers’ passing attack. He is helping to reshape LSU’s defense as well.
He has to have someone to practice all of his units’ motions, movements and strategies against, which would be LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s outfit.
“We’ve gotten better every day, gotten better every week,” Aranda said last week. “There’s a really good understanding of how this defense stretches, expands and contracts. Matt’s going to put you in a bunch of different spots, contort you, and we’ve contorted a bunch of different ways. And I think the guys have an idea of how that works now.”
The two bald geniuses have gone head-to-head, so to speak, throughout spring drills and preseason camp since Canada was hired as offensive coordinator after the 2016 season by head coach Ed Orgeron.
“We have two of the best coordinators in college football. I don’t think there’s any question,” Orgeron said.
“They get after one another,” tailback Derrius Guice said. “We’re always trying to catch them off guard, and they’re trying to fool us.”
It started during spring drills, and Aranda was emphatic about Canada on a spring speaking tour stop in Baton Rouge at the Lod Cook Conference Center.
“It’s going to be really difficult to defend coach’s offense with a week’s preparation with as much as they do,” he said. “It hits you like a triple option. “The fly sweep (also called the jet sweep) widens you. So If there’s a lead blocker for the fly, that’s two gaps. Then they can run zone, or they can run power. When they stretch the ball, there’s a pin and pull aspect. So, there’s gaps over here. There’s gaps over here. And then all the different shifts and motions they do, you’ve got to rep all those things. And so to see that on a Saturday after a couple days prep is going to be difficult.”
Canada’s wildly assorted attack last season at Pittsburgh finished 10th in the nation in scoring with 40 points a game and handed national champion Clemson its only loss – 43-42 on Nov. 12. It also handed it to Aranda’s defense at times.
“There were a few days there in spring where we were getting beat up pretty good,” Aranda said. “Guys were questioning, ‘Is this where I lining up? Is this where my eyes are on? Who has that play? Who has that guy?’ And so, that where we started, and then I think we got better and better. With the offense that we went against in the spring and fall, very much, it would be what I would imagine at Navy or Army – the triple option. The strengths of going against an offense like that is you have to be very disciplined. They spread you out. All 11 guys have a fit. All 11 guys have a key. All 11 guys have to recognize a formation. ‘My eyes are going here on the snap. My eyes are going here.’ Ther’s a lot of value in that. There’s also a lot of value in the accountability of asking how’d it go afterwards. It’s very clear who upheld their bargain of playing a gap or playing coverage on a guy. It’s very clear.”
Aranda’s first defense at LSU in 2016 finished No. 2 in the nation in fewest touchdown passes allowed with nine and No. 5 in the country in fewest points allowed with 15.8 a game. The Tigers also led the nation in fewest red zone touchdowns allowed with eight – four less than any other team last year and the lowest in the SEC in five years.
But he feels he can expand on those numbers, thanks to Canada, and expects the defense to play even smarter.
“Coming out of that, there’s a great understanding of technique,” he said. “There’s a great understanding of team defense. There’s a great understanding of how we win plays, how we lose plays in terms of breakdowns.”
Both brainy bald bros are known for strange antics. Canada sometimes likes to put two tackles next to one another on the edge of his offensive line. Aranda frequently used one down linemen with linebackers and defensive backs forming the other 10 while at Utah State and Wisconsin before he came to LSU. He is considering trying that at LSU.
“Do we play with a lack of D-linemen? Do we play with more outside backers in the game? Do we move people around? At Utah State and Wisconsin at times, there’d be one D-linemen on the field, and linebackers and DBs moving around,” Aranda said. “That was out of necessity, too. So I’m not saying we do that here. You’d have to build to that.”
Canada’s creativity is cultivating that of Aranda, who is blending in scores of true freshmen into his defense with veterans leaving after last season such as safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Tre’Davious White – both first round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft – as well as defensive back Dwayne Thomas, middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith and nose tackle Davon Godchaux. Such true freshmen as outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson, inside linebacker Jacob Phillips, safety Grant Delpit and nickel cornerback Kary Vincent Jr. are expected to start or play a lot.
“To battle that way in the spring and be presented with the challenge that Matt offers to new players, and freshmen players, I think we’re very much learning how to swim by being thrown in the water,” Aranda said.
And it gets deep, but Aranda has not asked Canada to take it easy on his unit.
“Oh no,” he said. “I think it’s great for us. It’s very helpful. We’re playing against what we’re presented with daily, which are new things every day. I always wanted to play a triple option team early in the season because it helps our discipline. I think our guys are locked in.”
Coaches strive to make practice harder than the games for obvious reasons, and from a schematic sense that will be the case early this season for the Tigers, who were scheduled to open the season against Brigham Young on Sept. 2 in Houston. But because of Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic impact on the Houston area and throughout southeast Texas, LSU-BYU may be moved to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans or perhaps to Tiger Stadium.
“Early teams we’re playing (BYU, Chattanooga, Mississippi State, Syracuse and Troy after BYU), they don’t do the multitude of stuff that Matt does. They’ll do a few things, but they do it very well. So we have to be right on it,” Aranda said as he snapped his fingers. “We’ve been through a lot with Coach Canada. So when we look at another team, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s all they do?’ And so I think the challenges now become different things.”
Such as execution.
“With Matt, you may get six runs out of an unbalanced formation, five runs out of a tackle-over formation, three new empty plays (single back),” he said. “You get such a multitude of things, you try and be close to it. When you play teams that do a limited amount of things, you’ve got to be right on it because of their timing and execution will be high. That will be a big challenge for us right out the gate.”
Aranda sees Canada’s offense challenging opponents throughout the season.
“I expect it to be successful,” he said. “He’s a great person and has a great mind to him. I think he understands defenses and how they’re built. So he attacks that. I think people are going to have to adjust to play him. I don’t think you can just come out with what you’ve got because he’s going to outnumber you and out-leverage you. It’s going to be fun to watch.”