By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
ORLANDO, Fla. — It took spending Christmas morning with his wife and children to pull Dave Aranda away from preparing for a Citrus Bowl date with Notre Dame.
Well, for a few hours, at least.
LSU’s ace defensive coordinator has spent the better part of a month working up a gameplan as the Tigers prepare to take on the Fighting Irish at Camping World Stadium here in Orlando on Monday afternoon. But not even Santa Claus could keep him from his iPad and bowl preparations for long.
“It’s hard to just chill,” Aranda said during a Citrus Bowl press conference Friday morning. “Christmas morning we were able to hang out, and the kids were real excited about opening up presents and all that. But then I think by 1:00 we were back at it.”
Nicknamed ‘The Professor’ for good reason, Aranda famously returned from Christmas break last December armed with a notebook jam-packed with prep work. His defense put it to good use, sacking Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson eight times in a 29-9 smothering of Louisville.
His film studies when given multiple weeks to deep dive into a single opponent have become the stuff of legend around Baton Rouge since last year’s Citrus Bowl. Aranda admits his greatest challenge sometimes is to not be so consumed by minor details that he can’t see the forest amid the trees.
“I do enjoy it. There’s a part of me that says if that’s all it could be, I’d be alright with that,” Aranda said. “But the other part, the realistic part of it, is when it gets to this time, it can be a little bit too long because you start being concerned with too many details. The challenge at this point is just to go out and play. This is the meat and potatoes, this is what they do. The other stuff, if they do it, we know about it and we can make an adjustment on the field.”
Linebacker Devin White, Aranda’s star pupil and LSU’s defensive leader, put it best: “I almost hate that he’s had so long because I know Coach has been staying up and his wife was like ‘Man, you’ve got to come to bed and get some sleep.’ He always wants to be perfect. He wants everything to fit accordingly.”
However, the Notre Dame offense Aranda has spent weeks learning inside and out presents a far different challenge than the explosiveness of Jackson — and not necessarily one that can be out-schemed, either.
The Fighting Irish’s meat and potatoes are more meat and potatoes than many of the finesse, spread-style attacks LSU has slowed down during Aranda’s two-year tenure. It’s a blue collar, Midwestern offensive line that earned the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the nation’s best offensive line.
That front five has plowed the way through Notre Dame’s 9-3 campaign to secure a Citrus Bowl berth. Coupled with bruising tailback Josh Adams and dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame ranked seventh nationally in rushing yards (279.08) and third in yards per carry (6.37) heading into bowl season.
The left side of the line features a pair of consensus All-Americans and future first-round picks in left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson. ESPN’s Todd McShay and Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller both rank McGlinchey as the No. 2 tackle prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft and Nelson as the top offensive guard.
What’s stuck with Aranda after hours of film study is that despite all of that star power, the Notre Dame offensive line is still greater than the sum of its talented parts.
“The physicality of their blocks pop off the film. You see double teams and guys are driven off the ball. That’s very apparent when you watch the tape,” Aranda said. “Then you watch the cohesion of everything. When you watch an offensive line, any time you see there’s one-on-one blocks — let’s say there’s a combo block here but a one-on-one here — you don’t see five guys in sync working as one. We’d look at that as a weakness. But when you’ve got five guys working in unison, that’s very daunting. That shows up right away with these guys.
“They won the award for the best O-line. The other finalists were Auburn and Alabama. There’s only one team that’s going to play all of them, and we accept that challenge. We’re looking forward to it.”
Even a cerebral tactician like Aranda knows there’s no substitute for good old-fashion physicality when it comes to winning the battle in the trenches.
Ed Orgeron dide his part to prepare LSU for that aspect, White said, with a series of physical practices before taking off for Orlando. Lots of “thudding up,” as he put it, with everybody now chomping at the bit to hit somebody who isn’t on their team.
However, the Tigers are heading into this slugfest a bit shorthanded in the front seven. Starting linebackers Arden Key, Donnie Alexander and Corey Thompson have already been ruled out for the Citrus Bowl due to various injuries.
But LSU does have White, the Southeastern Conference’s leading tackler this season, and a fully-healthy defensive line. White paid proper respect to the Notre Dame running game, but said that LSU has more than enough healthy bodies to rise up and meet the challenge.
“They’re a good team, but we’ve got guys like Rashard Lawrence, Ed Alexander and Christian LaCouture,” White said. “They’ve been battling SEC offensive linemen all year, so at the end of the day, I just feel like it’s another line that we’ve got to face and we’ve got to be ready for.
“They’ve got some guys that are going to be drafted pretty high, so if our guys dominate them, that’ll tell you a lot about our guys up front.”
White is counting on his mates up front to hold their own and allow him to freely pursue the ball carrier as he has all season long. That would set up collisions early and often between White, a tackling machine, and Adams, a runaway freight train of a tailback if allowed to generate a full head of steam.
The Citrus Bowl seems destined to be decided by the matchup of Notre Dame’s running game against LSU’s defensive front. The head-to-head battle between White and Adams will be a fascinating game within the game.
Aranda credits White for taking on a leadership role unlike any sophomore he’s coached before. Earlier this season, when LSU was going through some defensive struggles, he said it was White who held others accountable and challenged teammates to prepare the way that’s necessary to be a dominant unit.
“If we didn’t have Devin White, we couldn’t do 3/4 of what we’re doing,” Aranda said. “When we rotate in and out of practice with our reps, you know, there’s freshmen linebackers that go in, and it’s just — sometimes it’s like crickets … Devin is the quarterback of our defense.”
That’ll be put to the test Monday as he takes the field without his three fellow starting linebackers. Freshmen Tyler Tylor and K’Lavon Chaisson and sophomore Mike Divinity are expected to start in place of the veterans with fellow youngsters Jacob Philips and Ray Thornton likely to play extensively as well.
That’s perfectly fine with White.
“I enter the game thinking it’s LSU versus the world,” White said. “It’s only us. The only team I see is LSU, and I know this team is just another team in front of us that we’ve got to pass through to get to where we want to go. Our ship ready, and we’re taking all prisoners. If you’re in our way, we’ve got to roll you over.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
|Notre Dame Offense (Nat’l rank)
|LSU Defense (Nat’l rank)
|Rush Yards Per Game
|Yards Per Carry