By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
All due respect to Derrius Guice, Arden Key and Donte Jackson, but Ed Orgeron has already pulled off his most critical re-recruiting job of the offseason.
Hell, maybe of his entire career.
Orgeron managed to keep prized defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in purple and gold despite a second serious push by Texas A&M to hire him away. Aranda turned down the Aggies again and will sign a four-year, fully-guaranteed deal that’ll pay him $2.5 million annually.
The money is astronomical for a defensive coordinator who was already set to be college football’s highest-paid assistant at $1.85 million. Now he’ll make more annually than 75 of the 121 Division I head football coaches listed in the USA Today Salary Database. He’ll even out earn Missouri’s Barry Odom ($2.35 million), a sitting Southeastern Conference head coach.
Given Aranda’s importance to the program, it’s hard to argue that Orgeron and LSU had any choice but to ante up and do anything in their power to keep him.
For starters, Aranda is quite good at what he does. He coordinated a top-five defense last season given a bevy of NFL talent and managed to keep this season’s group together despite a lot of youth and injuries in the front seven. LSU finished No. 14 in scoring defense (18.9 PPG) and No. 12 in total defense (316 YPG) this season.
“Dave is a very instrumental here with what we’re building at LSU,” Orgeron told Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. “He’s one of the best defensive minds in all of football, and he’s an even better person. We’re looking forward to him being at LSU for many years to come.”
Perhaps more importantly, it creates stability and momentum in a critical offseason that appeared to be on the brink of spiraling out of control once news of Texas A&M’s “serious pursuit” broke earlier in the day.
It’s a major victory for Orgeron and the administration following 24 hours of doom and gloom after LSU coughed up the Citrus Bowl in a confounding 21-17 loss to Notre Dame. That defeat had seemingly undone any progress LSU made by winning six of its final seven regular season games and cleaning up during the Early Signing Period.
Not to mention it keeps the Tigers strong on the defensive side of the ball as the offense heads into an offseason of transformation. It’s unclear if the Aranda news changes anything in regards to the impending split with offensive coordinator Matt Canada, but having to replace both — especially with the more prominent one heading to join an SEC West rival — after one season would’ve been a public relations crisis for the Orgeron regime.
Regardless of what happens with Canada, LSU will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2018, and unless Derrius Guice turns down the NFL Draft, the Tigers would be doing so with a brand new crop of running backs and wide receivers. Retaining Aranda figures to keep the defense stout enough to bootstrap the offense through any potential growing pains against a brutal schedule.
Now Aranda can continue to mentor Devin White into one of college football’s elite linebackers while organizing a defense that’s set to return a lot of young talent. White will be flanked by underclassmen Tyler Taylor, Jacob Phillips, K’Lavon Chaisson and Ray Thornton, all of whom showed flashes of good things to come during the Citrus Bowl.
LSU also has the potential to field its best defensive line in years. Rashard Lawrence returns as an anchor at defensive end along with Breiden Fehoko, a highly-touted transfer from Texas Tech who sat out this season. LSU will have Ed Alexander and Tyler Shelvin at nose tackle, too, and signed seven defensive linemen in December to provide a layer of depth that’s been missing in recent seasons.
“I’m excited about people coming in,” Aranda said prior to the Citrus Bowl. “I mean physical, big, explosive guys, and that’s needed. And then I think we’ve got some edge rushers as well. You look at Travez Moore, you look at (Jarell) Cherry, guys that we can put on the edge that can set edges and win one-on-one pass rush. I feel like the (lack of) depth of the D-line that we’ve had this year has been very apparent. When we’ve had depth, it’s been very apparent as well. To build up our front was very important, and I give Coach O a lot of credit for that.”
The secondary figures to remain strong even if cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver declare for the NFL Draft, as is widely expected. Greedy Williams returns off a six-interception season along with safeties John Battle, Grant Delpit and JaCoby Stevens. Kristian Fulton, a former five-star signee, will also be back in the mix.
That defensive backfield could get even stronger if LSU manages to land elite defensive backs Patrick Surtain Jr., and Kelvin Joseph come National Signing Day — presumably a more manageable task with ‘The Professor’ agreeing to remain in his lab.
Orgeron still has plenty of work to do this offseason. He needs to hire a special teams coordinator once the NCAA allows teams to add a 10th full-time assistant later this month. He also must hire a new defensive staffer to take Pete Jenkins’ slot and an offensive staffer should Canada indeed be on the way out. LSU still has four spots to fill in its 2018 signing class heading into the home stretch of the recruiting cycle.
But the coach can attack those tasks with a renewed head of steam knowing his resident defensive mastermind is signed up for the long haul.