This is the season Dave Aranda has been waiting for.
LSU’s defensive mastermind intentionally kept things vanilla in year one because he knew a veteran group would be adjusting to their third coordinator in as many seasons. Personnel deficiencies and youth at key spots made Aranda stick with his base defense again in 2017.
Now in year three — and year two with current crop of core defenders, as Aranda puts it — it seems the coach is expanding his defense both schematically and philosophically to be more like the variable units he coordinated at Wisconsin and other past stops.
“I’m always wary of putting the cart before the horse,” Aranda said earlier this summer. “We have to be fundamentally sound in everything we’re doing and be able to rotate in and out with different people, and that’ll enable us now to have different people come in with different skill sets. We can build it to you. When someone comes in, I can now build it around you. That’s where the defense comes from. We have to see where that goes.”
Generally speaking, LSU operated out of four basic sets through most of the past two seasons. According to an interview LSU linebacker Devin White did with Emily Dixon of LSUsports.net, Aranda installed somewhere in the neighborhood of 42 different plays in the first week of fall camp alone.
“We have a lot more going on,” safety John Battle said. “The last two years we were normally in a simple base defense and didn’t run too much. Having a lot of young guys last year, we couldn’t put a lot in because of the transition from high school to college ball. This year, second year for the guys, they’re starting to understand more.”
So here’s the $2.5 million question: what’s new? Interviews with players at all three levels of the defense provide hints at some of the different ways LSU plans to attack offenses in 2018.
It starts up front, where a healthy Rashard Lawrence, an eligible Breiden Fehoko and the emergence of Glen Logan and Neil Farrell should make for a deeper and more versatile defensive line. Provided they’re healthy, LSU also has space-eating reserve nose tackles in Ed Alexander and Tyler Shelvin.
There’s more of an emphasis on quickness and creating penetration, but LSU will also deploy its defensive line in an array of formations. LSU has implemented two- and four-man fronts in camp in addition to the traditional 3-man front, according to players.
“We’re doing a lot to keep the offense honest and mess up their blocking schemes,” Logan said. “I think that’s something we’ll really use.”
The two-man front is part of a package that Aranda calls the “peso,” which is a more exotic take on the nickel. Instead of the fifth defensive back replacing an outside linebacker, as was standard the past two seasons, there will be five defensive backs, four linebackers and just two linemen.
Alignment tweaks can be made, but generally the two linemen will line up over the guards with two outside linebackers on the edge of the offensive tackles. The inside linebackers still play in the core of the defense.
“When we run a peso front, you have two D-linemen, so Rashard and I will switch who is going to be the three-technique or the 2I on the nose,” Fehoko said. “So we have to have a lot of versatility along the line and be able to play multiple positions.”
The benefit of the package is twofold. First off, it allows LSU to put more athletes on the field that are capable of playing in space. Secondly, it allows Aranda to be less predictable in how and where he can bring pressure.
Aranda will make use of the abundance of athletic outside linebackers LSU has accrued in recruiting since Ed Orgeron took over as head coach. Instead of building a gameplan around Arden Key, as Aranda did when the All-American was healthy, he can mix and match with a number of edge rushers.
K’Lavon Chaisson seems poised to breakout — White predicted he’d break Key’s single-season sack record of 12. Orgeron has singled out Michael Divinity as one of the stars of fall camp on the other side. Ray Thornton, Andre Anthony and JUCO transfer Travez Moore can also play roles. Dantrieze Scott and Jarell Cherry are talented freshmen that LSU can afford to bring along slowly.
“That’s a deep room right there,” Fehoko said. “You’ve got guys that can rush the edge and drop back into coverage, and you don’t just have one or two guys who can do it, they all can do it. Everyone’s so young, too. That’s such a good thing to know there’s a lot of talent in that room.”
Players say the defensive linemen and outside linebackers have been working in concert more in fall camp. Whether it’s practicing run fits or rush combinations, they’ve been spotted working together during the individual drills portions of practice with Orgeron and defensive line coach Dennis Johnson.
“We’ve got to be on page because there’s a lot of communication,” Logan said. “If we don’t communicate, it’s definitely not going to work. There’s going to be a big bust. You’ll end up in the same hole or somebody will forget to contain.”
The other big difference is the assortment of options LSU has at the nickel back position, which was an issue last season. Kary Vincent and Xavier Lewis saw time there early in the season before LSU eventually slid Donte Jackson inside in passing situations.
Vincent, converted safety Kelvin Joseph and graduate transfer Terrence Alexander are competing to win the job along with a bevy of safeties that LSU is rotating all over the field. Battle said that he, Grant Delpit, Eric Monroe, JaCoby Stevens and others have worked in the nickel in camp.
Battle added that the two safety positions have become more interchangeable and that he could see four or five different players rotating in this season.
“We’re just rotating around a lot and trying to see who fits the position best,” Battle said.
The end game of all these additions is to create a more attacking, ball-hawking defense. LSU ranked No. 70 nationally with 18 takeaways last season, and Aranda plans to up that number by pairing an unpredictable pass rush with a playmaking-intensive approach on the back end.
“We’re working on creating more turnovers,” Battle said. “We want to be a top defense, and to do that we have to have more turnovers than we’ve had in previous years.”