Let's say I'm the benevolent dictator of the LSU football program for the next 8 months. While I think it would be awesome to do that, and I think it would benefit LSU if they really would do that, I'm not exactly expecting that phone call. I'd love to get it, but I'm not expecting it.
If I'm the benevolent dictator of the LSU program, my first line of business is to tell everyone on the defense that they're going to have to re-earn their jobs. All jobs are up for grabs and it is open competition. All mistakes from the past are wiped away, but so are all accomplishments. This would be a lie, or at least a fib, but it's still what I would tell them.
You see, the LSU defense needs two things that I can identify:
- Playmakers, and
- A shot of energy
The first order of business is to identify the playmakers. I think right now I can identify 2 or perhaps 3 playmakers on the defense, 4 or 5 if you're being generous. Whoever I identify, I make certain those guys are on the field, in their natural positions if possible, but moving them around if necessary.
Just from where I sit, I think we have two guys who are pretty clearly playmakers on the defense: Rahim Alem and Patrick Peterson. We need more. I strongly suspect that if I put Chad Jones in one spot and leave him on the field, he will be a playmaker, but I don't just give it to him. He has to earn it.
Personally, I think Chad Jones should just be a safety. He struggles in one-on-one coverage, but his size and athleticism make him perfect for flying to the ball, and great at being over-the-top help. The problem is, because he has been stuck in some nickel/dime position his whole career, we have really rarely seen it. Give him a shot at one of the safety spots and see if his play becomes more consistent.
Another guy who looks like a playmaker is linebacker Ryan Baker. He's a little small, but he is a lightning quick missile to the football on special teams. Starting next year, I think he's probably a guy who we need on the field. I don't care if there are veterans available at the position. Experience does not beat out great athleticism when we're trying to combat spread teams and cover fast tight ends with linebackers. I try to verify this by watching him in practice and seeing how he handles the responsibility, but I enter the position of Benevolent Dictator with every thought that Ryan Baker is going to be my weak-side linebacker.
The last position I feel fairly confident in is Drake Nevis at defensive tackle. The guy has been a disruptive force on the inside whenever he's gotten into the game. It's time to get him in the game more. Here's a guy who went long stretches without playing a down. I anticipate that under my benevolent leadership, that would not happen again. I don't know if his endurance can handle playing 50 plays a game, and if it can't I adjust, but for right now I would anticipate him getting the majority of the snaps at one tackle position.
So, I think I may have identified five potential cornerstone type guys on my defense. Rahim Alem mans my right side defensive end spot. Drake Nevis is my disrupting defensive tackle. Patrick Peterson is my lock down corner. Chad Jones is one of my safeties (don't know which one yet). Ryan Baker is my weak-side linebacker.
It would be great if, in my observations of all the players trying their best to win spots, I could identify at least one or two more. Jai Eugene looked pretty good at times this year. Maybe he can step up to the next level. Brandon Taylor gets rave reviews in practice. Maybe he's my other lock down corner or maybe a nickel/dime back. Karnell Hatcher looked pretty good in a limited role; maybe he needs a bigger one. Is Lavar Edwards another playmaker at defensive tackle? Is Chancey Aghayere back from injury and ready to show he was really a 5-star player like a lot of people said?
After we've identified the playmakers, we fill in around them. Here, we just identify the best players available and we get them in. If there's a position of weakness, I don't at all mind moving players out of position to fill it in. I move players from small to big, however. Not the other way around. A defensive end can move inside to play defensive tackle if we have a problem at defensive tackle. A tackle cannot move outside to end; he will be too slow. An end can't move out to linebacker. A linebacker can't move to safety. A safety can't move to corner. While it's never optimal to be out of position, it's much better of your problem is "not big enough and can't tackle as well as a player in his position should" rather than "is slow and gets beaten a lot in space". At least, in the modern version of the SEC, that's the case.
A corollary is that there will be no more experiments in asking safeties to cover wide receivers one-on-one on a regular basis. That means that a corner will be our nickel back. Maybe a corner-safety hybrid like Phelon Jones, but under no circumstances will I allow our team to put a safety in position to consistently fail by asking him to cover Percy Harvin one-on-one on a regular basis.
Alright, after identifying my players to fill in between the playmakers, I install a different defensive system. Read-and-react systems are the norm in the NFL, where the constant coaching allows players to get really good at it, and aggressive style of play just leads to Peyton Manning destroying you. However, in college you can look on any given Saturday and see that the best defenses are the ones that play aggressively and take the initiative away from the offense. I go to a system like that.
Or rather, I hire a defensive coordinator who will go to a system like that. Obviously, I am not a defensive coordinator. Soft zones, big cushions on receivers, and wide receivers breaking into their route unimpeded would be a thing of the past. Make quarterbacks try to adjust to a wide receiver not being able to get into his route cleanly. Don't just follow a wide receiver around. Make him work to get where he needs to go. And in the meantime, get to the quarterback.
I think I can identify at least one major problem in LSU's pass defense. A quarterback goes up to the line of scrimmage expecting to see certain things after the ball is snapped. He expects that at a certain count after the ball is snapped, his receivers will all be in certain spots on the field. My task as benevolent dictator is to try to make sure those receivers aren't there. They're somewhere else, either having to adjust a route, or a little behind where they should be. Make the quarterback adjust, and then get into his head that his receivers aren't going to be where they should be. Don't let him get comfortable.
In the NFL, if you do that all the time, the quarterbacks (who are not getting distracted by such petty concerns as "class" and are watching film CONSTANTLY) would eat you alive if you tried bump and run all the time, but in college the defense seems to have the advantage when they play more aggressively. I think it's because the offensive players don't have the practice/film time to really take advantage of the vulnerabilities inherent in an aggressive defense.
So, that's my benevolently dictatorial plan for the defense. Another day, we will tackle to the offense, so to speak.