The 2016 season is set up to be a pretty big deal for LSU football. The Tigers have one of the best teams in the country returning. Eighteen starters back, a record for the Les Miles Era. A special recruiting class, including five freshmen that are already enrolled. There is a real undercurrent of change and excitement moving through the football ops building, and we're going to begin to see those effects on the Tigers through the spring practices that begin on Monday.
So where do we begin? Is it with the usual quarterback question marks? Oh sure, that's a big deal, but our eyes are going to be on the other side of the ball, as the Tigers begin to transition to new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
LSU has been primarily a 4-3 team for the last 15 seasons or so, from Nick Saban's defense through Bo Pelini and John Chavis. Ease of that transition was a part of why Kevin Steele was hired last season, so Aranda moving this defense to more of a 3-4 type of look represents the most substantive change this program has ever undertaken in the Les Miles Era.
There will be new roles for players -- this would typically be where I'd trot out a depth chart, but to be honest, I don't really know how things are going to be defined yet -- and a new attacking mindset from a coordinator that wants to constantly create mismatches and pressure in the backfield.
So what does that all mean? We'll try to answer that here, in some big-picture terms.
Aranda was somewhat cagey on the specifics of the scheme he wanted to run in his opening press conference, and for good reason, as its always smart to get a feel for your personnel before announcing hard plans, and that was still very much in flux at the time until the NFL Draft entrants were finalized. But a few weeks later, Miles made mention of a transition to an "Okie" defense in his National Signing Day presser. Okie is a common nickname for the 3-4 that derives from the 5-2 defensive front that the Bud Wilkinson Oklahoma Sooners used in the 1950s. It features five defensive linemen heads up on the offensive line, with two linebackers. Eventually teams began to stand up the two outside defenders in order to make them a little more versatile, and the 3-4 was born.
In specific terms, the Okie 3-4 front is what most of us tend to think of as the classic 3-4 that we've seen from teams like the New England Patriots or Dick Lebeau Steelers over the years. It's also known as the "Eagle" front.
Three big defensive linemen playing two-gap techniques -- a nose lined up in the "zero" tech position, nose-to-nose with the center, and two "4i" defensive ends aligned on the inside shoulders of the offensive tackles -- plus a pair of edge-rushing outside linebackers and two big inside ‘backers that largely control the interior running game.
It's a defense that fewer teams play nowadays because frankly, it's become harder to find the right personnel: a massive nose guard, a pair of big, strong defensive ends that can play two-gap but still move in space on zone-blitzes, big and physical inside linebackers that can take on blocks in the running game but still drop into coverage, plus not just one, but two big, athletic edge pass-rusher types.
Finding those players is an even more difficult task at the college level, and LSU doesn't have enough of them right now on defense. Players like Arden Key and Lewis Neal could easily transition to end/linebacker positions, but there's only one linebacker of any experience that fits inside, and a two-gap scheme would be a poor use of most of LSU's defensive tackles. So while yes, Miles did mention Okie by name, chances are that's probably just a piece of catch-all jargon for the 3-4.
Instead, look for Aranda to start out with more of an "under" shift in the front. If that sounds familiar, it should, as it's similar to the style LSU ran under Kevin Steele last season, only out of the 4-3 defense versus the 3-4.
As you can see in these two diagrams, the main difference is that in the 3-4, the end man on the line of scrimmage on the weak side of the formation plays in a two-point stance, as a linebacker, versus in a three-point stance as a true defensive end in the 4-3.
The fronts are virtually identical otherwise, with one defensive tackle in a shaded nose position on the center's outside shoulder (a one technique), another tackle in the three-technique position on the weak-side guard's outside shoulder, a defensive end in a five-tech spot on the strong-side tackle's outside shoulder and the SAM linebacker on the line of scrimmage.
Likewise, it's also a one-gap defense, primarily.
Each defender has only one gap to manage, which helps make a defense teachable and allows players to play fast without worrying about multiple responsibilities. This one-gap 3-4 style has been very successful in the NFL under Wade Phillips, including with this year's Super Bowl champion Broncos, and a modified version of it is what Nick Saban's been running at Alabama as well.
In terms of personnel, the transition shouldn't be too hard. As previously mentioned, Key and Neal should transition to the OLB positions on either side, with Kendell Beckwith inside and Davon Godchaux in the three-tech position. The questions begin at the nose, five-tech end position and that third linebacker spot. Christian LaCouture and Greg Gilmore played the one-tech position last year and both showed the ability to play two gaps at times, something an under front needs on occasion to help keep both safeties free in coverage, but would both move into the starting lineup to provide that versatility? Or would somebody like Tashawn Bower take that strong-side end spot? Frank Herron seems like a better fit as a backup three-tech to Godchaux. Even in a one-gap defense, the strong-side end needs to be more of a physical player in the running game, and that's something Neal struggled with at times, although he was dangerous as a pass-rusher.
Likewise, aside from true freshman Michael Divinity, the other scholarship linebackers are more undersized types like Duke Riley, Donnie Alexander and Devin Voorhies.
Of course, all of these questions are kind of cart-before-the-horse with Aranda. While the roles are important, this spring will likely be more about Aranda establishing the principles that he wants to instill on the defense. From a teaching perspective it's about laying down the bedrock -- the formulas before the facts and figures of the problems themselves.
We've talked a lot about simplicity on offense here, but it's even more important on defense. Players have to be able to read keys and attack the football quickly, and if they're thinking about multiple responsibilities that will not happen. Quoting Aranda himself:
"I think so much of football is playing with a clear mind and I think the less checks you have, the less double calls you have. Meaning versus this you're playing; if it's pro, we're playing this, if it's slot, we're playing this. The less empty checks you have, the more play; it's this call, this is what it is and no matter what they line up in, is what we're playing.
"And then that, combined with -- in the past, we've been a field defense, so we get guy aligned to the field, get guys aligned to the boundary. It's been very simple. I think that's been key, because it allows guys to play fast.
"Within that structure, you're talking about how now everyone has a job, everyone has a 1/11th that they pretty much have to do, and I think that 1/11th is easier to comprehend and easier to complete when it's simpler on the front end, when I'm lined up here, this is whatever happens back there, doesn't affect me, and I can play. So that's what it's been, whether it's been at Hawai'i, at Utah State, at Wisconsin and we're obviously looking at that here. So I'm excited moving forward."
Aranda also talked about things like the idea of "safe pressure" and using a front seven to create specific mismatches and attack an offense's protection versus pass plays. This video from Big Ten Network details some of that:
As you see there, Wisconsin used just two down linemen and movement to create an open rushing lane and the mismatch they wanted. As Aranda and these defenders figure out how they want to work together and become more comfortable, that creativity will begin to show itself.
We know that there are some versatile defenders on this team that can play multiple roles like Tre'davious White, Jamal Adams, Donte Jackson, Beckwith, Neal, Key and Godchaux. We saw a little of that in the Texas Bowl:
Here we see LSU using a three-man line of Neal, Godchaux and Key, with Beckwith in a two-point stance on the line of scrimmage, Adams in a nickel/dime position and White back at safety. With four very quick defenders up front who were at their best getting up the field, Steele gave Texas Tech hell with a lot of stunts and movement from LSU's front in that game. Look for that to continue.
As for the "safe pressure" aspect of the defense, that usually entails zone coverage. Given Aranda's preference to keep schemes simple and avoid a lot of checks -- something that was definitely an issue under Steele -- it wouldn't surprise me if he transitions to the current trend of more secondaries using a cover-four, or quarters, look with pattern-matching.
Chris Brown detailed the basics of how Michigan State has used this coverage look under Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi, but Bud Foster's Virgnia Tech defenses and Alabama have made heavy use of this style as well. It also goes back to some of the Jimmy Johnson/Dave Wannestedt Cowboys defenses in the early 90s.
In short, cover-four usually means the cornerbacks and safeties splitting the field into four deep zones. Now, the average fan may hear four-deep coverage and jump to "soft coverage prevent bullshit," but more and more teams are playing this style with a man-to-man sensibility. The outside cornerbacks roll up in press coverage, and while they still maintain deep leverage (i.e., bail out and don't let the receiver get behind you), they also have the freedom to break on the ball short and to their outside. They just have help on in-breaking routes. The safeties, as Brown details, have a bit more of a challenge, maintaining enough depth in case the inside receiver they align over breaks deep but still having responsibilities against the run. Of course, it helps having a pair of veterans like Adams and Ricky Jefferson in those spots.
Ultimately, we're all still in the dark on what changes Aranda will bring to this defense. To date, most sources indicate he's been less imposing and more quizzical in terms of trying to figure out what has worked for the Tigers and what his other assistants and the players themselves want this defense to be, and how to mesh that with his own values as a coach. That offers a lot of potential variables, but a variation off an odd front and an emphasis on more pressure seem to be the safest bets.
And watching it begin to unfold over the next six weeks should be a lot of fun.