After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he’s had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we’ll talk about some of those issues.
In this week’s installment, we return to the defensive front seven to discuss one of the other players that may have the most to gain in terms of NFL prospects from defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Namely, inside linebacker Kendell Beckwith becoming a more consistent, regular playmaker in 2016.
Entering the 2015 season, we had some high expectations for Kendell Beckwith as the lead playmaker in LSU’s defense. And while I hesitate to call 84 tackles and 10 tackles for loss a disappointment, it wasn’t quite the big step forward that we expected in his first full season as the starting MIKE in the Tigers’ 4-3 defense.
Beckwith had a good season, but it wasn’t quite the greatness that we thought he flashed over the second half of 2014. He seemed to struggle with teams that forced him to move more beyond the tackle box. Teams that liked to run wide, or spread teams that could isolate him in coverage. His best games came in spurts: Mississippi State, Florida, Western Kentucky, plus a huge bowl game with 8 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks against Texas Tech.
It was the lack of consistent big plays that really stand out; all 10 of Beckwith’s tackles behind the line came in LSU’s wins, while the Tigers’ three losses featured goose eggs in every category beyond tackles. Beckwith disappeared, even in games like the Alabama and Arkansas games that would have seemed more in his wheelhouse in terms of style.
Enter Aranda and a transition from the MIKE in a 4-3 to the MACK in a 3-4, where Beckwith will align to the field side and share inside duties with the Rover linebacker. Right out the shoot, that should mean less ground to cover for Beckwith. In the 4-3, the ideal middle linebacker can really roam sideline to sideline -- which is why you typically saw John Chavis value speed at the expense of size at times. In a 3-4, inside linebackers typically only have to read the inside gaps, but that also means size is a bit more of a premium, as they are more likely to have to deal with lead blockers or linemen that have tracked to the second level of the defense. But that aligns much more with Beckwith’s skill set. He’s a big, strong athlete that played nearly every position in high school and was originally considered a defensive end prospect by Chavis, so thumping away inside should be a better fit.
The outside linebackers, who set the edge against the run and usually have the best pass-rush matchups, tend to be the big-play linebackers in a 3-4 defense, but that’s where Aranda’s pressure-oriented style comes in. Derek Landisch totaled 16 tackles for loss and nine sacks from the inside position in 2014, and inside linebackers at other stops like Utah State and Hawaii have put up similar numbers -- it’s a defense that is designed to isolate matchups and attack the offense’s protections. That means that there could be opportunities for all four linebacker positions, regardless of the field or boundary side of the defense.
And again, we saw this potential out of Beckwith in the bowl game, as Kevin Steele experimented with a variation of a 3-2-6 dime defense that had No. 52 roll down into a standing outside linebacker spot on the strong side. That was the primary position that Beckwith was able to get his sacks from, as he was really able to rush all-out while Arden Key contained the extremely mobile Patrick Mahomes from the back side.
Aranda’s defense will offer a little more variety in this regard, in terms of alignments and which gaps Beckwith will come through. Occasionally, the Mack linebacker will even stand over the center to create something of a bear front. You see it on sack No. 3 in this sequence, which just about every LSU fan has probably seen since Aranda was hired:
Still, coaches aren’t wizards. Aranda can only work to put Beckwith in the positions, it’s for him to try and make the plays. And if he can provide a more consistent, down-to-down presence in the middle of the defense, it will put opponents behind the chains more often and create even more big-play opportunities for his teammates.