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Addition by Addition: How LSU’s Defense Will Improve in Year 2 Of Dave Aranda

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The best defensive coordinator in college football will take LSU to new heights in 2017.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State Spring Game Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

In the quiet of New Year’s Night 2016, LSU hired Dave Aranda away from the Wisconsin Badgers to run their defense. After a head-scratching search the previous season, which lead to the hiring of Kevin Steele and Ed Orgeron, and Steele’s even more head-scratching departure, a year following John Chavis’ head scratching departure, LSU finally found their man. Without clamor or attraction, much like the coach’s personality, Aranda was tabbed; the fanbase rejoiced.

Aranda himself doesn’t represent the typical coach stereotypes. He’s quiet and introspective. He doesn’t yell nor ever appear to be flustered. He’s foremost a teacher that just so happens to be an expert in football. He’s able to quickly assess parts in motion, deconstruct their essence and utilize their very construction against their creators. He speaks confidently, assuredly, to his subjects. Never condescending, always instructing. And his mentality will take LSU’s defense to new heights in 2017.

Setting the Stage

John Chavis coached six roughly uninterrupted years of defensive brilliance in Baton Rouge. Tapped in 2009, after a failed co-coordinator experiment, Chavis took a defense which ranked 33rd in the S&P+ in 2008 up 10 spots to 23rd in 2009, despite no glaring personnel additions. Most encouragingly, the defense simply passed the eyeball test in his first season in Baton Rouge. No more confusion on the back end. Now players hurried to the football. Better maintained and understood assignments. Fans quibble about some end of half and end of game failures during his tenure, but take a look at the overall picture:

Chavis at LSU

Year S&P+ Total Defense Scoring Defense YPP Allowed
Year S&P+ Total Defense Scoring Defense YPP Allowed
2009 23rd 26th 11th 15th
2010 13th 12th 11th 22nd
2011 2nd 2nd 2nd 2nd
2012 7th 8th 12th 7th
2013 35th 15th 21st 27th
2014 9th 9th 4th 18th

Even in years of regression, LSU essentially bottomed out as one of the nation’s top 25 defenses. That’s a low floor with a lot of high ceilings, like the truly superb group of 2011 and a stellar follow up in 2012. Though frustrations existed, he was not a coordinator any rational fan was looking to rush out the door.

Chavis’ departure was met with the equally unsatisfying hiring of Kevin Steele, who promptly returned LSU to Malleveto form, back-end confusion and busted assignments included. When news bubbled that Steele was looking to bolt, you couldn’t find many voices begging him to remain. Steele covered many of the areas where Chavis lacked (recruiting), but suffered in, well, basically everything else.

In some ways, both were two pieces of the same pie. They are staunchly members of the old guard. Though Chavis developed schemes that allowed LSU to thrive against spread offenses while other defenses floundered (ahem, Alabama), the defense began to suffer against more physical foes. Steele brought with him none of the game-planning wizardry and coaching fundamentals the Chief instilled, but strengthened LSU’s overall roster depth and flexibility, something that sorely began to lack under Chavis. All of this set the stage for the arrival of Aranda, a man who could fully harness the potential of a stock loaded roster, matching a modern scheme with a classic physicality.

All The Players There Within

Much of the focus on the 2017 defense has been on replacing departed stars like Jamal Adams and Tre White, as well as dependable, proven veterans like Davon Godchaux and Duke Riley came to be. Phil Steele lists LSU with just 5 returning defensive starters, with only Arden Key eliciting major excitement. A cursory analysis suggests LSU is due for a regression, potentially a major one if Key is not right until later in the season. Let’s take a quick glance at last year’s depth chart:

DE: Neal, Key, Bower

DT: Gilmore, Godchaux, Herron, Alexander, Lawrence

OLB: Riley

ILB: Beckwith, Alexander, White

CB: White, Jackson, Toliver II

S: Adams, Jefferson, Thomas, Battle

These were the 19 players who saw the most time for LSU on defense last season. Nineteen is not an incredibly strong number. Remember, Aranda came to LSU with the reputation for being a 3-4 guru, something LSU’s personnel had not yet been equipped to run. He experimented with Key as an outside linebacker early on, before transitioning back to more of a pure pass rushing role with his hand in the dirt. Bower rotated between end and linebacker responsibilities, really stretching the limits of his talents. Neal was asked to adapt to a new role that didn’t suit his skills or flash the pass rushing prowess seen just a season before. Sure, guys like Beckwith, Adams and White adapt seamlessly to every system, but in a lot of ways Aranda took a limited hand and made the best he could with it. Turns out, that’s pretty damn good. LSU ranked third in the S&P+ in defense, 5th in scoring defense, and 10th in total defense and yards per play allowed. All without adequate depth or ideal personnel for his scheme.

The Limits of Possibility

LSU fans imagined Aranda extrapolating his scheme on top of their athletes and saw visions of sugar plums in their heads. Most expected to see elaborate and confusing blitz packages, the type which riddled Cody Kessler, a 3,500 yard passer, helpless in the 2015 Holiday Bowl.

Instead, the aforementioned lack of depth limited Aranda’s creativity. Aranda himself confessed that last year “we played a very basic style.” He added on that “we’ve been dominated by d-linemen, dominated by DBs. Some of that is going to change in terms of who we’ve got coming back and what their strengths are.”

Recently, Aranda sat down with the Voice of the Tigers, Chris Blair, on LSU Sports Insider, for an interview worth your time:

Though it’s obvious no coach will take the podium before the season and say they don’t like their team, Aranda drops some interesting and insightful comments into this interview with Blair. Beyond name dropping guys he expects to contribute (more on this in a moment), Aranda waxes on his philosophy:

It’s always players first...

...As opposed to drawing up things and getting schemes input and utilized, it’s more, “What do we have?” “Who do we got?” “What are they best at?” The team that we are playing: “who are the weaker players?” Let’s get our best guy on their weakest guy.

He goes into coaching at Utah State where they had lots of talented DBs, so played mostly dime. At Wisconsin, they had huge linemen, so they played big up front and in time put in more LBs as they recruited. Then on to LSU last year:

We ran very few 3-4 concepts, because our recruiting base at the time and our structure at the time was more down people, Lewis Neal and Godchaux and those things, and we let those guys go. And I think the strength of our team was that and the strength of our coaches was that.... so let’s rely on that.

Every year it’s gonna be different though, based on who you have... and I think we are still very much in the who we are stage.

And then on scheme potential and strengths for 2017:

Outside linebackers. I think we’ve got a lot of that body type. And then, there’s even some inside linebackers that can fit that mold. Long, lean, that can rush, can drop. I think a year ago, with Corey being injured, and you know we had Arden and Tashawn Bower really made some plays for us. I’m really proud of how he finished the year. But there was times when playing in space, he really had to work hard on that. And to his credit he did. But I don’t think he was necessarily planning on doing that when he signed up to come to LSU. So we worked on it.

And then he hits the high note:

Whereas I think now we have guys that can do that naturally... that can play in space and that can rush the passer. So that gives you a flexibility of having a bunch of athletes on the field. You know, “who’s comin’, who ain’t comin’? who’s rushin’ who’s droppin’?

So whether it’s Arden Key, whether it’s Rahssan Thornton, whether it’s K’Lavon Chaisson, you have a bunch of guys, you know Andre Anthony, you’ve got Jacob Phillips, Tyler Taylor... you’ve got guys you can stand out there and move them around. This play he’s a down guy; this play he’s outside linebacker rushing, this play he’s an outside guy dropping. So I think you have that ability to do that. The question mark behind it and why I can’t say we’re doing that now is that they we’re young and some of them just got here. I’m excited to get to work with it, though.

Aranda’s comments are entirely illuminating. Not only does he adapt his scheme to the strengths of his personnel, that personnel is also being built into a more versatile, dangerous unit. Last year, LSU fielded two entirely playable LBs, were forced to move Key back to DL, while shoe-horning Bower into the role at times and slowly bringing along Devin White and Donnie Alexander. This season, LSU will have a more fully formed Key, with ready to play White and Alexander (who has reportedly taken on quite a leadership role), along with a host of young players that have never seen the field but possess the athletic abilities that afford flexibility.

Take a look now at a chart of players that can be reasonably expected to contribute heavily in 2017 :

DE: LaCouture, Herron, Lawrence

DT: Gilmore, Alexander, Shelvin

OLB: Key, Thompson, Thornton, Anthony, Chaisson, Martin

ILB: White, Alexander, Phillips, Taylor, Queen

Now, all 17 of these guys won’t become heavy contributors, but it’s a pool that’s at least five larger for LSU to draw from than last year.

CB: Jackson, Toliver II, Williams, Fulton, Vincent Jr.

S: Battle, Paris, Delpit, Lewis

That’s a total core of 26 players mentioned by Aranda or Orgeron as potential contributors in 2017. Not only is their a higher volume of contributors, there’s greater flexibility in style.

Yes, But the Youths

The constant refrain here, and what will give most caution, is that this is reliant on a tremendous number of young players to be contributors. I think there’s a few reasons to not be overly concerned about youth.

Firstly, this is actually an older team. There may be a mixture of playing experience, but LaCouture, Gilmore, Herron, Key, Alexander, Battle, Toliver II, Jackson and Thompson, all presumed starters or known heavy contributors are upper classmen. When 9 of your 11 starters are Juniors or older, the inexperience factor begins to wane. These are guys that have been around the program and know what it takes. In some case, like Herron, Alexander and possibly Ed Paris, they are talented recruits settling into this being their final shot. We’ve seen players like Debo and Duke thrive in similar circumstances. That much veteran presence should more than cover for the spots where young talent will truly need to step up.

Secondly, not Aranda’s first rodeo. Wisconsin returned only 3 starters in 2014. They finished the season ranked 21st in S&P+, fourth in total defense, 21st in yards per play allowed and and 17th in scoring defense. It bears repeating, Aranda did this with walk-ons and other assorted low ranked talent. The young players Aranda will be forced to rely upon at LSU are all former four- and five-star talents.

A Little From A Lot Instead of A Lot From A Little

Last year, LSU turned to their stars to make plays and hoped the rest of the unit would hold up. Duke Riley shocked by turning himself into a legitimate NFL draft pick, while the rest of the defense mostly depended on Arden Key, Jamal Adams, Kendall Beckwith and Tre White making plays. Players like Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower were ill-suited for the type of flexible schemes Aranda preferred, and yet he found ways to make them useful, competent players. LSU struggled to find a 2nd corner as both Jackson and Toliver were inconsistent throughout the year, and suffered injuries at the 2nd safety spot, leaving the position in consistent limbo. Throw in the last season injury to Kendall Beckwith, and it’s fair to say that LSU made the most with a talented, though lacking in depth defense. They needed to get a lot from a little, and they did.

In 2017, Aranda will be able to diversify his scheme and personnel. Increased depth and roster versatility will allow this defense to build on the foundation laid in 2016 into an entirely different animal in 2017. Though individual stars may not be as prevalent, expect to see contributions from a host of players in various, creative roles. No longer will LSU be solely reliant on Key to get to the passer, as they introduce more players with outside rush ability.

This will be the year we see the defense we expected when Aranda was hired. This is addition by addition. Sit back and enjoy the show. Dave Aranda is just getting started.