Ever since Nick Saban took over in Baton Rouge back in 2000, the Bayou Bengals have been marked by dominant defenses. LSU is arguably the easiest program in the country to consistently field great defenses thanks to the absurd talent that can be found within the state and LSU's near monopoly on said prospects.
The last five recruiting classes that will make up the vast majority of the 2016 roster will include 20 former blue-chip (four-star or higher) defensive players out of the Tigers' home state. In 2016, LSU signed eight such players, including five-star CB Kristian Fulton and five-star DT Rashard Lawrence.
After Auburn stole LSU DC Kevin Steele this offseason, Wisconsin's Dave Aranda was chosen to inherit this embarrassment of defensive riches and bring his "less is more" pressure packages and designs to LSU. He's going to be in for a shock when he goes from coaching Badger players to the freakish talents present on Les Miles' roster, and it should be fascinating to see what he does with his new roster.
From outsmarting to out-talenting
LSU's 2015 defense, when in its main 4-2-5 nickel package, consisted of players who averaged out at 3.9 stars coming out of high school. In contrast, the main 11 starters in Wisconsin's 3-4 defense averaged 1.9 stars, thanks to the presence of four walk-ons in the starting lineup.
Obviously, Wisconsin wasn't as untalented as those rankings suggest. Walk-on Joe Schobert counts as a "zero-star" but may very well be drafted into the NFL, and the same can be said for Michael Caputo. Nevertheless, the overall athleticism of the LSU defenses from year to year is unquestionably higher than in Madison.
In 2015, this Wisconsin defense ranked seventh nationally in defensive S&P+, while LSU ranked 27th. Lest anyone complain about the Wisconsin schedule, S&P+ adjusts for opponents and the Badger season was concluded with a 23-21 victory over the USC in which they held the blue-chip-laden Trojan offense to 4.7 yards per play.
The secret sauce in Wisconsin's defensive success under Aranda was a reliance on using its defensive linemen in creative ways to clog interior gaps, tie up offensive linemen and free up the back seven to play max coverages or get easy pressure while only bringing four pass rushers.
In the run game, the Badgers achieved this with two-gap techniques and by having their DL read and react to plays in order to protect the linebackers and prevent scenarios in which their secondary or outside linebackers were put into conflicts. In pressure packages, Aranda has a variety of blitzes designed to attack the minds of the offensive linemen. He explains his philosophy in this short film session:
The blitz he highlights only features four pass rushers while the defense plays two-deep coverage, but the Badgers get defenders in the QB's face within a few seconds of the snap. That forces the offense to beat a conservative coverage with no time.
You can observe this philosophy at its best in the Holiday Bowl, when walk-on inside linebacker Jack Cichy recorded three consecutive sacks and turned a USC drive that started at midfield into a three-and-out drive that punted from about the 20.
On the first blitz, both of Wisconsin's dangerous outside linebackers Schobert (9.5 sacks) and Biegel (eight sacks) show blitz and briefly engage the offensive tackles before dropping back into coverage. Two OL occupy themselves with the slanting nose tackle, leaving only a late-coming H-back to try and stop the A-gap blitz by Cichy.
For the second blitz, the center goes for the nose, the guard picks up the tackle, the offensive tackle looks to block Biegel (who again is actually just feinting before dropping into coverage), and because it's play action there's no one left to pick up Cichy charging through the A-gap opposite the nose tackle.
On third down, the center allows Cichy through and leaves him to the RB to pick up a stunt or blitz from the field tackle or linebacker. The RB is not up to the challenge of blocking Cichy coming at full steam, and you have a third consecutive sack on an A-gap blitz and a total of 41 lost yards.
Aranda loves to punish OL with mobile linebackers who can come fast and from different directions than DL, whom are easier to track and grab. He loves to stunt DL across gaps to occupy blockers before firing linebackers at full speed into the vacated creases.
Translating Wisconsin's defense into a Tiger attack
Despite lacking the star power of LSU's defensive roster, Aranda was working with real talent in his pressure packages up front with Cichy, Biegel and Schobert all sharing the field together. However, it shouldn't be hard for Aranda to do some real damage with the players LSU is returning up front in 2016.
Within the core of the Tiger defense you find returning starters Christian Lacouture and Davon Godchaux at defensive tackle and likely future NFL Draft pick Kendell Beckwith at middle linebacker. Godchaux is a mobile tackle who had six sacks in 2015 and should thrive in the movement-heavy Aranda pressure package. Beckwith had 3.5 sacks and got some play as a stand-up edge rusher in some of the Tiger third-down packages.
On the perimeter, the Tigers return DEs Lewis Neal (6'1, 255, eight sacks) and Arden Key (6'6, 231, five sacks) who will probably serve as his new Biegel and Schobert pieces.
Last year LSU frequently looked to get pressure by just bringing a fifth rusher, locking down the offensive skill players in man coverage with a safety deep, and relying on winning one-on-one matchups in the pass rush.
Ole Miss' right guard can't block Godchaux as a 3-technique with his ears pinned back and the result is a near sack, with Chad Kelly barely able to fling the ball at the feet of a well-covered receiver. Aranda will continue to guarantee favorable matchups for the Tiger pass rushers, and he might continue to do it with five-man pressures, but he'll also set up the linebackers to get in on the action more often and try to get pressure up the middle.
Aranda is really inheriting a wealth of talent on the back end, where LSU returns one of the best secondaries in the country for 2016. Tre'Davious White returns at one corner position while strong safety Jamal Adams is back for (likely) one more year before heading to the NFL. Free safety Rickey Jefferson is also back along with a wealth of DBs that played in 2015 to staff the nickel and other corner positions. Then there are also the five blue-chip freshmen DBs, including early enrollee Saivion Smith who may get a chance to win the nickel job vacated by Jalen Mills.
This is not a secondary that really needs to be protected with Aranda's "smart aggression" against most opponents, and it was 12th in passing S&P+ last year and 10th on passing downs. So what happens when Aranda's maximization up front is combined with a defensive backfield stocked with NFL prospects?
It should be interesting to see how Aranda gets the most of Adams, one of the best box safeties in the college game right now.
Last year, LSU kept Adams near the box, either playing as a boundary safety who could drop late when in their 4-2-5 nickel package or as an outside linebacker in their dime sets. Aranda might choose to utilize him as a plus-one player roving just outside of the box in a cover-1 defense:
Here you see how it might look drawn up against Alabama's preferred 11 personnel set (three WRs, one TE) and the potential problems Adams could help Aranda cause. The weak outside linebacker (W), buck inside linebacker (B) or Adams ($) could all potentially be responsible for covering the TE, forcing the edge, blitzing or filling an interior gap. It'd be very difficult for the OL or QB to know who will be where from snap to snap.
If Aranda just wanted Adams to focus on covering the flat or pursuing the ball carrier from the middle of the field, two areas where he excels, he could do that, but he could also create a lot of hesitation from the offense about where exactly he'll be and what he'll be doing, much like the Steelers used to do with Troy Polamalu.