Beyond featuring two blue blood programs that figure to be competitive in their divisions, the opening Sunday night’s LSU vs. Miami matchup in Arlington holds a lot of intrigue.
The Hurricanes arrived back on the scene last season with an exciting defense and an off-brand spread offense under the traditionally pro-style Mark Richt. LSU had a nasty divorce with new OC Matt Canada that resolved as Ed Oregon reinstalled the man who helped him win the job in the first place: Steve Ensminger. Then LSU added Ohio State grad transfer QB Joe Burrow to help grease the skids.
Whether or not Richt’s spread offense or the Burrow/Ensminger system can get going in 2018 will be major storylines, but in Week 1, each faces established defenses and DCs who are known for bringing pressure and overwhelming iffy offenses. You can probably expect fans on both sides to be chewing their nails every time their own team holds the ball.
1. A new QB vs. the turnover chain
Miami’s top-25 defense garnered a lot of media attention with the chain their defenders would don after taking the ball from the offense. It was a fun gimmick that gave the defense some energy and identity. The Canes picked off 17 passes on the year and ranked third nationally in takeaways.
They return all three starting LBs, three starting DBs and a fourth in Trajan Brandy who started three games in 2017, plus edge-rusher Joe Jackson. The DL was devastated by graduation and early departure, and they also lost star DL coach Craig Kuligowksi, who built a reputation of churning out NFL pass-rushers at Missouri. Nevertheless, this is a talented and experienced unit that Manny Diaz is coordinating.
It’s certainly a tall order for a QB who hasn’t practiced with his team as of the drafting of this article to navigate a veteran group eager to parade the chain on the sideline (if they haven’t retired it).
It might also be a tall order for Burrow to master the offense that LSU was trotting out in spring ball.
The Tiger spring game unveiled a “multiple” offense featuring an under-center/downhill run game reminiscent of Les Miles, spread RPO plays, and a wide array of dropback passes. Having to make their offense work with a grad transfer who joins over the summer might be helpful in narrowing down their approach to something simpler and more likely to make the most of their talent.
The concern with trying to execute multiple philosophies is the Cane pressure package, which includes fire zone blitzes, disguises, and all of those returning starters.
Cornerback Michael Jackson, seen here picking off this pass, had four INTs a year ago, free safety Jaquan Johnson added another four, and both are considered potential first-rounders. These guys have played a lot of football and are wise to the route combos of college offenses. It’ll take a very precise attack from the LSU offense, the kind of attack that a program trying to download a multiple playbook into a spread QB’s brain in a single fall camp is not likely to possess.
2. Peso defense vs. the Cane spread
Last season was a disappointing one for the LSU defense. They “only” finished 18th in the country in S&P+ and had to live in a rather limited base defense, due to the lack of a nickel that DC Dave Aranda trusted. This season they have greater depth and knowhow in the secondary, meaning that we may finally see the kind of peso package that Aranda was dominating with at Wisconsin.
This ideal package for Aranda features two DL, four LBs, and five DBs, with the peso moniker coming from the fact that a peso is worth about a nickel, and this is a type of nickel package. With the extra speed and versatility on the field from playing multiple LBs and mobile DL, the defense can move around up front in ways that can confuse OL and create mismatches for the pass-rush.
Rover LB Devin White, who had 4.5 sacks a year ago, could see that number increase even more with two OLBs on the line who can show pressure before dropping back into coverage. Here’s an example of how that blitz looks from a 3-3-5 package:
Aranda’s dream is to get free rushers from four-man pressures. The peso package is his best way to do this, and it will likely be a regular feature in 2018, particularly when facing spread teams like Miami.
The Canes would seem due to make a leap on offense with senior QB Malik Rosier, but they have a few hangups. One is the departure of their top two targets, WR Braxton Berrios and TE Christopher Herndon IV, and the other is the rebuild along the OL, which will require elevating Navaughn Donaldson from being a true freshman guard in 2017 to a true sophomore tackle. They’ll also be plugging in Tennessee transfer Venzell Boulware (not on campus yet), and OL is clearly an area of concern.
This LSU defense is one of the toughest fronts to face with an inexperienced OL. There’s not much comfort to be had from Rosier’s mobility either, as he was sacked on 6.1 percent of his dropbacks a year ago.
The Canes will have to work the run game, but their offense leaned heavily on explosive plays a year ago, with Rosier throwing deep when teams started loading the box. However, they can still generate some opportunities there or perhaps enough from their run game, if they can confuse the Tigers with zone-option schemes.
This play uses the TE (H below) as a lead blocker on the edge for Rosier. The Hokies have their DE step down to take away the RB cutback lane and encourage the QB to keep the ball, only to find the LB waiting for the keeper ...
... but Miami is running a stretch zone play, and when the DE doesn’t crash hard, Rosier can still hand off to Homer, who cuts downhill on a LB and safety who are trying to scrape over laterally and aren’t ready to tackle him. The Canes have a good variety of zone running schemes using Rosier to help free up the backs to run over safeties, and they’ll need them to be the most consistent offensive feature from either team.
It looks much more likely that both of these teams will end up fielding truly fearsome defenses than that either will be particularly good on offense in week one.
With that in mind, this game likely comes down to which offense manages to protect the ball and make the most of opportunities created by their own defense. Given the Canes’ experience in the secondary and at QB, juxtaposed with Burrow’s lack of experience in the LSU program, the pick here is a Hurricane victory.