The adaptive Dave Aranda: How will Baylor's defense change in year two?

Ian Boyd

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Recently a video of Dave Aranda giving a clinic talk called “defending the spread” was made available on YouTube:


The clinic was from the offseason after LSU’s National Championship in 2019, before Aranda’s inaugural year at Baylor. His presentation is essentially extolling and describing the value of playing a base tite front and 3-down defense against spread offenses. The bulk of it involves Aranda describing how to get a truly free safety in the pass game without needing him in the run game by mixing up some of the calls in the front and using techniques with the D-line and linebackers to two-gap fronts.

He opens by describing how he spent time during the quarantine watching old film of John Elway or Troy Aikman dominating defenses in the NFL back in the 90s. The key to defending those legends? To force the quarterback to hesitate. If you gave them the chance to make quick decisions and throw the ball, you’d get torched, but force them to hold the ball and work to checkdowns while their internal timer ticked away and you had a chance.

To Aranda’s way of thinking, defending the spread run game works the same. You create hesitation for the running back (or the quarterback in the mesh point) and you buy time for your secondary to sit on RPOs and play-action without requiring them to come up quickly and take their part in the run fit. Aranda’s way of thinking is correct, of course. The right answer in today’s game is absolutely to rely on skill and technique up front to protect your secondary, if you get a play wrong against the running game you may give up a first down but if you do things wrong on the back end it’s more likely to be points.

Aranda’s 3-down spread run defensive philosophy

Ultimately, Aranda wants to create hesitation with the techniques and alignments used by the three down linemen and two inside linebackers. Create hesitation and deny downhill or decisive run cuts and you can buy time for your secondary to support the run after first dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s against RPOs and play-action.

One of his more interesting examples featured Aranda detailing how to stop inside zone from nub trips formations. I’ll draw it here as though it were Baylor, although Baylor wasn’t much of a tite front/3-down team last season (more on this later).

They’d curiously play their Rover linebacker to the tight end side and split out their Mike linebacker to the trips side.

Aranda tite vs nub trips.jpg

The A-gap to the right of the nose here looks like an inviting place for the ball to go with the Rover linebacker aligned to the left side. But Aranda noted when teams used to attempt to “scoop” their nose on zone schemes (back in the early 2010s, with the center connecting on him and then passing him on to a guard so the center could lead through the open A-gap on the right side, it didn’t work out for them.

The scoop block was too tough to execute against a big, powerful nose who was already selected and trained to rock a smaller center backwards and force the cutback to the rover linebacker.

Nub zone scoop vs Aranda nose.jpg

Instead offenses would look to power the guard into the nose and open the cutback lane and if the Rover was stacked behind the nose, he might get picked up by the combo. So they’d park the Rover into the cutback lane in order to generate hesitation for the running back and encourage him to work to the frontside while the Rover would then play over the top of the nose into the A-gap.

Nub zone drive vs Aranda nose.jpg

Without a scoop block, the center is not freed up to block a quick moving Rover from scraping over to the A-gap, so long as the nose is not getting washed backwards into him he’s running free to the ball.

The entire clinic is interesting, he details how other subtle tweaks in alignment, such as when to have the boundary end as a 3-technique, the nose in a shade, or the field end as a 5-technique in order to change angles against different runs by the offense. Aranda’s defenses will switch back and forth between a few different fronts based on the offensive formation and the run schemes the offense wants to utilize, using subtle adjustments in leverage to allow them to deny angles and play two-gap techniques across the front.

Aranda’s focus on two-gapping is another major component. He notes many defensive coordinators would take the free safety in our diagram above and just use him to give the defense another hat in the box to stop the run. Get everyone in the front playing fast and running to the ball, but doing so just gives modern offenses the angles they want to throw RPOs and play-action over your head. Like a good 90s NFL defense against one of the great quarterbacks of old, he wants to force the quarterback and running back to hesitate and then “check down” into a path the defense knows they’ll eventually have to settle on.

Here’s a base Aranda defensive look against my standard Big 12 play example: an inside zone scheme with bubble screen and glance route pass options for the quarterback.

Aranda tite vs standard RPO.jpg

Where does the ball go? The A-gaps are tough sledding with the nose driving into the center and the Rover fitting behind him. The B-gaps are filled by the defensive ends while the boundary linebacker is in the boundary C-gap. The Mike is closing the field C-gap and forcing the ball wide, which buys the nickel time to sit on the bubble screen for a moment before closing on a running back who probably has to turn his shoulders to the sideline in order to win the edge. Lateral running backs don’t scare defenses, this is why Art Briles would split his receivers ultra wide in order to give them space to turn square into the alley.

Offenses can draw up run schemes and formations for days to try and create leverage against this front, but Aranda has his own tweaks and adjustments to match...when playing this defense.

But Baylor wasn’t a tite front team in 2020...

The Bears weren’t ready to run Aranda’s preferred defense in year one coming off a pandemic-shortened offseason with no spring practices and a roster developed for a different scheme.

A similar dynamic played out when Dave Aranda followed Gary Andersen out to Wisconsin back in 2013. In year one they had a big, senior nose tackle in Beau Allen (6-3, 327) who’d be drafted in the following summer, which made it easy to play a base 3-down, tite front. The following year though they had to do without Allen (and without Chris Borland who’d accumulated 111 tackles stacking behind him) but instead a unit with an overabundance of good linebackers (and a great strong safety to boot).

So Aranda developed a 2-4-5 “peso” defense, which is a popular term for a nickel defense which subs out a defensive lineman rather than an outside linebacker from a base 3-4 set. While the peso tends to be an odd front’s sub-package, it actually tends to work as an even front because outside linebackers don’t excel at fitting interior gaps.

The peso worked quite well for the Badgers and they rode it to the Big 10 Championship game, where their reliance on man coverage and getting strong safety Michael Caputo (106 tackles!) involved in the run fit was punished by Cardale Jones and Ohio State in a 59-0 shellacking.

Years later, Aranda found a similar situation in year one at Baylor, where the Bears were graduating the 6-1, 333 pound Bravvion Roy who’d played the nose tackle in Matt Rhule’s 3-down defense at a masterclass level. The Bears were also losing hybrid defensive ends James Lynch and James Lockhart, who’d combined for 28 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks. Despite those losses, Dave Aranda put together a solid unit which produced one of the better defensive efforts against Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma while fielding a 2-4ish package featuring the 6-1, 285 pound Josh Landry as their “nose tackle” (sometimes as a 3-technique also) in even fronts.

It was basically all the Bears could do to get defensive linemen into the right gaps in order for the linebackers and safeties to have a chance to make stops in the run game. The efficiency of Aranda’s 3-down defense in preserving safeties for coverage responsibilities and delayed run support was a delayed hope and the Bears focused on setting up the linebackers to carry the unit much like the 2014 Badgers.

This offseason, Aranda moved quickly at the chance to add LSU transfer Siaki Ika, a 6-3, 350 pound nose tackle who was a 4-star recruit out of Utah. The Bears also return all three linebackers who made the defense work when there wasn’t a behemoth stacking the A-gaps for them and untying Aranda’s bag of 3-down leverage tricks. It’s a reasonable guess to assume the approach up front will evolve with this evolution in personnel.

While the “peso” front is a fun and interesting defensive concept we’re likely to see in Austin this next season, it will probably be more of a situational package for the Bears. With Ika inside, Aranda will be able to move solid defensive linemen Josh Landry and T.J. Franklin into full-time defensive end roles where their quickness and improving skill will be more easily utilized than trying to physically dominate centers and absorb double teams inside. The back-up nose tackle position is one to watch, particularly given the challenge of playing 70+ snaps a game in the Big 12 at 350 pounds, but having one A-gap leviathan is much different than having none.

Down the line this will be an interesting dimension to watch in Waco. Will Aranda be able to find the nose tackles to play his preferred style of defense and will he continue to be able to adjust with the “peso” or other concepts when he cannot? Art Briles always struggled to solve for the defensive line issue in Baylor, despite securing terrific nose tackle Andrew Billings in one recruiting class and regularly taking chances on transfers like Shawn Oakman, Sam Ukwauchu, and finally Jeremy Faulk in hopes of finding trench talent. Matt Rhule had breakthrough success in 2019 but it came after two previous years of finding and developing Bravvion Roy and Lynch and taking in Lockhart as a transfer. It’s hard to avoid boom/bust cycles on a unit like the defensive line if you are relying on rare athletes to make your system work.

The key story for Aranda’s Baylor is the offense, where the Bears need to start making steps toward competence as quickly as possible in order to have a winning record regardless of defensive scheme, but it’s still interesting to watch a defensive mastermind ply his craft in one of the toughest offensive conferences in the nation.
 

sherf1

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Great stuff. Will be interesting to see a fully weaponized Aranda and PK in this conference, who along with Grinch and of course Patterson and Heacock probably make the Big 12 the forefront of new defensive thinking, as it was for offense a decade ago.
 

travisroeder

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Great stuff. Will be interesting to see a fully weaponized Aranda and PK in this conference, who along with Grinch and of course Patterson and Heacock probably make the Big 12 the forefront of new defensive thinking, as it was for offense a decade ago.
I cannot wait for Sark vs Aranda. They both have "counterpuncher" styles.
 
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sherf1

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Ian Boyd

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Round 1:


Lots of points but Aranda definitely landed some blows. Not sure if the late surge was Bama figuring stuff out or LSU playing it a bit too soft with a lead.
No, Sark pinpointed the area where Aranda was giving something up and he hit it. The fade vs man coverage.
 
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sherf1

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No, Sark pinpointed the area where Aranda was giving something up and he hit it. The fade vs man coverage.
Nice, this game and the 2020 vs Georgia are on my rewatch list to get a better idea of what Sark is up to in full game settings vs talented defenses.
 

stilesbbq

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Nice, this game and the 2020 vs Georgia are on my rewatch list to get a better idea of what Sark is up to in full game settings vs talented defenses.
How many of those does Texas face next year?
 

sherf1

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How many of those does Texas face next year?
That level of talent? None.

OU on defensive line is probably in that category though.

And the coaching gauntlet of DCs is really impressive. I think Sark will get a lot more of a workout schematically this year than he got in the SEC in 2020.
 
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