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When Dave Aranda took his crafty and thoroughly modern defensive scheme from Wisconsin to LSU it seemed a potentially terrifying combination. The only question was how long it would take for Aranda’s more complex, protection-busting schemes to connect with an athletic LSU roster that had been successful in a different system for some time. How Aranda approached that potential issue and turned the Tigers into the nation’s no. 3 defense (by S&P+) firmly established him not only as a cutting edge X’s and O’s thinker but also as a great coach.
It’s an issue that Todd Orlando may face this coming season at Texas and the solutions might prove to be similar.
This Texas staff has quite a few connections to Dave Aranda built up over the years. Tom Herman was his roommate in college at California Lutheran before they each went off in opposite directions to try and establish themselves as the kings of their respective realms of offense and defense. Herman eventually attached himself to Urban Meyer, who’d been sitting on that throne and ruling from Columbus, while Aranda made his major leaps in the profession under one-time Scipio favorite Gary Andersen at Utah State. Ironically, Aranda’s grad degree in football came at Texas Tech from 1999-2001. An inauspicious start for a defensive mastermind.
Orlando learned the Andersen-tree defense when he was hired by his successor and paired with Andersen-tree LB coach Kevin Clune (now back with Andersen at Oregon State). The “B-backer, Rover, Mac” language, the three-down structure, and the “smart aggression” philosophy are all Andersen-tree components that Aranda played a major part in developing.
The only trick to playing with “smart aggression” is that you have to be pretty smart, football-wise, to make it work properly. That wasn’t a major issue at Wisconsin, who’s tradition of “coaches on the field” has finally culminated in the hire of a 34-year old, former Wisconsin walk-on, one-year coaching veteran as DC. At LSU Aranda needed to slow things down and adjust his approach to ensure that his defense was sound and effective.
It was the second time (when I’ve been observing at least) that he’d made significant tweaks to his scheme to suit an inherited roster with the other occasion coming in his first year at Wisconsin. Here’s a glance at how the defenses Aranda has coordinated across the country (in some very different locales) have fared:
Especially when considering the talent levels at some of these spots, those are some eye-dropping numbers. His top 10 defenses with 2013 Wisconsin and 2016 LSU are instances where he tweaked his own system to suit the roster and struck gold with the result.
Tweaking “smart aggression”
The underlying philosophy of Aranda’s system is to determine the opposing offense’s favored protection schemes and then attacking how they prioritize blitzers. They’ll show a blitz to one side of the formation and perhaps even engage for an instant before dropping back into coverage and concealing the true blitz that’s coming from somewhere else. It’s a symphony of chaos that allows the defense to get quick pressure while often only bringing four pass-rushers and dropping seven into coverage. I’ve outlined how Orlando used the same principles at Houston to blow up opposing OL.
When Dave Aranda arrived at LSU he found a very different cast of players on his defense though then what he’d been working with at Utah State or Wisconsin. The Tigers had NFL talent in juniors Jamal Adams (SS) and Davon Godchaux (DT), seniors Tre’Davious White (CB), Kendall Beckwith (MLB), and in rising sophomores Kevin Toliver (CB), Donte Jackson (CB), and Arden Key (DE/OLB). With all of those freak athletes plus four other senior starters who’d had plenty of success before Aranda arrived, it didn’t make much sense to install a totally new quarters-based, zone-blitz scheme designed to confuse protections and move everyone into different roles after the snap.
Instead Aranda focused on getting his players to nail down a few key fronts and coverages that were designed to allow his future NFL players to play fast and loose and out-execute opponents. Here’s a few examples of how he’d often deploy his guys against Big 12 type systems:
LSU would often play four-down defenses with B-back Arden Key aligned as a stand-up, weakside end and then “DE” Davon Gochaux (6-4, 295) lined up as a 3-tech with DE Lewis Neal (6-1, 260) outside of him.
They played some quarters coverages but they’d also often drop Jamal Adams or John Battle down to play in the box and key the TE so that the linebackers could read normal keys and not worry about inserting themselves in a new gap created by the TE’s movement. Meanwhile their battalion of future NFL DBs would play man (often press-man) coverage on the receivers while the other safety dropped deep.
Here’s a more familiar look:
There’s your 3-4 front with 4i-technique DEs and the B-backer lined up on the boundary (and on the weakside). LSU would still often play this with Adams or Battle hanging out near the box to key the TE while they played man coverage elsewhere.
Here’s a glimpse of how they’d often play the quarters coverage with the 3-4 front:
With soon-to-be first rounder Jamal Adams at safety they could play him over the slot and allow the nickel to attack the run aggressively. Most safeties would struggle to hold up against bubble screens and double moves playing in that much space but Adams was fine with it, negating the need for the nickel to play the run conservatively in order to protect him. But while they ran that at times, they played man coverage more often.
The LSU pass-rush in 2016 rarely involved the “smart aggression” principles of attacking protections with disguise and zone blitzes. Instead it was more, “line up Arden Key on the weakside and often outside of Neal or Godchaux in a 4i or 3-tech and let him do his thing.”
Key had 11 sacks, Godchaux had another 6.5, and that was generally sufficient when combined with the Tigers’ stifling coverage. Next year I think we’ll see the Tigers start to look more like Orlando’s Houston team or Aranda’s later Wisconsin squads but this was the balance he struck in year one.
The Aranda plan at Texas
When Todd Orlando arrived at Houston he was inheriting a secondary that included four returning starters, including future NFL corner Will Jackson III and seniors at strong safety and nickel in Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart that had been trained up by David Gibbs before he left for Texas Tech. Those three combined for 13 interceptions in 2015 and were eminently capable of executing a variety of different coverages.
They had to replace all three the following season but Orlando had already been training the replacements in his schemes for two offseasons and even then they had to pare things down a bit while leaning on Oliver and Taylor up front to win games.
As Scipio has been noting, Orlando is not inheriting a cast of DBs with proven experience playing sound, intelligent football and is adjusting accordingly. As much as everyone loves the young cornerbacks and safeties on the roster, not a one of them has proven that they’re ready to execute a modern, pattern-reading coverage without gifting easy points to opponents on blown assignments.
But if Orlando were to emphasize good old fashioned cover 1 while bringing everyone along in the quarters coverages that might allow the defense a chance at success while building towards the future. This is not totally dissimilar to what Greg Robinson did in 2013 after first playing the pre-installed quarters coverage against Ole Miss and getting eviscerated for 272 rushing yards and 44 points. After that, Robinson trusted Akina to run man and a little cover 3 while he tried to fix things up front.
The Aranda plan is essentially to take a roster full of talented players and first focus on installing sound fundamentals in a few base defenses to ensure success before graduating them to pro-level complexity in how they attack opponents or match route distributions. Dave Aranda did this very well at LSU but the order is a bit taller at Texas for Todd Orlando. LSU was already a very good defense before Aranda took over, his main challenge was to maintain and build on what they were already doing without losing ground in the transition.
At Texas a football 101 approach is necessary not only to maintain and build on what was already being done but to even ensure success in the first place. However, it may well prove that the Longhorns are able to grow into an effective unit using Aranda-lite schemes to thwart Big 12 offensive designs until they can graduate and start playing with “smart aggression.”
Here’s a glimpse of what Texas could look like playing these schemes with the current starting lineup:
In this set you get John Bonney rotating deep with DeShon Elliott down in the box reading the TE, Hughes and Malik can join forces on the weakside to bring pressures or run things down while Roach and Hager are joined by a DL like Chris Nelson to the strong side.
Here’s how it would look against some of the more deadly schemes in the Big 12:
On this split zone/bubble screen option play Locke would be playing man on the slot so the bubble option would be taken away by alignment. Any pass-option to the solo-side WR would be the responsibility of Kris Boyd and he’d need to be able to lock it down without help.
Against the run, Hager could play downhill and Hughes would step inside to spill the ball to Malik and Elliott’s pursuit. Assuming Texas could get heady, reactive play out of the B-backer this puts everyone in pretty good position and defers most of the stress to Boyd or whomever is playing cornerback on that solo side.
Here’s a route combination that A&M used effectively against LSU a year ago. They cleared out the nickel with a wheel route and the QB (Trevor Knight) had a simple read on the strong safety. If he stayed at depth and inside to help against the dig route (by “Z” in this diagram) then he could throw the whip route to the slot (“H”) but if the safety chased the whip route outside then the passing window was open to throw the dig.
Stuff like this is your consequence for dropping a safety down to play man coverage and simplify everything for your front. That safety needs to be a stud at helping against the run and he needs to be able to hold up when spread passing attacks isolate him in space like this.
Now we arrive at Scipio’s salient point in the aforementioned piece,
“This team wins a lot of games if it can rush the passer in the late 2nd quarter and 4th quarter without bringing more than four or five. Period.”
You solve for the problem of isolated DBs trying to hold up in space by getting consistent pressure on the QB and preventing him from getting clean looks at your defense and clean pockets from which to make throws.
This is where Malcolm Roach’s welcome success at the DE position this spring could be huge, where the battle at B-backer between Naashon Hughes and younger players like McCulloch matters, and where the conditioning of Jordan Elliott comes into play. If Texas can get consistent play from Malik and Hager so as to regularly blitz them as well, mores the better. The more pass-rushing weapons that Orlando has to work with the easier it will be to protect the secondary when playing simple, man coverage on the back end.
There’s a lot more variables in Austin than Dave Aranda found in Baton Rouge but the blueprint is there for Orlando to copy and get some immediate results with the Texas defense.