LSU football fans got their first glimpse at new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense at the National L Club Spring Game this past Saturday.
The purple team defeated the white team, 17-7, as LSU’s offense and defense got the chance to compete against each other to conclude spring practice. Aranda is LSU’s third defensive coordinator in as many years, yet the unit has high expectations for the upcoming season after returning eight starters from last year.
Observers can never infer much from college football spring games, as coaches don’t want to reveal anything that other teams can analyze and prepare for, and defense is no exception. It was, however, an opportunity for Tiger fans to get at least a glimpse of what the unit will look like in the fall.
The Tigers played a lot of Aranda’s base 3-4 defense with some nickel coverage looks sprinkled in whenever they faced a three-or-more receiver set. Aranda hopes to implement an attack-style defense that takes advantage of LSU’s quickness on that side of the football.
Aranda’s defense at Wisconsin relied on filling interior gaps with down lineman, freeing up blitzing lanes and giving the secondary freedom to play max coverages while just rushing four people. The Badgers were first in the country in scoring defense last season in Aranda’s final year in Madison.
After Saturday’s game, Aranda said he feels good about his personnel and its versatility implementing his scheme. However there’s still work to be done before the team gets to training camp and eventually, the regular season.
“We’re still learning each other,” Aranda said. “Learning what we can do. I feel good about the foundation. We don’t really pressure with five or six. It’s always four-man rushes, so we’re trading jobs in our quarter, our three-deep and our man [coverages]. The flexibility of guys doing those jobs is exciting. How far can we go? That’s the question. Summer time’s a good time to work on it.”
Sophomore defensive end Arden Key played exclusively as a stand-up linebacker in the base 3-4 and was able to generate pressure off the edge on several occasions on Saturday. On the first-drive, which featured starters on starters, Key would’ve got a sack on Brandon Harris if hitting the quarterback was legal.
However, the strongest pass rush seemed to come from the secondary on Saturday, as junior Dwayne Thomas got around the edge and got constant pressure throughout the scrimmage at the nickel-cornerback position. Thomas finished tied for the team lead in tackles with eight, and it will be interesting to see if LSU continues to utilize him in that blitzing cornerback role.
Thomas shared the top of the tackle column with junior linebacker Duke Riley, who started the game and seems like the prime candidate to replace Deion Jones at his former weak-side linebacker position. The John Curtis product has made a lot of plays on special teams since his arrival and figures to be a more regular part of this season’s defensive rotation.
Early enrollee Saivion Smith has been with the team for less than four months but played primarily with the starters on Saturday, drawing serious praise from his defensive coordinator after the game.
Smith started the spring game at cornerback in place of injured sophomore Kevin Toliver and performed admirably, recording 3 tackles and a red-zone interception of Brandon Harris in the fourth quarter. The IMG Academy product may be too raw to threaten Toliver for the No. 2 spot right now, but Smith won’t be much longer if he continues at this pace.
“He’s got all the skills in the world,” Aranda said of Smith. “Athletic ability, length, toughness. All those things he has. But what makes him special is he loves football. He wants to know football even more. And he’s going to continue to get better and better because of his hunger.”
Senior linebacker Kendell Beckwith and senior cornerback Tre’Davious White passed up on the NFL draft to return to LSU, something Tiger fans aren’t taking for granted as LSU’s been decimated by early departures in recent years.
The seniors are big reasons for the optimism surrounding LSU’s defense, but both players missed time during spring practice with injuries. However, both played well into the fourth quarter on Saturday and looked healthy throughout the game.
Both are important from a schematic standpoint, making adjustments and communicating to teammates, and as veteran leaders helping the rest of the defense adjust to the things Aranda has been and is still implementing.
Beckwith said there’s still a lot of learning ahead, but he’s confident the unit will continue to improve and make some serious noise this fall, beginning with the game against Aranda’s former team on September 3.
“We got the base of it down,” Beckwith said. “Now we’re gonna extend on it and just learn and continue to make this defense great.”