It seems like the only thing wrong with the analogy of Les Miles as a cat with nine lives is it’s insufficient. Miles is a lot more indestructible than your average cat.
Perhaps it’s a testimony to LSU’s coach that when it appears he’s finally fading out of the limelight and falling from favor, that’s when he pulls fresh miracles out of his sizable chapeau.
Take the past six weeks, for example. Miles went from a three-game losing streak that would have cost him his job but for an inexplicable decision by university president F. King Alexander not to let the school’s boosters buy out his contract with their own money because of how it would be perceived by the state legislature in a budgetary special session, to racking up an impressive 56-27 blowout win over Texas Tech in the Advocate Texas Bowl…to last night hiring perhaps the nation’s best defensive coordinator.
The speed in which Wisconsin’s Dave Aranda was hired, less than 48 hours after Kevin Steele left LSU for a sweetheart job at Auburn, indicates one, or perhaps both, of two possibilities. First, that Miles was well aware Steele was on his way out and potentially was even in on the idea that Steele would be working elsewhere in 2016, and second, that Aranda was the guy he wanted all along.
The second is the more interesting of the possibilities. After all, LSU opened the 2014 season in Houston against Aranda’s Wisconsin defense, and there is little question but that he had to be impressed. Wisconsin went into that game with a defensive front seven which had been gutted by graduation; if memory serves they had only one player back in that front seven from 2013, and their defensive line was tiny compared to the behemoths LSU presented along the offensive line. But for three quarters the only offense the Tigers mustered against that outmanned defense was an 80-yard catch-and-run bomb Travin Dural produced for their lone score.
LSU came back and won that game, largely because two key starters on Aranda’s defense went down with injuries and the mismatches became too much. The passing game produced a little in the fourth quarter and that opened up the power running game to bring victory from the jaws of defeat. But after the game, the Tiger offensive linemen remarked about how much trouble Wisconsin game them by switching alignments before the snap and bringing an unpredictable assortment of stunts, slants and unconventional looks which caused confusion and prevented their ability to physically dominate a defensive line they outweighed by some 30-40 pounds per man.
In other words, Aranda was able to dictate to LSU at the line of scrimmage despite a complete deficit of talent he was working with. And he almost pulled off a victory against a much more talented team. Had Wisconsin’s superstar running back Melvin Gordon not tweaked a hamstring in the second half of that game the odds are Wisconsin would have won that game, and Miles might well not be the head coach in Baton Rouge right now (a 7-6 season last year, rather than the 8-5 year he ultimately posted, might have sealed his fate even then).
The game against Aranda’s defense would have only gotten Miles thinking about him. What Wisconsin did for the entire season last year was equally impressive. Again – with a defense that had lost virtually its entire front seven from 2013, Aranda managed to finish fourth in the nation in total defense, giving up just 294.1 yards per game. They finished 17th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 20.8 points per game. Those numbers include the worst game of Aranda’s career, the 59-0 whitewashing the Badgers absorbed at the hands of the Ohio State team which clobbered Alabama and Oregon in the playoffs and won the national championship.
And this year, Aranda’s defense is second in the country in scoring defense at 13.7 points per game, and third in total defense allowing 268.5 yards per game. They were good after they were cleaned out by graduation; with a little bit of experience returning they’re outstanding.
Consider Wisconsin’s three losses this year. Yes, they gave up 35 points to Alabama in the season opener, as Derrick Henry did to them what he did to everybody else, but in the other two losses they gave up just 10 points to Iowa and 13 points to Northwestern.
And Wisconsin’s best player, All-American linebacker Joe Schobert, was a former walkon. Of their defensive starters this year, just two were four-star recruits out of high school; the rest were either three-star recruits or less.
That’s what’s most alluring about Aranda. He’s built top defenses at Hawaii (his Hawaii defense bottled up Colin Kapernick when the latter was a wrecking ball at Nevada), Utah State (Aranda’s defense was nationally ranked in several categories in 2012 and led the way to a conference title and a new job at Wisconsin for his boss Gary Anderson) and Wisconsin without all the advantages an LSU would offer, and he’s known as a young innovator on the way up.
In recent years, Miles’ pattern has been to hire assistants who can be described as journeymen or retreads who might even be on the way down. Certainly Steele fit that bill; he’d last been a defensive coordinator in 2011, and was let go after his Clemson defense surrendered 70 points in a blowout bowl loss to West Virginia. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had likewise been fired by the Baltimore Ravens before being hired by Miles. Lots of LSU’s other coaches – Steve Ensminger, who had been coaching high school ball before Miles came calling, Ed Orgeron, who was out of coaching for a year, Jeff Grimes, who had led a vagabond existence though at a number of reputable programs at recent years, Bradley Dale Peveto, who Miles rescued from a failing staff at Kentucky for a second stint in Baton Rouge, Tony Ball, who reportedly had worn out his welcome as Georgia’s wide receivers coach – couldn’t be said to be on their way up when Miles brought them in.
That’s not an indictment of the staff. LSU’s coaching staff is the envy of most of the country. Their combined resumes are better than almost any staff in the country. But you need a mix of young guys on the way up to go with the veterans, or else you get stale. And LSU was unquestionably stale in 2015.
Think of Miles’ initial staff when he got to LSU. The coordinators in his first group were Jimbo Fisher, on his way to eventually getting the head coaching job at Florida State, and Bo Pelini, who was on his way to getting the head coaching job at Nebraska. Also on that staff were Larry Porter, who would go on to be the head coach at Memphis, and Todd Monken, who is now the head coach at Southern Miss and is coming off a 9-5 season in his third year there (Monken’s team will be coming to Tiger Stadium this fall and could be a fairly challenging opponent). Karl Dunbar left LSU, as did Monken, to move up to the NFL, and Josh Helton left to ultimately be Missouri’s offensive coordinator. Most of that staff was upwardly mobile, and LSU went 34-6 in Miles’ first three years with the energy they brought to the table.
Miles got away from the young, rising coaches with most of his recent hires, with mixed results. Steele was the perfect example; his hiring excited precisely nobody, and the results he brought were just as uninspiring. With a very talent-laden defense, Steele had LSU 25th in total defense at 347.2 yards per game and 42nd in the country in scoring defense at 24.3 points per game. And while Aranda’s Wisconsin defense had as many two-star players and walkons starting (2) as it did four-star recruits, Steele was working with something a bit different – of LSU’s 11 starters, four were three-star recruits, five were four-star recruits and two were five-star recruits.
The perception, and a reasonable one, was that LSU was underachieving and stale. You fix underachieving and stale with new, innovative coaches. And that’s what Aranda is.
Since his name surfaced as Steele’s replacement lots of people have found this video on YouTube of a film session former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, now a host at the Big Ten Network, had with Aranda, and if you haven’t watched it you might find it interesting…
DiNardo said after that encounter that he learned more football in 30 minutes with Aranda than he can remember.
Given that, and given Aranda’s reputation as not just an innovator but a coach capable of using personnel (that let’s face it hasn’t been anywhere near as talented as what he’ll have at LSU) to dictate to an offense, a hire like this should combine with LSU’s top-end athleticism to result in a top-level, game-changing defense. And most interesting of all after several years of a defense which mostly played a lot of read-and-react, bend-but-don’t-break style of football, Aranda plays an aggressive, attacking style of defense aimed at generating lots of sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers.
That’s the kind of hire which can generate major momentum for LSU’s football program and put Miles back into the championship picture.
We’ll leave open the question whether Miles needs to follow the Aranda hire with the same kind of re-tooling on offense; it isn’t settled at this point whether Cameron will return and his contract is up at the end of February. But what we can say is he now has a coordinator who is on his way up and conceivably a head coach at a major program in the near future for the first time since Pelini, and if the results look like they have at Aranda’s recent stops Miles might well find himself riding high again. The difference in just 12 hours after Aranda’s hire on message boards and social media where LSU Football is concerned is night and day. Miles is already back in shockingly good odor, even from his detractors.
Which is where he seems to find himself often not long after some of us have written him off. The Hat has skills that way.