Seeing as though this is a fairly slow week for Louisiana politics – while at the same time we’re less than two weeks from the start of the college football season – we figured now would be a good time to step out of the usual grind and do something new.
We haven’t had much on LSU football this offseason, mostly because since Joe Burrow transferred to take over the quarterback job back in June there hasn’t been a whole lot to talk about. But now that Ed Orgeron’s team has been in camp for a couple of weeks we can get something of a gauge on what kind of product the third-year coach will be putting on the field.
As such, from today through Friday we’ll be offering a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) on the 2018 Tigers. Starting with today’s installment focusing on three areas of strength the team can call on as Orgeron guides LSU through what looks like a murderous schedule.
1. Dave Aranda is in his third year, and we’re now going to see what he can REALLY do.
Aranda arrived at LSU as the team’s defensive coordinator before the 2016 season, and in the two years he’s been on campus LSU has had the 10th and 12th-best defenses in the country as measured by total yardage allowed. That’s a pretty good record, especially given the turmoil the program has been in while he’s been posting it.
But now Aranda has settled in, and he’s been able to fully install his defense for the first time, and that’s a big deal. Last week there was a Times-Picayune article talking about the difference between this year and the last two where it comes to the X’s and O’s of his defensive package…
“What I’m trying to say is, I’m always worried — for me — putting the cart before the horse,” Aranda said. “We have to be fundamentally sound with what we’re doing and have the depth to be in and out of different people, and that will enable us with different people coming in, different skillsets, to build it to you. That’s where the defense comes, from the people that are on the field.”
This is all a long-winded way of saying Aranda thinks he has a group with the ability to secure those basics and evolve in year three. He has proteges like White who he’s been training in a lab for three years, teaching him to see football the way he does.
Reporters haven’t been able to speak with Aranda during camp, but if you pick from little pieces players drop, one can get a sense of what Aranda’s year three defense might look like.
“He’s putting in a lot more plays,” White said. “In the past, we only ran four different defenses. We’re in the middle of fall camp, and I think I’ve counted 42.”
Aranda’s comfort level in expanding the defensive playbook comes from the fact that this year he has a far more veteran defense than he had in 2016 and 2017 – at least from the perspective of players who have come up in his system, as opposed to being holdovers from John Chavis or Kevin Steele, who coached a different style.
Look at the Tiger defense and you’ll see that almost everyone slated for a major role has been in Aranda’s system for at least one full year. The three marquee players – linebacker Devin White, defensive end Rashard Lawrence and cornerback Greedy Williams, are all in their third years with him. So is safety John Battle, who’ll be quarterbacking the defense from the secondary. Defensive end Glen Logan is a third year man. So is defensive tackle Ed Alexander. Defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko is in his second year, having redshirted as a transfer from Texas Tech. Linebacker Michael Divinity is a third-year man, as is his colleague at the F-linebacker position Ray Thornton. Buck linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson is in his second year, as is Mike linebacker Jacob Phillips. So is safety Grant Delpit.
In fact, only two positions on the defense figure to be manned by first-year players. The cornerback spot opposite Williams looks like it could go to freshman sensation Kelvin Joseph, though Joseph still has to fight off sophomore Kary Vincent and senior transfer Terrance Alexander. One of those three is also likely to play nickel back; if Vincent wins that job he’s also a veteran.
The point being, the players know what Aranda wants to do with the defense and they understand his scheme. That allows him to coach at an advanced level, and it means he’s going to bring a lot more blitzes, a lot more coverage packages, a lot more stunts and twists on the defensive line and a lot more other wrinkles than he’s shown in those first two years.
So far in camp it’s pretty obvious he’s taking advantage of his players’ experience. The defense has dominated. That could mean LSU’s offense is terrible, of course; we’ll find out. But when the coach who’s had two Top 12 defenses in his first two years is talking about doing more, there is reason to think this is going to be a championship-caliber unit that will keep the team in virtually every game.
2. This could be the best collection of linebackers LSU has had. Ever.
Sure, that’s a strong statement. After all, LSU’s recent teams put out a string of pretty darn good linebackers who are having quite successful NFL careers. Kwon Alexander, Deion Jones and Kendall Beckwith were all on the team together, after all – except that for some unfathomable reason Chavis didn’t put them on the field at the same time.
That isn’t true with Aranda, who uses four linebackers and values athletic ability more than Chavis did when he had Lamar Louis and D.J. Welter taking up space in the lineup instead of Jones and Beckwith. And with White and Phillips inside and Chaisson and Divinity outside, LSU has what looks like four very likely future NFL linebackers in the starting lineup.
White is the star of the group, at least heading into the season. He posted 137 tackles last year as a one-man wrecking crew, and that was without a whole lot of help from the other inside linebacker position – Donnie Alexander was adequate, but not a star, last year. In Phillips, though, White has a running mate who may be even more talented than he is. It took a year for the Tennessee native to get acclimated to college football, but since the spring the five-star recruit has been coming on like a hurricane and our sources who’ve seen him in practice say he’s another Beckwith.
That would give LSU its best pair of inside linebackers since perhaps Bradie James and Trev Faulk in the early 2000’s. If you consider that this program won national championships in 2003 and 2007 without really having marquee linebackers (in 2003, LSU started Cameron Vaughn, Eric Alexander and Lionel Turner, while in 2007 it was Darry Beckwith, Ali Highsmith and Luke Sanders), putting a pair of likely high-round draft picks in a position to control the defense could make for fun viewing.
But then if you throw Chaisson into the mix it’s even more interesting. All camp long the word is the coaches expect Chaisson to make a run at LSU’s single-season sack record from that Buck linebacker position, and he certainly showed flashes as a freshman last year that he’ll be a big-time outside pass rusher. Now he’s bigger and stronger, with better technique, and he’s going to be a weapon against opposing pass offenses this year and next year before becoming a likely high-round draft pick in the 2020 draft.
The F-linebacker spot is the more unknown of the positions, but that has turned into an interesting battle between Divinity, who’s a junior, and the redshirt sophomore Thornton. In the spring it was Thornton who blew up and got the insiders in the program excited, but now Divinity has had maybe the best fall camp of anyone on the team. He was always a very good run defender, but from reports we’ve heard Divinity is really coming on as a pass rusher as well.
Add depth with Andre Anthony and Travez Moore outside and Patrick Queen inside, and you have an astonishing amount of talent at linebacker. And that’s before any of the freshmen – Micah Baskerville and Damone Clark inside and Jarell Cherry and Dontrieze Scott outside – get a chance to make an impact.
For a program which has had a great deal of defensive success without having a particular reputation for a loaded linebacker corps, unleashing this crew on opponents could make for a good show. We see this group contributing to one of the more consistent pass rushes LSU has had, and it’s going to be a rare team capable of running on them.
3. This looks like the first LSU team since 2013 which can win games with its wide receivers.
We’re making a little bit of a leap here, for the simple reason that while LSU has had receivers since 2013 who have been capable of denting NFL rosters there hasn’t been a capable quarterback to consistently get them the ball. We’re going to make the assumption Burrow can at least be an average passer; if he is, things could be interesting.
LSU lost the top two receivers off last year’s team in D.J. Chark, who’s having a whale of a preseason with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Russell Gage. But there is some talent returning in Stephen Sullivan, who at 6-7 should emerge as a real weapon in the red zone with an accurate passer to throw him jump balls, Dee Anderson, Derek Dillon and Racey McMath (and perhaps Drake Davis, if his legal troubles don’t result in him being run off).
None of those guys are currently in the top group of LSU’s receivers, though. Right now the top four are Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles, who is the best receiver LSU has had since Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry went pro following the 2013 season, sophomore Justin Jefferson, who came out of nowhere to emerge as the star of spring practice and hasn’t let up since, and five-star freshmen Jamarr Chase and Terrace Marshall. That group is unproven, yes, but the word from the practice field is LSU hasn’t had this much athleticism at the receivers in a long time (if ever).
That said, in Saturday’s scrimmage there were far too many drops out of the receivers. We’ll chalk that up to a bad day, partially due to Giles and Jefferson missing the scrimmage, and they’re going to be the two leading pass-catchers on the team – at least in the early part of the season.
Giles in particular is the guy to watch. After all, he hauled in 69 passes for 1158 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore at Texas Tech in 2016 before transferring to LSU; Beckham and Landry are the last receivers to put up numbers like that here, and if Giles can approximate them he’ll be the focal point of the entire offense while creating opportunities for his teammates on the flanks. But with his speed and ability in the open field, and with running back something of a question, one interesting thing to watch will be whether new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger is willing to make use of Giles on jet sweeps the way Gage was used in Matt Canada’s offense last year.
If those things pan out, and Jefferson, Chase and Marshall deliver on their promise, the passing game could become a true strength. That’s something LSU has almost never been able to claim in this century.