Wednesday saw what appeared to be movement in LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron’s quest to fill the defensive coordinator position on his staff left often when Dave Aranda took the head coaching job at Baylor. The inside story seems to be that current Youngstown State head coach Bo Pelini, who held that job at LSU from 2005-07 before getting the head coaching job at Nebraska and spending seven successful-but-turbulent years in Lincoln, is Orgeron’s choice.
Pelini, of late, is more known for fiery outbursts directed at officials and lacking an appropriate filter in his characterizations of fans and athletic department officials at places where he’s worked. He’s had limited success in his current job, where Pelini has a 33-28 record. In 2016, his second year in Youngstown, Pelini’s Penguins went 8-3 in the regular season and then caught a big run in the FCS playoffs, winning four games before losing to James Madison in the national championship game. Before and since he’s hovered around .500 – 5-6 in 2015, 6-5 in 2017, 4-7 in 2018 and 6-6 after a 4-0 start last year.
From afar, a few things are apparent about Pelini’s time at Youngstown State. First, he seems to have struggled with program management at the FCS level, where there are only 63 scholarships to go around and players are often issued partial, rather than full, scholarships. Pelini’s staff came to a large degree from younger coaches and graduate assistants who had been with him at Nebraska, and he might not have had enough experience around him to facilitate program-building the way it needs to be done at that level. In a signing-day press conference in December the coach talked a great deal about that, stating that the current recruiting class is the first one he’d taken where he truly felt he had his roster in good shape for the long term.
Something else which seems to jump out at a casual viewer seeing Pelini’s Youngstown State tenure is he’s obviously very frustrated at not having the talent around him he’s used to. He’s not a particularly patient coach, and with middling FCS players it’s an almost comic level of frustration.
Pelini has had opportunities to move back to the Power Five as a defensive coordinator, but not the motivation. Until last spring, he had been drawing better than $600,000 per year in buyout money from his Nebraska contract after being fired there despite winning nine or more games in each of his seven years on the job. Pelini also wanted to raise his children in his hometown, where his family and friends were, rather than continuing to drag them around the country amid the vagabond existence of a college football coach. This he’s mostly done; his youngest child, a daughter, is currently a junior in high school.
He’s in a job that pays less than $250,000 a year and the LSU defensive coordinator position has been paying ten times that amount. It’s a great time to make the move.
But from LSU’s perspective, why Pelini?
The answer is simple. He’s one of the great defensive minds in all of football, and his defenses have proven to compete at a championship level.
Pelini’s three years as LSU’s defensive coordinator were the first three years Les Miles was the head coach. LSU went 34-6 during that stretch, and Pelini coached a Top Ten defense in each of those years.
LSU was so dominant defensively during that time that one sports commentator famously called the Tigers “an 800-pound gorilla with a chainsaw for a penis.” And that perhaps overly-colorful characterization was anything but wrong. After struggling defensively in a 35-31 win at No. 15 Arizona State and a 30-27 home loss to No. 10 Tennessee in which the Tigers, physically and emotionally reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina less than a month before, Pelini’s defense went on a massive run. They held Mississippi State to a touchdown in a 37-7 road win, dominated at Vanderbilt 34-6, keyed a 21-17 home win over No. 11 Florida and a 20-17 home win over No. 16 Auburn, led a 56-3 wipeout of North Texas, shut out Appalachian State in a 24-0 victory, played one of the best games by a Tiger defense in school history in a 16-13 win at No. 4 Alabama, blew up Ole Miss 40-7 in a road win and outlasted Arkansas 19-17 in the finale at home.
Georgia hammered a tired LSU club which hadn’t had an open date in 11 weeks in the SEC championship game 34-14, but when the 2005 Tigers were rested again in the Peach Bowl they blew out Miami 40-3 in one of the most dominating bowl performances LSU fans had ever seen.
That year’s LSU team gave up just 14.2 points and 266.8 yards a game, good enough for No. 3 in the nation in both categories. Opponents completed just 47.3 percent of their passes against that defense, and averaged only 3.0 rush yards per game. They posted 37 sacks in 13 games.
There was a lot of talent on that defense, but not a legendary amount. The best player of the bunch was free safety Laron Landry, who was a junior that year and who led the Tigers with 69 tackles and three interceptions. They also had a terrific pair of defensive tackles for the 4-3 front they played in Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten. Defensive end Melvin Oliver, also a senior, had 11 sacks to lead the team. All of those guys went on to play in the NFL; Williams ended up as one of the best defensive linemen the Buffalo Bills ever had. But most of the rest of the defensive starters were good, quality players though not superstars. Cornerback Chevis Jackson played in the NFL, as did Ronnie Prude on the other side (but only briefly). Neither did strong safety Jesse Daniels. Linebacker Cameron Vaughn had a short NFL career, but the others, Ali Highsmith and Ken Hollis, couldn’t crack a roster. Defensive end Chase Pittman also didn’t get much of a pro opportunity.
The 2006 defense was even better. It gave up just 242.8 yards and 12.6 points per game, good enough for 4th and 3rd, respectively, in the national rankings. That was the LSU team which blew out Notre Dame 41-14 in the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 3 in the final AP poll at 11-2. Nobody scored more than 26 points all year on LSU and Pelini’s defense was outstanding against a murderous schedule. The Tigers lost an atrociously-officiated 7-3 game at No. 3 Auburn and a 23-10 game at eventual national champion Florida on a day where zero breaks went the Tigers’ way. But the rest of that season was nothing short of magical for Pelini’s defense. LSU beat No. 8 Tennessee 28-24 on the road, and won a 31-26 game at No. 5 Arkansas in the regular season finale. Opponents not ranked in the Top 10 when LSU played them fared quite poorly – against those teams Pelini’s defense surrendered only 70 points in eight games.
And perhaps the most iconic play of Pelini’s defense at LSU came that year in a 28-14 win over Alabama in Tiger Stadium when Landry came on a delayed blitz to blow up Crimson Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle…
That was something of a carbon copy of a hit Landry had delivered to Croyle the previous year…
That 2006 LSU defense was Landry’s personal playground, as he led LSU with 74 tackles and was third with three interceptions. But that 2006 team’s starting lineup was as nasty as LSU has had on defense: Glenn Dorsey and Charles Alexander at the tackles, Tyson Jackson and Chase Pittman at the ends, Darry Beckwith, Ali Highsmith and Luke Sanders at the linebackers, Jackson and Zenon at the corners and Craig Steltz and Jesse Daniels splitting time opposite Landry at safety.
Then came the 2007 national championship team. Pelini’s defense wasn’t quite as good statistically as they’d been in 2006, largely owing to a rash of injuries in the second half of the season. Still, they finished 17th in scoring defense at 19.9 points a game and third in total defense at 288.9 yards per game. The first five games of the season, which included two tilts against ranked teams (No. 9 Virginia Tech and No. 16 South Carolina), nobody scored more than 16 points in a game. After that there was a lot of hanging on defensively against good teams – the classic 28-24 win over No. 9 Florida, a rough 43-37 overtime loss at the best Kentucky team (then ranked #17) of this century, a dramatic 30-24 win over No. 18 Auburn, a 41-34 win at No. 17 Alabama, a 58-10 blowout of Louisiana Tech, a 41-24 road win over an Ed Orgeron-coached Ole Miss team, and then the 50-48 overtime loss to an Arkansas team with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. But LSU then knocked off No. 14 Tennessee 21-14 in the SEC Championship game, which put the Tigers into the national championship game thanks to some fortunate events elsewhere in the country that weekend. And in that game Pelini’s defense shook off an early breakdown or two to knock out Ohio State 38-24.
The 2007 defensive front, with Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman at the end and Dorsey and Marlon Favorite at the tackles, might have been the best in school history – at least, when they were all healthy. Steltz had a brilliant senior year at free safety, leading the team with 101 tackles and six interceptions, while Chevis Jackson added five interceptions. Curtis Taylor, the strong safety, went on to play in the NFL, and Zenon was the other corner. The linebackers were the same veterans they’d had – Highsmith, Beckwith and Sanders. In 2007 LSU also had Chad Jones and Danny McCray playing as extra defensive backs, both of whom were NFL talents.
Along the way Pelini’s defense was known for its aggressive, frenetic blitzing 4-3 style. He carried that with him to Nebraska, where with less talent he routinely had some of the better defenses in the country. Here’s a look at his 2009 defense, for example.
Pelini makes for a much different style of defense than Aranda, and not just because LSU would be going back to a 4-3, which Orgeron and defensive line coach Bill Johnson are more comfortable with. Pelini’s defenses bring pressure; Aranda’s were more bend-but-don’t-break and more focused on coverage.
And with an ace cover man like Derek Stingley at one corner, who, no offense to Jackson and Zenon, is light years better than anybody Pelini had to lock down a receiver with, an all-out blitzing defense could be frightening.
LSU’s defensive personnel is well set up for Pelini’s 4-3, by the way. Consider a potential lineup.
At the strongside defensive end position Tyson Jackson and Melvin Oliver played for Pelini at LSU is rising senior Neil Farrell, who has played very well so far. There is a mountain of depth behind Farrell.
At the defensive tackle spot Dorsey and Kyle Williams played is Glen Logan, who is ready for a real breakout senior year.
At the nose tackle position Favorite, Charles Alexander and Claude Wroten played is Tyler Shelvin, who is already better than any of the three other than maybe Wroten. The 2020 LSU team will be deep at this position.
The weakside end spot Chase Pittman and Kirston Pittman played for Pelini will be a major battle, with two seniors in Justin Thomas and Andre Anthony likely battling for first shot.
At the Sam linebacker Luke Sanders played, it would be a decent bet LSU would use sophomore Marcel Brooks, who came on like gangbusters as a pass rusher the second half of the 2019 season.
At the Mike linebacker spot Darry Beckwith and Cameron Vaughn played, it’s probably Damone Clark, who could well be better than either.
At the Will linebacker spot at which Highsmith starred, don’t be surprised if Jacoby Stevens moves down from strong safety. Playing closer to the line will make Stevens a potential difference-maker on that defense.
At the corners Jackson and Zenon played you’ll have Stingley and either sophomore Cordale Flott or freshman stud Elias Ricks, and that’s surely a better pair of cover corners than Pelini had when he was here before.
And at the safeties there might not be a Landry or Steltz, but on the other hand sophomore Mo Hampton and junior Todd Harris are arguably more athletic, and there’s lots of depth.
Kary Vincent is a better playmaker at nickel back than McCray was, and significantly better in coverage.
It’s potentially a defense with more speed, particularly at the linebackers, than he had here – or that he had at Nebraska.
Orgeron coached against Pelini when he was at Ole Miss, and while the Rebels did mount a good fight against LSU in 2006 he generally found himself badly outmatched against him. That was more than enough to convince Orgeron that Pelini was a top-flight defensive coach.
And let’s face it, given that national title he just brought him Ed Orgeron has earned the right to avoid criticism for a credible hire with respect to his defensive coordinator. Particularly given the three great years LSU fans received from Pelini.
It’s said you can never go home again. It wasn’t said by us. If Pelini’s next three years produce a defense anything like his last three years in Baton Rouge, last season’s national championship won’t be the only one Orgeron will celebrate in a mid-January.