Don’t go calling Lewis Neal a defensive end — not anymore.
In LSU’s new 3-4 defense, you might see Neal lined up in a three-point stance and head up on the offensive tackle. You might also see him in that same three-point stance, but lined up between the offensive tackle and the guard.
Or, you might see him standing up, no hand on the ground in a two-point stance, while aligned outside of the offensive tackle — with his assignment to rush the quarterback.
You might also see him standing up in that same two-point stance with a different assignment: Drop into pass coverage.
“I’m doing more,” Neal said. “I’m standing up, hand in the dirt, covering. I’m doing all of it.”
After all, what more is there for a defender to do? Not much.
Neal is an example of the hybrid player that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda employs in a scheme that, while based in the 3-4, is described as shapeless and multiple by LSU’s players and Aranda’s former colleagues.
A week into spring practice, Aranda’s exact scheme, packages, formations and plays are not known, but his personnel moves are. Neal, it appears, is morphing into one of Aranda’s most versatile players as a hybrid defensive tackle, defensive end and outside linebacker. Tashawn Bower and Sione Teuhema are expected to occupy similar type roles.
Arden Key, the highly touted Georgia native who starred as a true freshman last season, is shifting into what appears to be a standup-only role. He’s set to be Aranda’s hard-charging, pass-rushing man, a blend between a defensive end and outside linebacker.
Guys like Christian LaCouture and Greg Gilmore are moving farther inside as nose tackles, but these aren’t the “space-eating” kind used in typical 3-4 schemes, LaCouture said. These nose tackles are representative of the defense as a whole: attacking, aggressive and shifting.
“(We’re) not just sitting there taking up blocks,” said LaCouture, a starting defensive tackle the past two seasons. “I feel like Coach Aranda has brought that in. He’s not sitting back and letting them come to you. You’re attacking, trying to get up the field. It’s a lot of movement.”
Signee Edwin Alexander, a 330-pounder, is expected to join Gilmore and LaCouture at nose tackle, LaCouture said.
Meanwhile, smaller tackles like Davon Godchaux and Frank Herron are likely to work in as defensive tackles in different packages. For instance, in one package, LSU might have five defensive linemen in the game, with two of them — Key and Neal — standing up on the outside.
In another, LSU might have three defensive linemen in a three-point stance — Godchaux, LaCouture and Neal, for instance — with a third, Key, standing up.
There seem to be dozens of packages and personnel groupings. LaCouture said Aranda even runs a formation with just two linemen with their hands on the ground.
“That’s when I’m standing up,” Neal said. “We’re going to look like the Broncos.”
The Super Bowl 50 champions from Denver employed a base 3-4 scheme under coordinator Wade Phillips, and the unit ended the season first in the NFL in total defense.
Phillips’ defensive scheme isn’t a read-and-react type unit. It’s an attacking scheme, where defensive linemen and linebackers aren’t waiting on the offense to make their move.
After the Super Bowl, Denver players raved about how Phillips’ scheme allowed them to “fly around” and “play fast.”
It’s unclear just how similar Aranda’s defense is to the one Phillips installed with Denver, but one thing is certain: Its base is the 3-4, and that’s the most challenging part of the learning process, LaCouture said.
“We haven’t had that for a base since I’ve been here,” LaCouture said. “We’ve run it on passing situations and stuff like that. For us, we’re taking it one day at a time.”
Only portions of the defense have been installed, linebacker Kendell Beckwith said.
Learning a completely new defense is no easy task, but the players said Aranda is feeding them bits at a time.
LSU is on its third defensive coordinator in three spring practices, but this change is more substantial than the switch from John Chavis in 2014 to Kevin Steele in 2015. Steele and Chavis, close friends, ran similar defenses.
Steele and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, also in his first year last season, began to transition to more multiple fronts last year — which helps in this transition. They recruited that way as well, plucking long, rangy players who can morph into hybrid stars in a multiple defensive scheme.
Head coach Les Miles hinted at that on national signing day last month, even referring to LSU’s new defense by name.
“We signed five-star prospect Michael Divinity. Also signed a four-star and great leader in Rahssan Thornton from Texas,” Miles said. “And we put some guys around them that will have the flexibility to play nickel and dime and have the ability to, with the new Okie defense, step in and play some linebacker as well.”
What’s the Okie defense? It refers to the 5-2 defensive scheme Oklahoma used in the 1940s and 1950s under coach Bud Wilkinson. The formation caught on, and teams started standing up their two defensive ends to form what’s now referred to as the 3-4.
Miles mentioned the Okie defense again Saturday during a news conference when asked about young linebackers getting starting roles.
“In an Okie defense with four linebackers, it’s a pretty comfortable spot to step on the field if you’re athletic,” he said.
Aranda’s installation is in the early phases, but the players said it hasn’t been difficult. Karl Scott knows why.
“He had a million things going on in his mind at once and had a unique ability to communicate those things,” said Scott, Louisiana Tech’s safeties coach who was a graduate assistant under Aranda in 2007 at Delta State. “I learned the most football I learned in that one year.”
“He’s not putting too much on us early,” linebacker Duke Riley said. “It’s not hard for us. He’s giving us the simpler stuff.”
For Riley and the linebackers, their roles aren’t so different from schemes LSU has run in the past, he said. In fact, the names of the three linebackers — Mike (middle), Sam (strongside) and Will (weakside) — remain the same in Aranda’s defense, he said.
What about that fourth linebacker?
“That’s the defensive end,” Riley said.
It’s a good bet Key is that man much of the time.
Riley expects to play more outside linebacker than he has in the past. By late last season, Riley said he began to work behind Beckwith as LSU’s middle linebacker.
That’s not the case at the start of spring practice. Riley is mostly working with the outside linebackers, a group that also includes mid-year enrollee Divinity. During one session of Monday’s practice, ends Isaiah Washington, Bower and Key also were working with coach Bradley Dale Peveto and the outside linebackers.
Aranda is handling the inside linebackers, including Beckwith, mid-year enrollee Devin White, Donnie Alexander, Devin Voorhies and M.J. Patterson, who was moved from the defensive line.
Riley has experience in the 3-4. He played outside and inside linebacker in the scheme in high school at John Curtis. He describes his role as an outside linebacker as similar to a defensive end in a 5-2 scheme.
“You’ve got the outside jobs, contain, make sure the ball doesn’t get outside of you,” Riley said. “It’s an easy job.”
Riley said he and Key have “the same job,” but Key works most often with Orgeron and the defensive line group.
The defensive backs said they’re not affected much with the change in scheme and, no, they don’t know yet whether they’ll still use that 3-2-6 pass-rushing Mustang package made famous under Chavis and also used under Steele.
Just like so many things about Aranda’s defense, it’s wait and see.
“I hope we throw in that package,” safety Jamal Adams said of the Mustang. “That’s our favorite.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.