The defensive line meeting room inside LSU’s football operations building is an upscale college classroom.
There are rows of connected desks with purple chairs aligned in front of a marker board. A projector screen can be pulled down to cover the board, and, to the rear of the room, is a desk for the teacher – in this case, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. His desk is equipped with a computer to operate the projection and the lights and so on.
Since Orgeron’s arrival this spring, the room has turned into a theater for those who wish to watch some of the best NFL pass-rushers. Robert Mathis, Warren Sapp, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Tamba Hali are the lead characters in this movie.
This is the first step in Orgeron returning LSU’s defensive line to the sack-crazed unit it was just a few years ago.
“Today we watched Mathis from the Colts,” LSU defensive end Lewis Neal said earlier this week. “We watch different moves all of the time. Counter moves. Stabs. Chops. Everything like that. You have to have a move. You can’t just run freely.”
Orgeron’s Cajun twang, his gravelly yells, his aggressive and convincing recruiting style have all been well documented.
He’s brought something else to Baton Rouge: a sack-focused system full of schematic changes LSU players are digesting two weeks before the season opener.
“This is something I’ve always done in my career, something we’ve adjusted for this and that,” Orgeron said. “These are the techniques that we’ve taught. They’ve always been successful with great players, and I do believe we have some great players.”
It starts with those film sessions, moves to the practice field with a host of technique-specific sack drills, returns to the meeting room for schematic talk and, hopefully for LSU fans, then converts to the game field.
The Tigers are in dire need of a pass-rushing boost. LSU hit a sack low last season. Its 19 sacks were fewer than the program has had since 2000, and that number is miles from what this squad is used to.
LSU averaged 33 sacks a season from 2001-2013. Championships and sacks? They go hand and hand in Baton Rouge. LSU’s three championship-winning teams over that time – 2011, 2007, 2003 – had at least 37 sacks.
Get sacks. Get rings.
Nineteen sacks. That won’t cut it, players say.
“We expect more this year,” defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said, “especially with the schemes Coach O wants to bring.”
What are these schemes? Most are still coy about specifics, hoping to surprise the opposition. After all, LSU does play two pivotal Southeastern Conference games – Mississippi State and then Auburn – in the first three weeks, both against electric, hurry-up offenses that’ll test coordinator Kevin Steele and Orgeron’s new tactics.
Some pieces, though, have been gleaned from interviews over the first two weeks of preseason camp.
First off, the Tigers are more focused on reaching the quarterback. It’s something Orgeron has instilled in the group, and something, he says, he’ always done everywhere he’s coached.
It’s get to the quarterback or bust.
“He’s all about his pass rush, not contain rush,” Neal said. “He wants us to do pass rush moves, not just play contain rush. He gives us different moves to study.”
Moves. Those are another Orgeron staple. His message: Just don’t run onto the field and hope to sack the quarterback. Run onto the field and hope to sack the quarterback by using a proven pass-rush move.
Linemen have adopted moves from some of the best through those theater segments in the meeting room. There’s the spin, the club, the swim and the grab. There’s the bull rush, the speed rush, the rip and the chop.
They watch some of the NFL’s best, not only during games, but during practice, LaCouture said.
“We’ll watch practice clips and then we’ll see in live action,” the junior said. “We’ll watch and perfect it.”
There are different sets for different moves, too.
“When we’re in the meeting room, we’ll watch sets and we’ll be like, ‘What’s the best move against this set?’” defensive tackle Quentin Thomas said.
Schematically, defensive linemen – specifically the tackles – are spaced out more than they were under former defensive line coach Brick Haley. The goal here is to get more one-on-one matchups against offensive linemen.
Tackles say they’re more “free,” and they can take advantage of the disadvantage that this presents for interior offensive linemen.
It might create confusion, too, says LaCouture, and that’s something Orgeron prides himself in.
LSU is likely to show a variety of fronts, moves and sets so the unit can avoid being easily scouted by other teams. It’s all about confusion and secrecy – the art of surprise.
New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has mostly kept his changes under wraps. He said last week at LSU’s media day that the Tigers’ defense, under his good friend John Chavis, “wasn’t broke.”
“We’ve kept a lot the same, and we’ve added some new wrinkles,” he said.
Will Steele run a 3-4? He suggests the Tigers won’t because they don’t have the personnel to run a conventional 3-4 with four linebackers. However, LSU has run a version of the 3-4 — the Mustang, which uses two linebackers and two defensive backs — for years, Steele said, and that won’t change.
“The Mustang package of LSU’s fame, that’s a 3-4 defense,” he said. “It’s just two DBs playing outside linebacker in a 3-4.”
The linebackers, coached by Steele and Bradley Dale Peveto, are involved in increasing LSU’s sack number. In fact, strong-side linebacker Lamar Louis said the linebackers and linemen are more unified than in Chavis’ system.
That could help in blitzes and stunts, which all lead to sacks, of course.
“It helps our assignments to know where the D-linemen are going and what they’re going to do versus maybe a few years ago (when) we really didn’t know too much about the D-line,” Louis said.
All of the above is how LSU plans to roll up more sacks. But how did it get to this situation? That’s tougher to explain.
The Tigers had 19 sacks in 13 games, and they had seven sacks in one game against Sam Houston State, a Football Championship Subdivision squad. That’s 12 sacks in the other 12 games.
“It bothers us a lot,” Neal said.
Part of the problem may be LSU’s past defensive line recruitment. For instance, the Tigers signed one defensive lineman in the 2012 class – Danielle Hunter, who left as a junior after last season to enter the NFL draft.
They currently have two senior defensive linemen on the roster: Mickey Johnson, who has rarely played and nearly transferred this off-season, and Quentin Thomas, who’s suffered through an injury-riddled career that’s produced four starts in four seasons.
LSU signed five defensive linemen in the 2013 class. Excluding LaCouture, that group has combined for zero starts through two seasons in Baton Rouge.
Hunter’s early departure highlights another issue: losing players early to the draft. LSU has lost five defensive linemen early to the pros over the last three years. That hurts depth and forces coaches to play younger players earlier than normal.
For example, freshman defensive end Arden Key might find the field for significant time this season, and tackle Davon Godchaux started 10 games last season as a rookie.
The lack of depth last year significantly affected the rotation at tackle and end – key in keeping an taxing position group fresh for four quarters.
LaCouture, for instance, said he played every snap of the Tigers’ win at Florida last year – something Orgeron says he wants any player to avoid this year. But a possible rotation this season looks spotty, at least at tackle.
Reserves like Greg Gilmore, Johnson and Frank Herron have seen little playing time, and the Tigers lost defensive linemen Travonte Valentine (transferred) and Trey Lealaimatafao (dismissed).
Orgeron doesn’t seem considered. He expects Gilmore and Herron, redshirt sophomores, to be part of the rotation. Johnson and Thomas seem to be on the third level.
“We have six guys,” the coach said. “That’s about fine. I’ve played with less.”
He has seven scholarship ends to work with. All of them are absorbing different things from those theater sessions in Orgeron’s classroom: hand placement, get-off, footwork, steps.
They’ll all result in one thing – moves.
Said a smiling Neal: “I got plenty of moves.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.