Everyone knows the LSU football team will soon have a new offense.
New coordinator Matt Canada is set to take over Jan. 1, overhauling what many believe to be an archaic system with his motion-filled, misdirection scheme.
What many don’t know: LSU will have a new defense, too.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda suggested earlier this month that change is coming. LSU’s defense will shift toward the unpredictable, imaginative 3-4 unit that Aranda’s reputation is built upon, employing more hybrid outside linebackers to get creative. The Tigers will move away from the "basic” style that Aranda said he used this season.
And he's not waiting until 2017 to do it.
“(The bowl game is) an opportunity to play off some of the things we've done and take it to the next level,” Aranda said.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron can't deny how well quarterback Danny Etling played in Tigers' regular …
“This year, we played a very basic style,” he added. “Will be interesting to see what the bowl game brings.”
For one, it will bring a new middle linebacker — the only real certainty about LSU’s tweaked defense in Saturday’s Citrus Bowl against Louisville in Orlando, Florida. Donnie Alexander, a smaller, speedy junior, replaces hulking 250-pound senior Kendell Beckwith.
The switch is connected to the scheme change. Beckwith’s season-ending knee injury opened the door for Aranda to take the next step with his defense — eight months earlier than expected. He won’t have to wait until the 2017 season opener Sept. 2 against BYU in Houston.
The first chapter of change is expected to unfold when the No. 19 Tigers (7-4) meet No. 15 Louisville (9-3) and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Lamar Jackson.
“We've been dominated by D-linemen, dominated by DBs,” Aranda said. “Some of that is going to change, in terms of who we've got coming back and what their strengths are. It's a good turn of events in this bowl game.”
LSU could lose as many as six defensive starters from this year's team, and the Tigers are facing a true dual-threat quarterback. Those things, plus Beckwith's absence, spurred Aranda to speed up his changes.
Will LSU use more hybrid outside linebackers against pass-heavy Louisville and the speedy Jackson? Will Alexander come blitzing into the backfield twice as much as Beckwith did? Will fewer traditional defensive linemen be on the field, replaced by quicker hybrid players or defensive backs?
Aranda isn’t revealing his game plan, of course, but the defense you’ll see Saturday morning might look more like the unit he plans to use in 2017 and less like the one he used this season.
The known change is Alexander, a junior who has backed up Beckwith this season, only seeing spurts of playing time. The former Edna Karr standout gets his first chance Saturday to show he’s capable of potentially extending a recent streak: Alexander could follow Deion Jones and Duke Riley as the third linebacker in three years to move into a starting role as a senior after three seasons as a backup. Jones and Riley developed from unknowns to some of the Southeastern Conference’s most productive players.
“I just talked to (Jones) recently about it, talked to him about going into next year,” Alexander said last week. “Talked to him about the things I need to do myself. He told me that I really don’t have a choice. They set the tone. Nobody wants to be that guy that lets everything fall down. It’s a little bit of pressure, but not a lot. You just know what you have to do.”
It begins Saturday.
Alexander has an entire month to prepare for his replacement duty of Beckwith, who was injured Nov. 19 vs. Florida. Against Texas A&M, Alexander had just five days. LSU allowed five touchdowns against the Aggies in a 54-39 win; Aranda’s unit entered that matchup having given up 11 TDs in 10 games.
Dissatisfied with the communication between the LSU staff and him, Catholic High running bac…
That performance still eats at the 40-year-old defensive coordinator. His crew gave up three touchdowns in the final 14 minutes.
“I feel that was my biggest failure this year,” he said.
It’s up to Alexander and his defensive teammates to avoid finishing one of the program’s most impressive defensive seasons with such a sour performance.
While LSU loses Beckwith’s size in the middle, the Tigers gain speed. Alexander is known for his athleticism and quickness, but he hopes to pack on the pounds in the offseason.
Currently weighing 216 pounds, Alexander said he wants to play at 225 next season. The key isn’t getting to that mark, he said. It’s staying there through the season, when players lose pounds during weeks of hot practices in August and September.
Alexander will remain next season at the middle inside linebacker spot, a position Aranda refers to as the Mack. In August, coaches moved Alexander from behind Riley at the Rover inside linebacker position to behind Beckwith at the Mack. He swapped with Devin White, who backed up Riley this season.
At some point, though, coaches hope to move White back to Mack, a position that requires a veteran player who can made play calls for the defense.
“Donnie has good speed, has good instincts. Obviously we want him to get a little bit bigger. I don’t know if you can replace a guy like Kendell right away,” head coach Ed Orgeron said. “Hopefully Devin White can become that football player later on.”
Aranda said he’s motivated by the challenge of losing both of his inside linebackers. Riley and Beckwith are seniors.
He has dealt with this before. He compares his first season at LSU to his debut year at Wisconsin in 2013. Year 2 is looking mighty familiar, too.
“We played there (my first year) very much like we played here: basic, simple concepts, teaching the foundation. Had two great linebackers there,” he said. “When they graduated, some guys behind them who were good quality guys (stepped up). They were all-conference. Year after that, we were playing with all freshmen. This next year is a combination of those two years.”
What does that mean for LSU? A different defense. It means more of the creative, versatile scheme that Aranda’s known for, a unit that uses non-traditional front-seven players to disguise and mask their plans.
“When you’ve got pass rushers, you’re always hesitant about dropping them,” Aranda said, a reference to pass-rushing defensive linemen on this year's team. “When you have the athletes on the outside — Ray Thornton, (Michael) Divinity — there’s opportunities to rush and drop and create opportunities for other guys rushing.”
After we clear away the ribbons and the wrappings and pop some Christmas leftovers in the mi…