SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The man known as The Professor, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, admittedly lives much of his life inside his closely shaved head.
He knows his wife Diane and their three children enjoy living in Baton Rouge, but he can’t for the life of him figure out why his kids spend so much time on their cell phones — like everyone’s kids do.
Right now, the world inside Aranda’s head it is not the most pleasant place to be.
The missed assignments and blown opportunities from an entire season replay disturbingly in his mind’s eye, as if accompanied by the soundtrack of a freight train screeching to a halt on its metal brakes.
“I wish we could go back to the La. Tech game and that I could incorporate more pressure there and call more blitzes,” Aranda said Saturday at a Fiesta Bowl media availability. “The thought with that game was to try to play it with a traditional front and look. Looking back, we should have been more pressure-oriented.
“Man, I wish I could go back and fix those things. You learn from those things.”
The season-ending seven-overtime epic with Texas A&M, essentially two games in one for all the plays the Aggies ran, is the one that torments Aranda the most. The long touchdown drive that forced overtime and the four touchdowns in the extra frames that led to a 74-72 defeat.
“I’m very disappointed in the last game,” Aranda said. “I’m disappointed in myself. I take responsibility for that.
“We were not as clean as I like us to be. There were errors being made. I thought we adjusted. The second, third and fourth quarters we played better football. It wasn’t the best football we’ve played, but it was better. We did that by addressing the issues that showed up. But when you play another game, more problems show up.”
Problems have plagued LSU’s defense throughout this season. Starting linebacker Tyler Taylor was suspended in August. K’Lavon Chaisson, the Tigers’ top edge rusher — outside pressure is the antidote to today’s modern offenses, Aranda believes — went down in the Sept. 2 season opener against Miami with a knee injury that reduced him to a spectator.
Cornerback Kristian Fulton won a miracle eligibility appeal from the NCAA, then was lost after an ankle injury against Arkansas on Nov. 10. All-American cornerback Greedy Williams decided to skip the Fiesta Bowl with an eye toward the NFL draft, as did nose tackle Ed Alexander. A projected Fiesta Bowl starting cornerback, Kelvin Joseph, was left home for disciplinary reasons.
The result of it all has been an erosion of the suffocating defensive numbers LSU posted in its first two seasons inside Fortress Aranda.
Yards allowed are up. Points are up. In 2016-17 combined, LSU allowed just 43 touchdowns in 25 games, 1.7 per contest. Even taking out the overtime TDs against Texas A&M, LSU allowed 26 touchdowns in 12 regulation games, or 2.17 per contest. And all this despite starting three first-team All-Americans: Williams, Butkus Award-winning linebacker Devin White and safety Grant Delpit.
“We were bending too much, still not allowing a lot of points but allowing too many yards,” Aranda said. “I take responsibility for all of it.”
Cynics will say Aranda has not earned his keep this season, but his greatest sin in this trying defensive season has been that he is not a miracle worker.
Neither has he forgotten the defense that made him such a sought-after commodity last season and before that when Les Miles hired him away from Wisconsin, where Aranda’s Badgers were among the nation’s best defenses relying mostly on two-star recruits and wishful thinking.
“Dave’s a rock for us,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said recently. “I have total trust in Dave. He’s fantastic. One of the best defensive minds. Hard worker. Humble. Can’t say enough about Dave.
“Dave’s going to be a great head coach whenever he chooses to be a head coach. He’s going to have a lot of success. For right now, we’re happy to have him.”
The curse of it for Aranda — if you can call the highest-paid assistant coach in college football cursed — is that this season’s defensive rock slide has come on the heels of Aranda’s mega-contract year.
Texas A&M, as it so happens, came sniffing around for Aranda to be its defensive coordinator and LSU locked him up with a four-year, $10 million guaranteed deal. It was such a big contract that talk of Aranda possibly becoming the next head coach at Utah State (he was defensive coordinator there in 2012) was laughable, because Matt Wells was making $900,000 per year there before leaving for Texas Tech.
"I haven't thought of it,” Aranda said when asked if his LSU deal would make it harder for him to leave. “I imagine it would.
“I think, one side of it, it could look like that. On the other side of it, it could look like, 'Man, I don't have to worry about any other stuff. I feel security. I feel like I know where I'm at. I feel like I'm investing in this. They're investing in me. We got it.' I feel more like that.
“I hope I'm here a long time.”
This season’s issues aside, that ultimately would be the best news for LSU.