LSU: Dave Aranda

LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda speaks with the media for the first time this season at the Fiesta Bowl media days.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Imagine, if you can, an offensive play called "Ham Sandwich."

It's all right if you start to struggle. Dave Aranda's here to help your imagination along.

The opponent's offense lines up in a formation. They've already called "Ham" in the huddle, which is a designed throw to the right.

Now their quarterback is now scanning your defense. He spots something that unsettles him. He shouts "Sandwich!" and the offense has now flipped its play to throw to the left.

Simple, right?

Aranda, LSU's third-year defensive coordinator, says defensive coaches are "envious of that simplicity."

"They control the snap, they control the tempo and all of it," says Aranda, speaking for the first time Saturday morning at Fiesta Bowl media days.

So what do you, as a defense, do to disrupt their simplicity?

"Outside pressure," Aranda says.

And now the $2.5 million-per-year coach, nicknamed "The Professor," is drawing in the air with his hands.

"Let's just say we're in an odd front," Aranda says. A standard 3-4. Three linemen. Four linebackers. The opponent's five offensive linemen approach the line of scrimmage and are attempting to identify the "five most dangerous guys."

There are three defensive linemen, so those are assigned to three blockers.

"Now they're looking for the other two," Aranda says. "You see what I'm saying?"

Here comes your outside pressure.

Aranda raises his right hand (say that's an outside linebacker) and his left (and say that's safety Grant Delpit), and sets them on either side of the offensive line, and he drags his hands close to the line of scrimmage, even with your three defensive linemen.

"Those are the five (most dangerous) guys," Aranda says. "They're going to block them ... then the only guys that's left for (inside linebackers) Devin White and Jacob Phillips is the running back. And that's the matchup you want. You see what I mean?"

That's the matchup LSU won time after time this season, when Aranda sent White screaming past opposing running backs on blitzes to disrupt the quarterback.

It caused an interception against Mississippi State, Aranda said, and it created extra pressure against Ole Miss and Texas A&M.

And once offensive lines squeezed their protections to block White, the opposing running backs were matched up with a blitzing Delpit.

That didn't always work out well for offenses, either.

White won the first Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker) in LSU history, leading the team with 12 tackles for loss; Delpit was a Nagurski finalist (top defender), tied for the team lead with five sacks; and Aranda was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award (top assistant coach).

"That's the game," Aranda says. "It's a one-on-one game. So we've tried to play that."

Adapting to personnel

Aranda had installed the outside pressures to create the "one-on-one game" before the season began, before he lost his best pass rusher, outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson, to a season-ending torn ACL tear in the Sept. 2 season opener against Miami.

Chaisson, a 6-foot-4, 238-pound sophomore, was expected to be the sack machine that former linebacker Arden Key was in 2017.

"When you have K'Lavon," Aranda said Saturday, "you've got the ability to focus on other problems. (He) could do his thing, and you could get sacks on first-and-10."

Aranda said Chaisson could effectively get sacks or pressure the quarterback in three key scenarios:

  • When the opponent ran standard dropback passes;
  • When the opponent ran play-action passes out of power run formations; and
  • When the opponent ran dropback passes out of run formations that are designed to go toward the weak side of the field.

"When you don't have that," Aranda said, "it just adds another layer to it. You've got to be able to find something that can effectively play all three of those things. ...

"There's a rabbit hole that you fall into, which, you know, I think that's a common issue for most guys. I think one of the great perks of being at this school is you don't have that too much. At times we dealt with it good, and at times we could have been better."

That rabbit hole of replacing Chaisson went pretty deep: Safety JaCoby Stevens cycled in at outside linebacker for the Auburn game, and inside linebacker Patrick Queen rotated in for the Rice and Texas A&M games at the end of the season.

LSU's total of 29 sacks and 75 tackles for loss were its fewest since 2014, and improving the pass rush was a regular point of emphasis in head coach Ed Orgeron's weekly news conferences.

The answer to creating more pressure most often included using Delpit as a rusher more often.

Delpit, Aranda said, has "the ability to set edges in the run game, beat a back in pass protection, cover a slot, play in the deep post, make a play on the (quarterback)" — a set of skills Aranda said former LSU safety Jamal Adams could have also contributed last year, if Adams had still been around, and if the defense had been as advanced in Aranda's second season as coordinator.

But the troubles establishing a pass rush weren't entirely because of Chaisson's injury.

More than anything, Aranda said, he — like most coordinators in this era — is struggling to figure out how to create a pass rush against teams that use running quarterbacks in a Run-Pass-Option offense.

"RPOs are cheating," former Georgia linebacker and ESPN commentator David Pollack said the morning of the LSU-Alabama game, when the Crimson Tide won 29-0 on Nov. 3. Pollack explained that in RPOs, offensive linemen run-block, so linebackers read run. Then quarterbacks drop a slant pass behind the linebackers for a big gain.

"You can't win," Pollack said.

When facing RPOs, Aranda said, you can't really bring outside pressure in the same way. You can't really use five dangerous defenders, or more, because players need to be prepared to defend the slant. And with less pressure, you have fewer sacks.

"It limits you some in that way," Aranda said. "You're better off with the front of just four guys (with their) hands up, (playing) tight coverage (in the secondary), and (linebackers) seeing the ball and breaking flat. At least, that's how we thought. That really affected in the middle-half of the season (with) some of the pressure-type stuff."

LSU didn't record a sack in a 27-19 loss Oct. 6 at Florida — the first time the Tigers didn't record a sack in nearly four seasons — and recorded just one each against Mississippi State and Alabama.

Aranda lamented the Sept. 22 Louisiana Tech game, when LSU surrendered 330 yards passing in a 38-21 win, saying that he wished he could go back and "incorporate more pressure there and call more blitzes."

And Aranda said he "was not prepared" for the number of plays in the Nov. 24 finale at Texas A&M — but who in college football would have expected to prepare plays for a 74-72 loss that took seven overtimes, tied for the longest football game in FBS history?

The loss to the Aggies, Aranda said, helped him prepare for Tuesday's Fiesta Bowl against No. 8 Central Florida, which has an up-tempo offense that has run 925 plays — nearly 30 more plays than any Southeastern Conference team other than Texas A&M (920).

'We're trying to find ways'

But in recent weeks, the depth hits to LSU's secondary — Greedy Williams leaving for the NFL draft, Kristian Fulton's season-ending ankle injury, Kelvin Joseph's bowl-game suspension for violating team rules — have prevented Aranda from even using Delpit as a rusher more often.

"The more limited we are with numbers, the more we need him in the back end to get people lined up and cover," Aranda said. "We're trying to find ways since we've been back to get him more involved (down) low. Last couple days, we've done that. But it's a little bit harder to do it."

Kary Vincent and Terrence Alexander will start at cornerback in the Fiesta Bowl, and since both were Aranda's main options at nickel safety, he said Stevens, starting free safety John Battle and reserve safety Eric Monroe would be available to make up the gap left at nickel if LSU wants to use packages with five defensive backs.

Paired with the loss of Phillips, who must serve a suspension for targeting in the first half, LSU will have tough matchups against UCF, which ranks fifth nationally with 44.2 points per game, and its receivers Gabriel Davis (756 yards, six touchdowns), Dredrick Snelson (664 yards, five touchdowns) and Tre Nixon (562 yards, four touchdowns).

"There's going to be a fair amount of 50/50 jump balls," Aranda said. "Ole Miss, for example, got wide splits and just threw it up, and these guys are going to be the same type of way — even wider splits, even more reasons to throw it up, I'm sure. And so, our ability to win early in the down, I think for them has been improved, and late in the down to finish in that regard."