The late-night text messages Dave Aranda receives are of football videos playing on an iPad sent from an iPhone.
They’re from his group of freshman linebackers, and they are the best example of just how optimistic he is about this decorated trio.
“I get texts at 10:30, 11 o’clock at night with videos of their iPads asking, ‘How do I fit this? What do I do with this?’ ” said Aranda, LSU’s second-year defensive coordinator. “All of that you love to see. There’s some really good tells there of what lies ahead.”
Aranda on Monday further heightened expectations for one of the most talked-about groups of the preseason: rookies Jacob Phillips, Tyler Taylor and Patrick Queen, a crew of inside linebackers whom the coordinator expects to use this season.
“I think they’re all going to have to play,” Aranda said during a news conference.
These are Aranda’s guys: He doubles as inside linebackers coach. He and outside linebackers coach Dennis Johnson brought this trio in, pulling Phillips away from Oklahoma and yanking Taylor away from Auburn and Georgia — last-minute lands of players ranked among the nation’s top 10 inside linebacker prospects.
And don’t overlook Queen, the local standout from Livonia. In fact, Aranda said the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder is the most athletic of the three.
Phillips arrived as the most “physically ready” of the trio, a guy who’s seeking contact, Aranda said. Tyler is the most football-savvy, with an “intuitive sense” for the game, the coach said.
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Teammates during camp raved about the intelligence, speed, tackling ability and physicality of the freshmen. And when mistakes happen, sophomore linebacker Michael Divinity said, “they mess up full-speed and still make plays.”
“I think they all bring very highly tuned skills,” Aranda said. “It’s becoming a complete player. To their credit, they’ve been all-in. Myself and (defensive analyst) Ronnie Wheat, who works with me, we’ll talk about how their questions are very forward-thinking. You can tell a lot about a question by where someone is at and their standing and development. And there’s darn good questions in there.”
In a rare news conference with both of LSU’s coordinators, defensive signal caller Dave Aran…
These aren’t the only inquisitive and talented freshmen Aranda plans on playing as early as the Sept. 2 season opener against BYU in Houston.
Safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Kary Vincent, at nickelback, are emerging as starters in the secondary, and highly touted Houston freshman K’Lavon Chaisson is battling at Arden Key’s edge-rushing position on the outside.
In fact, the two outside linebacker positions — Key’s hybrid role at “buck” and the "F" spot — are far from locked down, Aranda suggested. Chaisson and redshirt freshman Ray Thornton are waging what coaches have described as an intense battle for the starting role, assuming Key, who is recovering from a shoulder injury, can’t play.
Thornton, at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, and Chaisson, at 6-4 and 240, could split the position, a rotation determined by the opponent’s down.
“They’re battling. They’re battling,” Aranda said, emphasizing the competition with his repetition. “There’s a lot of merit to having Chaisson on the field when you know it’s a pass. Then there’s a lot of merit to Ray being on the field when they’re going to run the ball.”
Sixth-year senior Corey Thompson and Divinity are playing the "F" spot, more of a traditional outside linebacker role. Thornton is rotating there, too, when he’s not playing Key’s position.
Aranda describes that position as having “a lot of competition” from two players, Divinity and Thompson, who have “vastly improved.”
This is where Aranda’s strength is: the two outside linebacker spots. It’s why his defense this season could evolve into a more traditional 3-4 scheme, leaning more on speedy, rangy outside linebackers than big defensive linemen.
They call themselves the Bs. Or the Bucks.
Those decisions, though, haven’t been made, he claimed.
“I think we still have yet to explore where this defense goes as an overall structure,” Aranda said. “Do we play with a lack of D-linemen? Do we play more outside 'backers in the game? Do we move people around? I think at Utah State and Wisconsin at times, there’d be one D-lineman on the field and the linebackers and DBs moving around. Is that a necessity, too? I’m not saying we do that here, but I think you have to build to that.”
At inside linebacker, how the trio of freshmen will be used is still being decided, too. Senior Donnie Alexander and sophomore Devin White are firmly in starting roles.
Phillips and Tyler are “neck-and-neck,” coach Ed Orgeron said last week, behind Alexander, and walk-on Jonathan Rucker is battling there, too. Queen is backing up White.
No matter how they’re used — a three-man rotation, spot duty, special teams, etc. — the bottom line is this: They’ll be used. Inside linebacker is one of the thinnest positions on the team, despite the addition of the freshman trio.
“As far as the depth and the limited number of people in our room,” Aranda said, “we’re going to have to use all of them.”
Dave Aranda strikes you as the kind of cool hand you’d want handling a crisis in a disaster movie.