Dave Aranda does not remember where this happened, but he does remember that it happened. And he does remember with whom it happened.
While recruiting at a high school, LSU’s defensive coordinator bumped into his counterpart at Clemson, Brent Venables. The two exchanged pleasantries before, of course, talking football.
The topic: how Clemson has the ability to substitute so many players on its defensive front over the course of a game while Aranda was, at one point this past season, stuck with four healthy D-linemen.
“We’d be joking about his rotation up front,” Aranda said. “That stuff is shocking, but I think we’re on our way.”
LSU restocked on its front seven, specifically its defensive line, in a 2018 signing class that, while not including a quarterback or true cornerback, beefed up what is overwhelmingly thought to be the one area separating the Southeastern Conference from all other leagues: depth, speed and size on the defensive front.
Ten of 23 signees play on the front seven. That’s the most D-linemen and most overall along the front seven in a class since at least 2004, when Nick Saban led the Tigers. Eight of those are listed as defensive tackle, defensive end, edge rusher or nose guard.
This did not come by coincidence.
"We had to address some deficiencies up front just in numbers. I think we did that,” Aranda said. “The ability to reload through the course of a game (with) our front seven, to feel good about who’s there and what they’re doing and to not miss a beat from when you started the game, that cannot be overvalued."
Aranda’s wide-ranging interview with The Advocate centered on rebuilding the defensive front. In fact, many believe LSU’s defensive front seven — and not quarterback — is the reason for the dip that began after the 2011 season, a downward spiral that led to the firing of former coach Les Miles in 2016.
The interview, though, touched a number of subjects as Aranda’s third spring practice approaches. The 41-year-old is becoming a mainstay in Baton Rouge. He enters Year 3 with a glamorous $10 million, four-year contract that exceeds any other in his position in the sport.
Dave Aranda calls it “Peso.”
He’ll spend much of the next few weeks on Xs and Os, exploring new schemes and teaching his own with other coaches. The learning never stops. The changing never ends.
Aranda plans to travel to Colorado for a coaches clinic, and he’ll soon host coaches for a clinic on the 3-4 defense. On this day, the flat-screen television hanging on Aranda’s office wall is paused on an NFL game. The coordinator is breaking down the Saints secondary in preparation for a meeting with a member of the New Orleans coaching staff. Aranda likes to know about a coach’s team and scheme before meeting with him.
Ahead of meeting with The Advocate, he’s prepared his sheet of defensive signees, giving a brief comment on each.
He likes the “football intelligence” of inside linebacker Micah Baskerville, an Evangel product, and believes defensive end Davin Cotton, also from Evangel, will be healthy by “the end of spring.” Cotton tore the interior cruciate ligament in his knee in August.
Nose guards Chasen Hines and Dominic Livingston, listed at a combined weight of about 700 pounds, have the “pop” Aranda wants from the nose position. Ferriday product Dare Rosenthal, all 6-foot-7, 330 pounds of him, is the ideal “prototype” of a defensive end in Aranda’s 3-4 scheme, he said. Edge rusher Travez Moore, a junior college transfer, is physically imposing but needs to gain ground mentally, and Aranda believes Texas edge rusher Jarrel Cherry’s “length and speed” give him the ability to rush the passer and drop into coverage.
The player he spoke the most highly of wasn’t a signee at all. Defensive end Breiden Fehoko, who sat out last season after transferring from Texas Tech, was the best defensive lineman on last year’s team, Aranda said.
“Breiden is going to come in and be one of our better players,” the coach said. “The depth he allows us, along with some of these other freshmen, we’ll be stronger than what we’ve been.”
Yes, the conversation always turns back to the defensive front, an area whose lack of depth and strength wasn’t truly realized until Aranda saw other teams. The upper-echelon of college football — like Venables’ Clemson defense, for instance — possess deeper and stronger fronts.
Clemson isn’t the only one.
“There was some shock when you saw what other teams had,” Aranda said. “That’s when it hit you. Like this past year playing Auburn and seeing them roll out those guys.”
Last fall, The Advocate examined the defensive line signees of LSU and its chief rival, Alabama, over a seven-class period, 2010-2016. The most revealing area was at defensive tackle.
The Tigers signed just six players from 2010-15 designated as a “defensive tackle” by recruiting services — while Alabama signed 17. Four of LSU’s six DTs never started a game in their career. The Tigers produced four defensive line draftees in the past four years — well short of the nine it cranked out from 2010-13.
Coaches have restocked the problem area since Aranda’s arrival in January of 2016. LSU signed 18 front seven members in the past three signing classes, the most in a three-year stretch in at least 15 years.
They are filling the roster with fast, rangy edge rushers to play in Aranda’s 3-4 scheme, thick-framed nose guards and versatile defensive ends. Whether these players will pan out is still uncertain. What is known: The bodies are there. They have options.
“We’ve allowed ourselves, with the signing class, the opportunity to do that," Aranda said, "to be able to rotate guys in and out and have the depth, specifically last year, at times we did not have. I’m excited about that.”
Kardell Thomas shut down his recruitment two weeks ago.
FOCUS ON THE FRONT
LSU signed more defensive linemen in a single class since at least 2004.
Front 7 signees
*includes outside linebacker/edge rusher types
LSU has seen a lull in its production of NFL defensive linemen over the previous four years after a spike in 2013.
Draft class: LSU D-line draftees — Rounds selected
- 2004: 2 - 2nd, 5th
- 2005: 1 - 1st
- 2006: 3 - 3rd, 5th, 6th
- 2007: 1 - 7th
- 2008: 1 - 1st
- 2009: 2 - 1st, 7th
- 2010: 1 - 4th
- 2011: 2 - 3rd, 7th
- 2012: 1 - 1st
- 2013: 4 - 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 5th
- 2014: 1 - 2nd
- 2015: 1 - 3rd
- 2016: 1 - 2nd
- 2017: 1 - 5th