What, exactly, should we expect from Bo Pelini's new defense?
In early July, Ed Orgeron said that LSU will be much better on defense on 2020, and that he believes that’ll happen because he hired Bo Pelini to run his 4-3 scheme.
If you’re an LSU fan, that move probably elicited 1 of 2 reactions. “What a great hire to replace Dave Aranda!” or the half-smirk, “I don’t know, man.”
Whichever side of that discussion you fall on, reality is that Pelini was brought back to Baton Rouge and paid $2 million annually to ensure that the consensus doesn’t become “I miss Aranda so badly.” Pelini will be different from Aranda, and not just in terms of their schemes or sideline demeanors. That much is obvious.
But let’s go back to what Orgeron said — he believes that LSU will be much better on defense and he hired Pelini to implement the 4-3 (Pelini said that LSU will still provide multiple looks). Orgeron later added that “we didn’t play to the standard that we wanted to play last year.”
That’s not the College Football Playoff selection committee nitpicking. That’s the head coach of a team that produced arguably the best season in college football history saying that about his team. Never mind the fact that his defense closed out its national championship run allowing an average of 18 points in the final 5 games, 3 of which were against top-4 teams. And also never mind the fact that LSU had 6 defensive players selected in the first 4 rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Nope. “Much” better is what Orgeron expects in Year 1 with Pelini. That’s telling.
It’s telling that Orgeron said that about Aranda’s defense, which had a well-documented midseason lull. Or perhaps Orgeron was frustrated at the way Aranda’s defenses trended the past 4 years:
- 2016 — No. 5
- 2017 — No. 14
- 2018 — No. 26
- 2019 — No. 32
During that same stretch, Alabama and Auburn had top-20 defenses all 4 years, and neither had a defensive coordinator who was paid like Aranda. Again, Aranda was the highest-paid assistant in America in 2019. His $2.5 million salary was only $1.5 million less than Orgeron’s contract. Compare that to Auburn, where Gus Malzahn still made nearly $5 million more than defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who produced all 4 of those aforementioned top-20 defenses.
You know what it seems like Orgeron wants and expects from Pelini? To produce like Steele. That is, crank out top-20 defenses annually even if it has to deal with a struggling offense like Auburn’s 2017 defense did, or even if he’s got an entirely new group of starting linebackers to work with like Auburn’s 2019 defense did.
Actually, that’s pretty relatable for Pelini’s situation. He also has an entirely new group of starting linebackers to work with. Hence, the switch to the 4-3.
It’s no secret that’s the biggest question mark on the Tigers’ defense. Patrick Queen and K’Lavon Chaisson both left school early to become first-round picks and Jacob Phillips was a Day 2 pick. That alone was 258 tackles, 33 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, and that’s not even including the loss of multi-year starter Michael Divinity or Jim Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit, who often played at the line of scrimmage and operated like an additional linebacker.
It’s not difficult to see why LSU’s defense under Aranda was built around those linebackers. That’s not to say LSU’s personnel will minimize the impact of the linebackers. Divinity’s 2019 understudy Damone Clark will take on a major role, as will 2-time FCS All-American Jabril Cox after his highly touted arrival from North Dakota State.
But the goal now, of course, is for Pelini’s 4-3 to be built around LSU’s new position strength — the defensive line. It’ll be relying on veterans like Tyler Shelvin, Neil Farrell and Glen Logan, all of whom started multiple games last year and are entering either Year 4 or 5 in Baton Rouge. Including promising sophomore Siaki Ika, there’s no lack of depth playing on the interior defensive line.
This, Orgeron hopes, will lead to an elite run defense. LSU’s opponents averaged just 32.5 rushing attempts per game in 2019. It’s hard to justify sticking to the ground game against an offense that’s lighting up the scoreboard at a historic rate. That number will inevitably go up in 2020. While LSU was mostly good against the run — the Ole Miss game skewed a lot of those numbers — you can bet Orgeron would like even more consistency from a group that allowed 4.6 yards per rush in its first 7 games against Power 5 competition.
Will Pelini’s defense make that happen? He certainly has the personnel to make that a reality. Shelvin’s breakout 2019 season earned him Pro Football Focus’ best run-defender grade of any returning SEC player, and Farrell graded as the No. 4 returning SEC defensive tackle.
But this is about improvement across the board. There’s no question about Derek Stingley being a lockdown, All-American corner. The more pressing questions are how will Pelini use Cox to make plays in space — he’s better going sideline to sideline and covering than he is at blowing up plays at the line of scrimmage — and what type of freedom JaCoby Stevens will have. I’d say this is a pretty good answer to that question:
JaCoby Stevens talking about Bo Pelini with @LSUTigersVoice: “The installs are getting me excited about how aggressive, how loose we’re going to play. He fit right into our culture. He’s not going to make a player adjust to his system. He’s going to put them where they fit.” #LSU
— Harrison Valentine (@HValentineLSU) May 5, 2020
That, at least to me, came across as Stevens’ way of saying that Pelini seems to care more than Aranda about adjusting to his surroundings rather than having his surroundings adjust to him. It’s funny how the fear among LSU fans was that Pelini was going to do the exact opposite of that, and that he wouldn’t be a culture fit. That’s a senior captain saying that “he fit right into our culture.”
Of course, that’s easier to say in May than in November.
Pelini doesn’t have to become a revelation like Joe Brady was, and he might not be as well-liked by fans as Aranda was. Pelini’s return to Baton Rouge might not yield 3 consecutive top-3 defenses like it did in his first stint at LSU.
But he does have to find ways to maximize LSU’s defensive potential and prevent it from taking a step back in a division that’s loaded with more elite offensive minds than ever. The early returns suggest there’s every reason to believe his defenses can be every bit as good as Aranda’s were.
Or according to Orgeron, “much” better.