Yesterday, we took a look at LSU’s offense, a unit that doesn’t necessarily scare me all that much. Today, we look at the defense, a unit that terrifies me....
It’s not the deepest group in the SEC but this starting defensive line for LSU is one of the best. Rashard Lawrence is the veteran of the bunch and a leader on this football team. Given his position in this scheme, it’s hard for him to put up gaudy numbers but make no mistake this dude can play. Opposite him on this 3 man front is Glen Logan. He was an important piece of this DL rotation last season and has now stepped into the starting role for this defense. He and Lawrence will make it hard on Auburn’s guards to get to the 2nd level. Both backups Neil Farrell and Justin Thomas will see time as well.
But the emerging star of this group is Breiden Fehoko. That name should sound familiar to Auburn fans. Fehoko was once a 5* Texas Tech signee but after his freshman year decided to transfer away over concerns about the defensive coaching staff turnover and his desire to be better prepared for the NFL. Auburn was one of his first official visits and he left with the much more attractive Tigers on top. But that didn’t last after he took an official visit to LSU. Now he’s the starting nose tackle for this stout front and off to an explosive start. Fehoko has a lightning quick first step that has proven troublesome for opponents so far this season. There aren’t many nose tackles putting up his numbers in 2 games.
Auburn has already faced one stud nose tackle in Greg Gaines and struggled to consistently move the football. We will see if they can fare better this time around.
LSU defines their linebackers as “Bench” and “Field” backers. The “Bench” backer is somewhat similar to Auburn’s Buck position as his responsibility is often times to rush the passer. This is where Arden Key played and where new stud pass rusher K’Lavion Chaisson was expected to shine in 2018. But Chaisson suffered a season ending injury against Miami and now LSU is trying to find someone to step up and fill that vacant role. Andre Anthony is the new starter but hasn’t yet shown the ability to consistently pressure the QB. The Tigers have apparently flipped backup “Field” backer Ray Thornton to this side as well since the injury. I suspect that Aranda will rely more on different blitz packages to get pressure this weekend than rely on his B-backer like he might have done with a healthy Chaisson.
On the opposite of the field is the aptly named “Field” linebacker. This linebacker is asked to do a lot in this scheme from setting the edge in the run game to covering wide receivers in the slot. Michael Divinity was part of the mass suspensions last week but will start once again this Saturday. However, keep an eye on Jacoby Stevens. The former 5* athlete has moved all over the place in his young career for the not as good Tigers. This week he’s been reportedly working with the “Field” backers, something Orgeron has hinted might just be a “this week” type of thing.
If I were to guess, Aranda wants to get a lot more speed on the field this week to deal with Auburn’s screen game. Stevens is a big safety at 6’3” 225 lbs so he should have the size to play in the box with some success but absolutely has the athleticism to cover down on the edge. It will be interesting to see how often he’s used or if it’s only in specific situations.
The stars of this linebacking corps are in the middle. Most Auburn fans are probably well aware of Devin White. Arguably the best linebacker in the SEC, White terrorized Auburn’s offense in the 2nd half last season. He tallied a season high FIFTEEN tackles with two going for a loss and a sack. The Tigers consistently struggle to reach him at the 2nd level in the run game or pick him up on the blitz. That has to be an area of concern for Auburn heading into Saturday’s matchup.
White plays the “Rover” position which is the inside linebacker closest to the boundary. The “Mac” is the inside linebacker to the field, who like the “Field” linebacker, needs to cover a lot of space quickly. LSU has just the man for the job. Jacob Phillips was a late steal from Oklahoma for LSU in the 2017 signing class and has the makings of a future star on this defense. He was an impact player in LSU’s season opening win over Miami picking off a pass for a touchdown and consistently harassing Malik Rosier in the pocket with delayed blitzes. This is as good a linebacking pair in the interior of this LSU defense as Auburn will face this season.
Per usual, LSU is loaded on the backend of their defense. Andraez “Greedy” Williams is the star of the bunch coming off an All-American freshman campaign where he picked off 6 passes and consistently shut down team’s top receiving threats. He’s dealt with some cramping issues early this season but already has an interception to his name. I’m interested to see if Auburn tries to challenge him much or elect to go to the other side of the field.
On the other side of the field is former 5* Kristian Fulton. He was suspended all of last season for being caught trying to tamper with a drug test that he ended up passing. His original suspension was supposed to last two years but the LSU AD successfully convinced the NCAA that his specific type of violation was only a 1 year deal and not a 2 year one. It’s a really weird case overall and so if you want someone to better explain the situation just read this piece by Ross Dellenger.
As for his play since his return, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag honestly. Miami picked on him most of the day with some success. He got called for at least two pass interferences and struggled at times to stick with those talented Cane wide receivers. But some early bumps are expected for a kid who hasn’t played football in over a year. He will share time with true freshman Kelvin Joseph who also will check in as the Nickel corner for those packages. These two are probably the guys Auburn will try and attack considering what waits on the other side of the field.
Finally, there are the safeties. LSU has two of the fastest safeties I’ve seen on tape, led by Grant Delpit. Delpit is a menace on this defense. He’s incredibly fast allowing him to cover deep shots while also rotating down and snuffing out the run game. He already has 10 tackles on the year with three coming behind the line of scrimmage and leads the team in sacks with two. Auburn has to find a way to keep him out of the box long enough to give the running backs time to pick up some meaningful yards. That’s easier said than done.
At free safety is John Battle. Of the safeties, Battle is typically the guy asked to stay deep in this scheme and prevent the offense from going over the top. As a senior, he’s one of the most battle tested players in this defense having starting 21 games in his career. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a “ball hawk” but he’s very capable of coming across the field and knocking a would be big play out of the hands of a wideout. Expect a lot of Cover 1 from LSU with Battle deep over the middle of the field.
If named head coach of Nerd University tomorrow and allowed to hire any coordinator in the country, my first call would be to Dave Aranda. He built monster defenses at Wisconsin with overlooked talent and now that he’s at a place like LSU where he can recruit 5* studs, he’s even more dangerous.
Aranda runs a 3-4 scheme predicated on funneling everything inside. Defenses can either “spill” a ball carrier to the outside (something AU does plenty) or they can “box” him between the tackles. LSU will pretty much just do the latter and you see that in their pre snap alignment. On almost every snap their outside linebackers are aligned off the outside shoulders of the end men of the line of scrimmage.
This look above is their base defense. They ran this on almost every snap against Auburn last season. The DL is in what’s called a “Tite” front where the ends line up in as either a 4i technique (inside shoulder of the tackle) or 3 technique (outside shoulder of the guard) while the nose guard lines up over the center at 0 technique. This look is becoming popular all over college football especially in the Big 12 where they have to deal with wide open Spread attacks that can hit you with inside zone run games at any time. If you want a really good primer on the “3-4 tite front”, I highly recommend Cody Alexander’s article over on his awesome blog “Match Quarters”. Here’s a quick little excerpt explaining why more DCs are moving to this look (FWIW Auburn has started using some of these fronts as well):
In this day and age, the great defensive minds are turning disadvantages into their own advantage. If a team is zone heavy, why not plug the middle and force the cutback early, if not drastically? Most high school and college Spread offenses rely on speedy backs to run the ball outside or cut it all the way to the backside once the over pursuit has been walled. Many Spread formations force the defense into light boxes that Spread teams feast on. Again, why not make that an advantage for the defense? The 3-4 Tite Front can be a simple way to eliminate the inside zone, make zone reads harder for the QB, and force the teams that like to run a zone offense to bounce their plays outside to open defenders. Here is Iowa State using their Tite Front to devastating effect. Everything goes East and West; a DC’s dream
When Auburn goes unbalanced up front, the LSU defense makes a slight adjustment to this tite front as seen below.
To account for the extra gap created by the extra lineman or tight end, LSU shifts the nose tackle to over top the guard to the strong side of the field. The weakside DE still shades to the outside of the weak side guard to ensure he can funnel any backside runs towards the strength of the defense. Auburn didn’t have a ton of success running the ball against this look last season.
The other look is called “Peso” by Aranda and it’s his go-to pass rush front.
I’m interested to see if Aranda sticks with his base defense the majority of the time like he did last season or if he switches to more nickel looks with a “peso” front. Last year it was all about stopping Kerryon Johnson so it made a lot of sense to stick to his base 3-4 personnel. But Auburn’s offense now runs through Jarrett Stidham and the Tigers harassed Washington’s defense with short passing week one. I suspect we see more nickel personnel from Aranda this weekend than we did last season but I think he still sticks with his base “tite” front the majority of the time.
On the backend, LSU is typically a one high safety team which means they run a lot of Cover 1 and the occasional Cover 3. They often like to roll one of their safeties late to help out in the run game (usually Delpit) which has been one of the go to ways to slow down this Auburn rushing attack in recent seasons. The better looking Tigers think they have good numbers only for an extra unblocked defender to arrive late and snuff the play out. With an athlete like Delpit that can cover as much ground as he can it can be a nightmare for offenses trying to establish a consistent run game.
For Auburn to find success against this LSU defense this weekend they must win some 1 on 1 matchups on the outside. LSU is going to leave their corners on islands and focus on keeping Auburn’s rushing attack in check. It’s been the blueprint for stopping Gus Malzahn’s offense for years. Bring the safety into the box and lock down WRs in press man coverage. Thankfully, Auburn has started to show they are more willing to use man beater concepts like quick slants and mesh routes to free up wide receivers. I expect Auburn to do more of the same this weekend.
I also expect Auburn to continue to rely on the screen game to get the ball out in space. They had some success at times against LSU by counter attacking this aggressive defense with some quick screens. Auburn’s screen game has only grow and improved since their last matchup and should provide Stidham some relief from this LSU front 7.
But at the end of the day, Auburn will have to find a way to run the football, especially in the redzone. The Tigers’ offensive line must do a better job of executing double teams and combo blocks to neutralize this talented LSU interior linebacking corps. Given LSU’s use of wide alignments and rolling safeties, I don’t expect to see a ton of jet sweeps in this game either but don’t be shocked if Chip dials up a reverse or two to see if Anthony Schwartz can break contain and take one to the house.
LSU’s defense is why I’m not on board the “Auburn is gonna blow LSU out” train. It’s just too good a group to get shredded to bits. But I do believe Auburn has the talent at WR to move the football and if they can punch in a score or two they will come away with a hard fought victory. Above all else, this Auburn offense CANNOT turn the ball over. LSU has a kicker that can hit from anywhere on that side of the field and LSU’s offense has lived off short fields early this season. This Saturday will be a big opportunity for Jarrett Stidham and this Auburn offense to prove they are more than capable of putting points on the board against the best defenses in the country. Something they will have to do a number of more times given Auburn’s absurd schedule.