The Mad Scientist Coach and His New Lab Down on the Bayou

They just do things differently in Louisiana.

What everyone else calls counties, Louisiana calls parishes. Its law code doesn’t match the other 49 states. And its melting pot of culture and cuisine is unlike anything else you’ll find in the United States.

That vibe of “different” extends to its premier college football team. The LSU Tigers traditionally wear white jerseys at home, something almost every other program does for road games. The goal posts at Tiger Stadium are H-shaped instead of the typical Y frame, and the yard lines are numbered at every five.

So this locale is just perfect for the defensive coordinator the Bayou Bengals brought to Baton Rouge this offseason from Wisconsin—a coach that has made a fast-rising career out of “different.”

Meet Dave Aranda, the assistant who has been branded “the mad scientist” by his players both past and present. He’s always questioning and always tweaking.

“He loves to say ‘why,'” LSU head coach Les Miles told Bleacher Report. “He loves to tell the players he coaches why he does what he does. He’s a tremendous technician, and he enjoys people. He’s usually got a smile on his face.”

Aranda doesn’t fit the mold of a typical LSU defensive coordinator. He’s from California. He didn’t play a down of college football. He’s still in his 30s. He made a name for himself in the Western Athletic Conference and the Big Ten. He’s open to talking detailed Xs and Os with reporters, which is getting rarer in major college football.

He isn’t a fiery Will Muschamp type of SEC assistant. He also isn’t in the style of Kevin Steele or John Chavis, LSU’s last two defensive coordinators, who were veteran coaches with traditional schemes and Southern backgrounds.

“He’s more of a laid-back guy,” LSU defensive lineman Davon Godchaux told Bleacher Report. “He’s not a guy who’s going to come in and get in your face. He’s a cool guy. He has swagger.”

Like LSU, Aranda has swagger, and he has the defensive scheme to match.

“We have a very fast team,” Miles said. “You can put a fast linebacker in, you can put a fast defensive back in, and you should have plenty of speed on the flanks to come up and rush the passer. I’ve been waiting for a 3-4 guy. I can’t wait.”

With all due respect to the Mad Hatter, calling Dave Aranda “a 3-4 guy” is like calling a Swiss army knife “just a knife.”

Aranda’s 3-4 defense is already a big enough change from LSU. According to Ross Dellenger of the Baton Rouge Advocate, LSU’s base defense has been a 4-3 for the last 17 years. 

But Aranda doesn’t stick to the traditional three down defensive linemen and four linebackers look. His “peso” package at Wisconsin was a 2-4-5 in shape. Sometimes, he deploys a scheme with zero down linemen.

For Aranda, it’s all about getting pressure on quarterbacks in unique ways—from stand-up defensive linemen to rangy defensive backs.

“The more we can bring… I think that’s advantageous to us,” Aranda told Bleacher Report. “I think that forces the offense to have to play slow and play laterally as opposed to firing out and playing aggressively.”

Aranda is proactive when it comes to calling defenses. He wants to be the one in command of the game. As Big Ten Network analyst and former LSU head coach Gerry DiNardo says in the below clip, “Dave Aranda calls defenses like most coaches call offensive plays.”

“Three down linemen are going to attract blockers,” Aranda told DiNardo. “There’s always a want-to of a down lineman whooping a blocker that’s right in front of him. But if we can get something for nothing, a linebacker to run through because he’s not targeted… it’s a helping, lending hand to that defensive lineman.”

His unique methods worked perfectly at Utah State in 2012, when the Aggies finished a remarkable third nationally in yards allowed per play. In two of his three years at Wisconsin, the Badgers had a top-10 defense in several major statistical categories:

Aranda looked at his talent at Wisconsin—mostly underrated recruits, no-star scholarship players and walk-ons—and turned them into elite defenses by outsmarting his opposition. It made up for the talent gap he would have against other teams in the Big Ten.

In Baton Rouge, the mad scientist can now experiment with the finest of lab equipment. The projected starting 11 for LSU’s defense from Ourlads in 2016 consists of two former 5-stars, seven 4-stars and two 3-stars. Seven of those players were top-10 players at their position out of high school.

The depth behind them consists of underclassmen from a streak of four straight recruiting classes that 247Sports ranked No. 6 or higher nationally—players such as true freshmen Saivion Smith, Devin White and Michael Divinity, who specifically caught the eye of Aranda during preseason practices.

The out-of-the-box thinking is going to combine with a roster filled with blue-chip talent in Baton Rouge. That chemical reaction could take the Tigers’ defense to new heights that it never reached under Chavis.

“I love it,” LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith told Bleacher Report. “Man, I’m more excited than some of these fans are about it. I love the energy we have now as a defense. We just have great energy. This season is going to be a special one.”

LSU’s defense is the personification of the “SEC speed” that the conference’s fans love to boast about online.

Its secondary is made up of ultra-athletic talents, including the likes of All-American candidate Jamal Adams and former Louisiana state champion sprinter Donte Jackson. The 6’6″ Arden Key looks tailor-made for Aranda’s “Buck” outside linebacker role that focuses on wreaking havoc on the opposing passer.

Even the defensive linemen Aranda chooses to put down are placed there with speed in mind. At 6’4″ and a shade under 300 pounds, Godchaux would be an undersized 3-4 nose guard in most systems. But Aranda, always the innovator, sees things differently.

“At Wisconsin, in our very first year, we had 300-pounders across the board,” Aranda said. “Our first nose was 335 pounds. We didn’t slant an angle as much with him. It was pretty much knockback. A guy like Godchaux gives you the ability to have knockback and slant at an angle. … Either way, it’s going to work.”

Godchaux hasn’t been told to gain a single pound at LSU this offseason as he split time between end and nose guard. While Godchaux will most likely play end this season after Christian LaCouture’s fall injury, he can move inside with no problem.

To Aranda, Godchaux is another unique weapon in the loaded arsenal he’s inherited in Baton Rouge. And Miles has given him total control.

“I credit Coach Miles for being very welcoming with the thought of, ‘Hey, Dave, whatever we need to do and whatever’s the best for us, let’s do it,'” Aranda said. “With that being said, in the beginning, you’re open to try new things and see, like, if Godchaux’s best on the inside. It allows you to move people around and feel that it’s not a one-and-done. Let’s figure this thing out and see who’s best.”

Aranda’s versatile scheme sounds complex, and LSU’s defenders had to get used to his different delivery style. But this mad scientist is an approachable professor for his new pupils.

He allows us to line up and play football,” Beckwith said. “He’s a great teacher. … I’d say the hardest part was the terminology, but Coach Aranda does a great job. He doesn’t make things too complicated for us. He knows it’s new. Once we got a hang of that, we were rolling.”

It didn’t take long for Wisconsin to get rolling with Aranda. The same goes for his lone year at Utah State.

“If we go out and master what Coach Aranda is installing for us, when we start going the length of the field, we can really nail [offenses] down,” LaCouture told Bleacher Report.

Aranda’s experiments aren’t long and drawn-out processes. They’re instant laboratory explosions.

As Chris B. Brown of Smart Football explains, that’s by design. There isn’t a steep learning curve for his players, even those who line up in the always-shifting linebacker unit:

One way Aranda keeps his defense simple but reactive is by giving his linebackers several reads on each play that can evolve both pre- and post-snap that nevertheless are only based on a few key looks for the players. In a private whiteboard session he told some high school coaches that when teaching a defense a rival school’s coaches (I won’t name names) might draw up 75 different looks for their players, but for his there’s only three looks.

The strength in that simple but dynamic system comes from the emphasis on swapping responsibilities between players and constantly keeping offenses on their toes.

“We need to get to where we can trade jobs,” Aranda said. “We need to get where we can play quarters and it’s not always the outside ‘backer rushing. Maybe it’s the inside ‘backer rushing. Maybe it’s the nickel rushing. … We want to make it look like we’re doing a lot of things, when we’re really running our basic things.”

It won’t always be three down or fewer for Aranda in LSU. If he thinks a situation calls for the Tigers to go back to their traditional four defensive linemen front, then he’ll do that.

From drive to drive and even play to play, Aranda will keep things fresh and unexpected for LSU’s opponents—and even the Tigers’ own fans. 

And that’s exactly what Miles, who is quite familiar with pushing the standard envelope as a college coach, wanted when he set out to replace Steele this offseason.

“Dave Aranda really fits the bill, just what we need,” Miles said at SEC media days. “He transitioned from a four down to a three down personnel group. He has also the opportunity to play four down. So we’ll mix up personnel, but we’ll be playing Dave Aranda football, and that’s historically been damn good.”

Damn different and damn good. Just how Louisiana likes it. 


All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Stats are courtesy of Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football

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