Can this man stop Tua? LSU is betting $10 million on it

LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda couldn’t come up for air. Not even for a 10- or 15-minute conversation for this story. Not even with the extra week to prepare. He had a clicker in his hand he simply could not part ways with.

Talking had never really been his thing anyway. Beside, he had work to do.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t a knock on Aranda or the school’s public-relations department. It’s about the simple fact that, in Aranda’s mind, he didn’t have time to chat, what with Tua Tagovailoa and his Heisman Trophy-caliber arm to consider. A home game against No. 1 Alabama was such a big deal that of course it demanded two full weeks of his undivided attention.

Think about it: In addition to Tagovailoa’s otherworldly talents at quarterback, Aranda had to account for Jaylen Waddle and a triumvirate of super sophomore receivers, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith; he had to study an assembly line of tailbacks, including but not limited to Damien Harris, who has rushed for 1,000 yards twice already in his career; and he had to figure out what to do with an offensive line that features at least one future franchise tackle in Jonah Williams and averages close to 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds across the board.

What’s more, Aranda had to do all this while knowing full well the SEC championship and College Football Playoff implications at hand. And, on top of that, he had to do it with basically one hand tied behind his back, since his star middle linebacker and signal-caller on defense, Devin White, was due to serve a half-game suspension as the result of a (controversial) targeting penalty.

So, no, ESPN was politely told that Aranda could not make it to the phone right now. He was somewhere hunkered down, tending to White’s potential replacements, underclassmen Patrick Queen and Micah Baskerville, who have a grand total of one career start between them. No pressure, but if they screw this up even for only a half, the game could be over. Alabama, after all, is averaging 38.7 points per game heading into intermission, which is roughly 8.4 points per game more than LSU is averaging over all four quarters.

Don’t weep for Aranda, though. This is why LSU pays him the big bucks. Alabama and its seemingly unstoppable offense represent the ultimate challenge for the Tigers’ $10 million coordinator — his record-setting contract spread over four years, all of it guaranteed.

Is he worth it? It depends on how you view higher education, of course. But if you sit high atop Tiger Stadium on Saturday nights, wearing purple and gold and praying for every third-down stop, then he’s absolutely worth every penny. Just ask LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who proudly called him “the best defensive coordinator in all the land” at SEC media days this summer.

Like a lot of surveyors of the sport, Orgeron is enamored by Aranda. He once called him a “mad scientist” and boasted that he’s “a cool cucumber.”

That certainly rings true when talking to players and former coaches. They say Aranda has a gift for coaching defense and calling plays, and the stats back that up. But you have to start with that aura of cool intensity he possesses. Sporting a shaved head and unblinking eyes, he sort of looks like a drill sergeant. He never really seems to smile, either, come to think of it. He’s unflinching and methodical, which stands in stark contrast to Orgeron, who is a red-faced, barrel-chested ball of energy and emotion.

It sometimes feels like a monk standing next to a carnival barker. But somehow it works for the third-ranked Tigers (7-1, 4-1 SEC).

Gary Andersen, who hired Aranda as his defensive coordinator when he was head coach at Utah State and Wisconsin, knows this personality dynamic better than most. For those years when the fiery former center let his emotions bubble up, Aranda was something of a calming influence, a yin to his head coach’s yang.

Andersen, who is now an assistant coach at Utah, was a self-described “emotional playcaller.” Meanwhile, as he put it, “Dave is going to be Dave.” 
”He’s consistent in his approach, and that approach works,” Andersen tried to explain. “It’s not a firehose. It doesn’t turn on and off.”

Thinking back on those early days at Utah State, Andersen can see the outlines of what Aranda would become. He still marvels at the way Aranda, steeped in the understanding of a four-down-linemen quarters defense, spearheaded the program’s transition to the odd front (three down linemen). Aranda went out, studied it and came back with a few added wrinkles of his own, throwing in what Andersen referred to as “creepers.”

But more important, Aranda knew how to teach what he’d learned. Although he has an in-depth playbook and is “extremely detailed,” according to Andersen, he has an ability to take complex schemes and boil them down into simple concepts players can understand. The result: In 2012, the Aggies went from 73rd in scoring defense the previous season to sixth.

“Dave was the guy who went out and studied that,” Andersen said of the change in defensive philosophy. “He’s just a tenacious studier. He’s very well-rounded in the way he teaches. He’s very in-depth. There’s not a rock that goes unturned.”

He added: “I gained great respect for Dave as we went through that transition at Utah State. Those aren’t easy transitions because it’s who you’ve been for so long, what you’ve been for so long, and now you’re going to tweak that because you’re working to get your best kids on the field.”

From Utah State to Wisconsin to LSU, Aranda has adapted to his personnel. But his productivity has never wavered. Every season from 2012-17, from the Mountain West to the Big Ten to the SEC, he’s coordinated defenses that have finished in the top 25 in points and yards per game allowed. This season, LSU ranks 24th in yards per game (330.3), seventh in points per game (15.1) and sixth in turnovers (19).

Despite having an otherwise lackluster pass rush — with Arden Key gone and K’Lavon Chaisson out for the season with an injury, LSU has amassed just 18 sacks — the Tigers are tied for the most interceptions (14) in the FBS and have given up only half that many passing touchdowns (seven).

“I call him Mr. Brainiac,” LSU defensive back John Battle said. “I don’t know what goes on in his head, but whatever it is, it works.”

Said linebacker Michael Divinity: “Coach Aranda is a great coach. The scheme he puts in, he gives us all the keys and we go out and execute.”

Tagovailoa, whom Orgeron compared to Michael Vick, said that LSU has the best front seven and the best secondary Alabama has seen to date. And for those doing the math at home, that means the Tigers have the best defense, period, that the Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0) have had to go up against.

“I think they’re very elite in a lot of ways in terms of the way they play defense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Saban complimented Aranda specifically, saying he “has a really good system” and “their players understand it and do a really good job of playing within the system.”

That system, which still relies heavily on the odd front, will be put to the test by Tagovailoa & Co. Even on the road, Alabama is the prohibitive favorite, with Las Vegas sports books giving the Tide a 14-point edge over the Tigers.

But if anyone can slow down Tagovailoa’s march to the Heisman, it’s Aranda.

LSU started studying Alabama way back in the summer, and Aranda and his staff have had two weeks to lock themselves away and devise a game plan to combat offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s scheme, which is heavy on run-pass option plays.

“Now, we’re going to have to play a complete game on defense to stop their run game and their passing game. No one has done it yet,” Orgeron said. “If there’s anybody can do it, it’s our defensive staff. I do believe in them.”

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