BATON ROUGE, La. — There will be moments in 2017 — perhaps many of them — when the middle of LSU’s defense will be mostly inhabited by true freshmen. Even entirely inhabited by them.
It’s conceivable that as many as five freshmen could be in the middle of the field at a time playing at every level — defensive tackle, inside linebacker and safety. And that means Dave Aranda will be working hard to earn his keep as college football’s highest-paid defensive coordinator this fall.
“[Kendell] Beckwith, [Duke] Riley, [Davon] Godchaux, they’d see something and they would play it, because they had been there before. Coach [John] Chavis or someone had mentioned it,” said Aranda, who came to LSU from Wisconsin at the beginning of 2016. “The guys we’re dealing with now, if I don’t say it, they don’t know it. It’s a slower pace than a year ago.”
Aranda already has been able to work with two of the freshmen who figure to get significant playing time in safeties Grant Delpit and JaCoby Stevens. The early enrollees impressed all spring, with Delpit standing out in particular during the LSU spring game. Although Delpit has been impressive, at this point he’s also far from perfect.
“Grant has a savviness about him. Football comes easy to him,” Aranda said. “Some of the plays he made, he didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he made them. The thing now is to frame that play and detail out that play so he knows ‘OK, I kind of cheated on this play and that’s risky business.’ Kind of get down to the ground level. It’s always good when you have the opportunity to do that, though, and we have that with Grant.”
A trio of inside linebackers are joining the program this summer — Jacob Phillips, Tyler Taylor and Patrick Queen. Devin White and Donnie Alexander are already in place at the top of the depth chart, but all three newcomers have a chance to make an impact as freshmen.
“Patrick Queen is going to have an opportunity to play right away,” Aranda said. “We’re going to see a lot of scatbacks. You need guys who can handle wheels and isolation routes. That’s right up Patrick’s alley covering those guys and blitzing.
“Having Tyler Taylor inside. Jacob Phillips inside. Their physicality and their intelligence and dependability is going to be big for us.”
In August, they’ll fill out the front of the defense with nose tackle Tyler Shelvin. The 325-pound talent from Lafayette, La., is taking summer classes to earn his diploma, and figures to be a rotational player once he’s up to speed under Aranda.
Fortunately for LSU, this kind of thing isn’t exactly new for Aranda. He faced a similar situation at Wisconsin in 2013, and the Badgers still had the nation’s No. 6 scoring defense.
“My first year there we had a true freshman nose guard. Chris Orr, who was a true freshman, inside linebacker. TJ Edwards, a redshirt freshman at inside linebacker. Then some freshmen rotating in at DB,” Aranda said. “So, right up the middle there’s freshmen here, freshmen there and we were [No. 6] in the nation.
“We tried to play to our strength and identify. That’s what we’re talking about right now. If we can identify it and not do too much and stay away from doing too little — find that balance. Those guys are good players and that gives them an opportunity to do what they do.”
That’s just the middle of the defense. On the outside, players such as K’Lavon Chaisson (outside linebacker) and Kary Vincent Jr. (nickelback) might also contribute to the youth movement.
“I think, overall, we’ll see a lot of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen play,” Aranda said. “The advantage is you know they’re talented. They’ve just got to put the work in.”
Aranda’s already prepared for that, of course.
“We’ve got teaching tapes already made. We’ve got technique tapes already made,” he said. “We’re going to get to work.”