Clear the work schedule. Slide into a local burrito joint. Watch the LSU Tigers play football, global pandemic be damned.
These are Darry Beckwith’s plans for Saturday, when he gets to see his old defensive coordinator make his return to Tiger Stadium.
The former LSU middle linebacker wasn’t going to miss watching Bo Pelini. No sir. Beckwith had a work meeting booked for 2 p.m., and he told his office: “So, we’ve got to scratch that and reschedule.”
Beckwith is freed up to watch LSU finally begin its shortened, 10-game, league-only season against Mississippi State at 2:30 p.m. Saturday — a game that will pit a reshuffled national champion against first-year Bulldogs coach Mike Leach and his notorious “Air Raid” offense.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said earlier this week they must find ways to pressure Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello in order to win, which casts Pelini’s much-hyped defense in a leading role.
“If you can’t tell from my voice, I’m pumped,” said Beckwith, a three-year starter from 2006-08. “I’m extremely excited for what Bo Pelini is going to bring to this defense.”
LSU hosts Mississippi State in the first weekend of the Southeastern Conference’s 10-game, league-only schedule. These are staff writer Wilson Alexander’s keys to the game for LSU.
Orgeron shares the sentiment. He told high school coaches at a spring coaching clinic that Pelini was the only call he made to replace Dave Aranda, now the head coach at Baylor.
Orgeron said their shared mentor, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, told him Pelini is “the best defensive mind of any coach I’ve ever coached with.”
It took a three-year contract worth $2.3 million per year to lure Pelini away from his hometown job as the head coach of Youngstown State. Baton Rouge also felt like home, Pelini said, and that was one of the main reasons he returned to the program he helped win the BCS national championship in 2007.
Perhaps you remember the aggressive, blitzing, turnover-forcing defenses Pelini coached from 2005-07, before he left for an eight-year tenure as Nebraska’s head coach.
Just how will Pelini’s defense look this time around?
Pelini said on an LSU-sponsored radio show in March that this year’s Tigers defense will play somewhat differently than his old one. The spread offense has consumed the Southeastern Conference, and Leach’s Air Raid epitomizes the kind of offense LSU never faced in the mid-2000s.
But if you sat through Pelini’s spring coaching clinic session and listened to enough coaches and players who either work or have worked with him, you’d gather that most of his philosophies have remained intact.
So grab a chair, reader, and let’s explore this defensive scheme together.
The Advocate’s LSU beat team gazes into the crystal ball to predict Saturday’s game with Mississippi State in Tiger Stadium:
We’ll start with a ground rule: Let’s not pigeon-hole the Pelini defense by saying, “The defensive line does exactly this,” or, “The secondary does exactly that.”
Sure, Pelini’s base defense is rigidly defined as a 4-3 scheme; but its form will ebb and flow to match the personnel of the opposing offense — much like Aranda’s defenses have done in years past.
“(Pelini’s) got the ability to play any defense that’s ever been created,” said North Texas special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler, who worked with Pelini coaching linebackers at Nebraska, LSU and Oklahoma. “You get into spring ball and he’s like a mad scientist. He always wants to look for the next thing. He’s always tinkering with stuff.”
Take a look at the spacing of Mike Leach’s offensive linemen, and you’ll know part of why the Mississippi State coach’s offenses are so successful.
Sound like another “Professor” you know?
The foundation of Pelini’s defensive philosophy can be traced back to his start in the NFL. In 1994, he was hired as a scout for the San Francisco 49ers. Then, when one of the assistant defensive back coaches left, Pelini was promoted to fill the spot.
Pelini spent three seasons in San Francisco learning methods from legendary coach George Seifert, who mastered a 4-3 defense that helped win five Super Bowls. Carroll was Seifert’s defensive coordinator in Pelini’s final two seasons, and, together, they helped form Pelini’s belief in a system that blended two concepts for gap control.
What’s gap control?
Essentially, it’s a term to describe how defenders account for the gaps in between opposing offensive linemen. To avoid diving into full-blown football school, let’s draw up an alignment chart for offense and defense (see Example 1) so we can reference where exactly these two concepts are focused.
The two concepts are the general philosophies for filling gaps: a 1-gap concept, and a 2-gap concept. Simply, a 1-gap defender is only responsible for one gap, and a 2-gap defender is responsible for two.
Let’s take for example a 3-technique defensive tackle, which means he’s lined up on the outside shoulder of an offensive guard. He’s already lined up in the B gap, and, if we want him to be a 1-gap defender, that’s the only gap we’ll ask him to hold down.
Because we’re only asking him to defend one gap, he can be more aggressive. He can attack quickly and burst through the line for a sack or a tackle for loss. We can have other players also be 1-gap defenders and be aggressive across the board.
Mississippi State used to be a four-man front, get-off-the-football type 1-gap defense under former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. This allowed former star defensive linemen like Jeffrey Simmons and Montez Sweat to terrorize backfields like they did against LSU in 2018, when the Bulldogs forced five tackles for loss and two sacks.
Now, let’s take a 0-technique nose tackle, which means he’s head up over the center. He can fire off, grab hold of the center, and, by reading the flow of the ball, attack the A gaps on either side as a 2-gap defender. He’ll have some help behind him, but, for the most part, his taking up both A gaps frees up the other defenders to attack other gaps.
You’ll normally see this in a 3-4 base defense. LSU employed this technique sometimes under Aranda, and the New England Patriots have been using 2-gap concepts for most of their time under coach Bill Belichick. It’s not typically as aggressive of a scheme, because 2-gap defenders are essentially holding their gap instead of penetrating.
One of the hallmarks of a Pelini defense is that he blends both gap concepts into his scheme. Former LSU defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, a heralded expert at his position, was at the forefront of blending the concepts in a career that spanned six decades.
Why is blending the concepts effective? Jenkins summed it up: “It allows you to do so much more with your linebackers and safeties.”
LSU kicks off the 2020 football season on Saturday against Mississippi State.
Let’s say it’s Oct. 20, 2007. No. 4 LSU is hosting No. 17 Auburn in Tiger Stadium. Auburn’s ground-and-pound attack is rolling with isolations and power runs and pulling guards. LSU linebackers, because they’re responsible for a single gap, are getting caught in the middle, and Auburn’s running backs are finding open running lanes.
How can those linebackers get freed up to range where they need to go?
Create a 2-gap defender.
In this game, Beckwith said, defensive tackles like Glenn Dorsey, Charles Alexander and Marlon Favorite sometimes soaked up two holes. That meant Beckwith was freed from his gap responsibility. He could openly pursue the football.
“It was great … to have those guys free us up to make sure we can make plays,” Beckwith said. “Because let me tell you, it’s never fun when a guy who’s 300 pounds and can run just as fast as you can get to the point where he can get his hands on you.”
Now take this underlying philosophy — which is to give a defender the freedom to disrupt what the offense is doing right — and apply it to all sorts of gap concept combinations. By blending 1-gap and 2-gap concepts, multiple options are at your disposal.
One safety can fill a gap, which shifts other assignments down the line and subsequently frees the other safety to stop a brutal quarterback run attack.
A defensive tackle can crash into a linebacker’s originally assigned gap, which could free the linebacker to look for a pass play first and shut down an inside receiver that’s been lethal all game.
Or you can just assign everyone a single gap, including one or more blitzers, and supercharge a pass rush.
“(Pelini) can twist and edit his philosophy to cancel things out the offense is doing,” safety JaCoby Stevens said. “His knowledge and IQ of the game is out of the roof.”
Rivalries with Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M may loom larger on the LSU schedule, but the Tigers have played more games against Mississip…
Pelini’s playbook is like a Rubik’s Cube where every square is the same color. At LSU’s coaching clinic in March, Pelini repeatedly emphasized the necessity to maintain “same-as” language and concepts when teaching players the defense.
Teaching a blended gap system with clarity, Jenkins said, is perhaps the most important factor in such a defense.
Linebackers and safeties must be wary of reading run too quickly and getting beat by play-action passes. Defensive linemen must be able to hold their gaps.
Going back to the LSU-Auburn example — where the 3-technique defensive tackle soaked up two gaps — you’d think the defensive tackle needs to be a hulk of a human being. A Dorsey-type, who, at 6-foot-2, 303 pounds, could dominate just about any blocker. You may be lamenting that Tyler Shelvin, cast in the same mold, has officially decided to opt out this season.
“A lot of people think it’s size,” Jenkins said. “Size certainly doesn’t hurt. I don’t mean that it hurts. But he’s got to be very well taught.”
Perhaps you’ve seen that now viral video of a shirtless Ed Orgeron jogging at the beach this summer. Or perhaps the photoshopped image of a sh…
And here’s where Pelini and Orgeron meet philosophically.
Orgeron is considered a master technician as a defensive line coach. He’s historically favored the 1-gap, get-off-the-ball style. Take your pick of offseason quotes that painted the picture of the attacking defenses of Orgeron’s past at Miami and Southern Cal.
Still, their shared mentor, Carroll, has been blending gap schemes ever since he picked up the base 4-3 defense as a graduate assistant at Nebraska in 1977 under long-time defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Orgeron knows this system well, and he’s loaded his coaching staff with people who understand both concepts.
Defensive line coach Bill Johnson is entering his fifth decade in the field, where he’s coached at multiple college programs and NFL franchises. This offseason, Orgeron hired two analysts that are defensive line specialists: Bennie Logan, a former LSU player who was a 2-gap nose tackle in the NFL; and Manny Michel, who has coached defensive lines at the high school, FCS and FBS levels in Louisiana for three decades.
And, again, remember our ground rule: Let’s not pigeon-hole the defensive line as always going to play 1-gap concepts or always going to play 2-gap concepts.
LSU’s talented interior defensive line — a unit that includes former defensive end Glen Logan, former nose tackle Siaki “Apu” Ika, converted offensive guard Joseph Evans and an array of blue-chip true freshman — will certainly be more attacking in 2020.
You just never know exactly how.
It could be that LSU plays Mississippi State’s Air Raid as Pelini’s Nebraska defense did against Texas in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game. The Cornhuskers played a dime package — six defensive backs, one linebacker, four defensive linemen — the whole game, and star tackle Ndamukong Suh still recorded a title-game record 4½ sacks in a narrow 13-12 loss.
It could be that LSU plays as it did when Steve Spurrier’s 2007 South Carolina offense gave the Tigers their first empty formation of the year, when Pelini made the halftime adjustment of blitzing Beckwith up the A gap and crashing the defensive end, which aided a 28-16 win.
You just never exactly know.
“Those D-tackles, from experience, are going to have fun in this defense, OK?” Beckwith said. “This is a defense where I think everybody’s going to be successful. Everybody is going to make plays.”
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