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Baylor’s 2020 Defense: What’s New?

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Louisiana State vs Central Florida Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Basic Tenets of Baylor’s 2019 Defense

Back in early December before Rhule left for the Panthers, he went on a radio show and they asked him, “How would you describe your defense?” Instead of trying to come up with my own summary, I’ll just let Rhule explain it for me:

We call it a 30 dime, or a 3-2 nickel defense ... The thing the we do, we try to play with a big field LB. You know, the Big 12, especially the previous years but even this year ... a lot of it to me is cutting off the field and taking away the RPO game and taking away the bubble game, and so we try to play with a big field LB and two guys inside who can run. We try to get DBs on the field, we try to get speed on the field, and then we ask them to be tough, to tackle well.

There’s a reason that Rhule immediately jumps to the “big field LB.” Remember, the “field” in schematic terminology means the wide side of the field. In college, the hash marks are wider, meaning that if the ball is placed on one of the hashes, the difference between the “field” and the “boundary” (the short side of the field) is huge, whereas in the NFL the hashes are narrower so the difference is almost negligible.

Anyway, like I said, there is a reason Rhule immediately jumped to his big field (SAM) LB—It’s a different philosophy than most. Before I get to comparisons, I want to start with some basics.

On defense, there are three traditional linebackers: the middle (MIKE), weak side (WILL), and strong side (SAM). In the past, when offenses were much less spread out than they are now, these guys tended to be about the same size; they all were playing in the box and were primarily developed to be box defenders against the run. Here’s a basic picture:

You see here that the SAM is lined up to the wide side of the field (you can tell by looking at the hash marks) while the MIKE is in the middle and the WILL is to the boundary. This general setup—SAM to the field, MIKE in the middle, and WILL to the boundary, is a very good rule of thumb for 99% of current defenses.

For Baylor in 2019, the SAM was played by Blake Lynch (6-3, 225lbs), the MIKE by Clay Johnston (6-1, 232) and after his injury Terrel Bernard (6-1, 222), and the WILL by Jordan Williams (6-0, 223).

As we can see from their listed measurements, all of Baylor’s 3 LBs are basically the same size. Rhule said he plays with a “big field LB,” but it is perhaps more revealing to say with he plays with a field LB who isn’t small.

When defenses first started adjusting to defending the spread offense, their first move was to get more athletic at the field LB (SAM) position. You might know this as “Nickel” defense. Traditionally, this meant subbing off your SAM linebacker for a third cornerback on passing downs. But if you’re basing out of the defense (i.e., playing this defense on standard downs where the opposing offense is just as likely to run) it’s not really a sub package, and that player is no longer a corner, he’s your space-backer, your SAM, your field LB. He’s just more athletic than the traditional SAM used to be.

One of the first coaches to go all in on this change was TCU’s Gary Patterson. He has been basing out of the same 4-2-5 (meaning 4 defensive lineman, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs) for years now. Here’s how Patterson will often line up against a typical offensive look nowadays:

You’ll notice that the slot where the SAM should be is “N” for Nickel. In TCU parlance, he’s the strong safety, and the other two safeties are their weak safety and free safety. Anyway, the difference in moniker doesn’t really matter; whether you call him the SAM, the field LB, the space backer, the nickel, or, as Phil Bennett used to call this position, the “bear,” (as played in the past by Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl) they’re all the same position. Now, that doesn’t mean they do same thing in every defense—far from it, and that is what we will get into next.

Per my eye, the plurality of current defenses use this field LB primarily as a third corner, a guy who first and foremost must be able to cover receivers out of the slot and ability to defend the run as a box defender is gravy. This is how teams such as TCU, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma do it in the Big 12. In 2019 TCU used the 6-2, 200lb Innis Gaines, Oklahoma State used 6-1, 200lb Jarrick Bernard (who they are looking at moving to CB for 2020), and Oklahoma used the diminutive 5-9, 186lb Brendan Radley-Hiles. The advantages and disadvantages or using a smaller, athletic guy at field LB are immediately obvious: they give you better coverage ability, but are weaker against the run or against bigger receivers out of the slot.

Here’s how Oklahoma would line up against a typical spread look with Radley-Hiles as the nickel (credit to Ian Boyd for this picture and subsequent gif):

This is a pretty safe position for a smaller, athletic guy to be in. You can place him over the slot and give more of your run responsibilities to the safety behind him. Where a smaller guy gets into trouble, however, is when you ask him to set the edge:

No bueno. Hiles is #44, the guy who starts out on the line of scrimmage and ends up about 25 yards off the ball. This was how K-State punished the OU defense: get in formations that require the nickel to be a force defender and run over him. Compare this to Baylor’s field LB from 2019, Blake Lynch.

Here, OU is running a power read and gives the ball to CeeDee Lamb on the jet sweep. Lynch attacks the fullback blocking him, pushes him 2 yards back, holds up an additional defender, and allows safety Grayland Arnold to come free and tackle Lamb for a minimal gain. It’s a lot easier to do this at Lynch’s 6-3, 225 lbs than at 6-1, 200, much less Radley-Hiles’ 5-9, 185.

Again, there are pluses and minuses to every decision. At one point against Baylor, Hiles made a terrific play to undercut a route by the slot receiver to break up a critical third down. Meanwhile, Lynch surely gave up some throws against smaller WRs that a more athletic guy probably wouldn’t have. It’s give and take. Rhule did looked at that give and take, however, and decided that he’d rather have a bigger guy and it worked out, as Baylor finished with it’s best season ever defensively.

Aranda’s Basic Tenets

If you feel like taking a really deep dive (and learning a lot scheme and terminology while you’re at it), the best thing I’ve read about Aranda all off-season is from Cameron Soran, “The Bay and the Bayou,” where he breaks down the Aranda/Wilcox defense (Wilcox being the now head coach at Cal who previously had succeeded Aranda as defensive coordinator at Wisconsin). The opening paragraphs are exciting as a Baylor fan:

The fact that Aranda’s defense is so malleable makes it relatively more difficult to study. But there are always some core tenets. In Ian Boyd’s words, “Aranda has always put an emphasis on playing man coverage outside and rushing the passer with zone-blitz schemes that emphasize versatile linebackers. The only real exception was the early LSU teams he inherited before he installed his own full system, which relied more on Arden Key off the edge.” So, with the caveat that Aranda mixes it up perhaps more than just about any other defensive mind, here are some basics we can expect from Baylor in the future.

  • A “JACK” linebacker. Many of you readers are probably familiar with the 3-4 defense, and how in a 3-4 there is typically one linebacker who acts as a psuedo defensive end with more coverage responsibilities. That’s what the JACK is. At LSU it was expertly played by K’Lavon Chaisson the past few years. In the past, Aranda’s depth charts listed this as the “bench backer,” but in 2019 it was just listed as OLB. Here’s the position (labeled “B”):

Roberts uses the same position, so we should expect much of the same. Baylor outside linebackers coach Joey McGuire has said that the guys currently at that position are Matt Jones (6-3, 237), Ashton Logan (6-1, 232), and Tyrone Brown (6-4, 205). This will be interesting to watch, particularly because those players come from different backgrounds in high school. Jones was a DE in a 3 down scheme in West Texas, Logan a safety from Temple, and Brown a space-eraser type LB from the golden triangle.

  • Very versatile safeties. Aranda really asks a lot from his safeties. Because Aranda frequently spins to single-high looks (i.e., one safety back), that both adds ground for that safety to cover and pushes the other up either into the box as a run defender or over the slot in man coverage. Going forward in recruiting, look for Aranda to prioritize defensive backs who are multifaceted like recent signee Mike Harris.
  • Loads of Sub-Packages. This will be an immediate difference from 2019. In 2017 and 2018, Rhule subbed a lot, but in 2019 he based out of the same scheme with mostly the same personnel on almost every play. Aranda has his base packages like everyone else, but more than anyone I’ve studied he does some really varied stuff on third down. This was especially true in the national championship game:

As an example of how much stuff Aranda does from down to down, here’s an example from the Auburn game on the first series. On first down, Aranda is in base with his big field LB Michael Divinity (6’2, 241 lbs) out there as Auburn is in a 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). Starting safety Jacoby Stevens is playing to the deep middle and JACK LB Chaisson is in his normal spot.

On second and 8, Auburn has moved a more spread look in 11 personnel (the tight end is flexed to the bottom of the screen) and he responds with a sub, replacing his big field LB Michael Divinity with defensive back and speedster Kary Vincent. Stevens is playing man against the flexed TE.

On third down, Aranda goes absolutely nuts and leaves only one defensive lineman on the field. Divinity is back as an edge rusher and safety Stevens is playing as a box linebacker. His starting linebackers are lined up on the line of scrimmage over the B gaps. Of the 11 guys who started the game just a few plays earlier, only 6 or 7 of them are still on the field on this third down.

Essentially, he’s removed two DL, pushed the two linebackers up into their spots, and replaced the linebackers with more safeties. It’s speed, speed, speed. Only 4 defenders end up rushing on this play, but because of the confusion Chaisson gets to the QB almost immediately and forces a hurried, inaccurate throw by Auburn’s QB.

So, What Does This Mean For 2020?

This is a tricky question on many levels. Coaches often have transition years with their schemes anyway, as it is very difficult to install everything they want to in one year given college football’s practice limitations. Second, with covid-19 shutting down Baylor’s campus along with spring football practice, Aranda is even more hamstrung than most year one coaches would be.

Aranda has mentioned in several interviews that he has been very intrigued by what Baylor did schematically in 2019. Baylor played with 3 down lineman and 3 safeties, which is becoming more and more common, but what made it special was that they typically played with their DE in traditional positions outside the offensive tackles, not out of the “tite” front. Notice how in the image below, Baylor’s two defensive ends are lined up as 5-techniques, on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.

Whereas in tight, which Baylor used on some specific occasions in 2019, the defensive ends are in the “4i” position, meaning the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle.

Aranda, meanwhile, is one of the progenitors of the tite front and has used it as his base for the past several years. Thus, I’d expect that we see a lot more tite in 2020, but with the limited practice time and Aranda’s proclaimed affinity for what Baylor did in 2019, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him keep quite a bit of it, at least in 2019 while they’re still learning his scheme.

The problem becomes, if Aranda wants to keep what Baylor did in 2019, what does he do with the JACK linebacker? That position generally lines up as a 7 or 9 technique, which means another shuffle step or two outside of the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder, which would be rather superfluous standing right next to a 5 technique. If Aranda decides to keep the 2019 base (the “5-0-5” front), he’ll have to make some serious concessions on what he’s done previously. One could be to just play your JACK linebacker as one of those defensive ends. Someone like Matt Jones could definitely do it.

The other main defense that Aranda likes to base out of is called “peso.” In Aranda’s own words,

Peso is playing two down linemen, four linebackers and five DBs. You’re playing an over defense, but you’re playing it from a 3-4 perspective with the two D-linemen over the guards and your outside linebackers being over the tackles and your inside backers being in the core. Out of those six, you can play games with who the four rushers are.

Peso looks like this:

Basically, the idea is to give yourself more pass rushing versatility while putting more of the run stopping burden on your inside linebackers. Peso, I think, is the scheme that Aranda most likes to use, and then one that has the most upside in the Big 12. The problem is, well, you need good players to do it. Versatility is only a plus when executed well; otherwise it’s a garbled mess with more downside. Aranda mentioned in the article where the above quote comes from that when they didn’t play peso, it was because they weren’t getting good enough nickel play. This scheme puts a lot on the nickel, as he really has to be able to hold up in man coverage since there is only one safety back.

2020 — My Best Guess For Starting 11

I do think that tite will, at least initially, be Baylor’s base defense in 2020. Here’s who I’d slot at those positions:

There are several big questions for Baylor’s 2020 defense personnel wise, and I’ll probably delve into those in a future article. But, just to raise them now, off the top of my head ...

  • Can either Barnes or Texada become lockdown corners? When you have one lockdown corner, it allows you to do so much more with your defense. It’s a lot easier to be creative with your scheme when you have a Derek Stingley erasing one WR every play.
  • Baylor has a lot of scholarship DL, but not a lot of experience. Are there enough good ones to play 3 at a time? Or is it better to roll with two and get an extra linebacker or defensive back on the field, so that you’re at least making mistakes with more speed?
  • For the safeties, J.T. Woods is an adept centerfielder. Can anyone else be?
  • Bernard is a proven stalwart as an inside linebacker. You need two of those. Whose the other?

In Conclusion ...

It’s really hard to predict what Aranda will do in 2020. If it weren’t for covid-19, I’d have more confidence in saying he’ll get started installing all his and Roberts’ favorite stuff. Maybe his fascination with what Baylor did in 2019 is just lip service, or maybe he really wants to keep a large part of it. How he can find a way to marry his scheme with it, I don’t know, but he’s a lot brighter than I am. Ultimately, though, Aranda is smart enough to utilize what he has available, and won’t need to go scorched earth like Rhule did in 2017. Baylor lost a ton on defense from its record breaking 2019 squad, but the talent is certainly there for Aranda to mold. How quickly he can get it going is the question.