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How Baylor’s Defense Will Change in 2021

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NCAA Football: Arkansas at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Dave Aranda’s first season, I spent the majority of my time trying to figure out which defensive scheme Baylor would base out of. Aranda is notoriously malleable, he’ll work with what he has up front and won’t force any particular scheme, which makes the project of prediction all the tougher.

In his few years at Wisconsin he started by using the more standard “TITE” front when he had the 6-3 330+ lb war daddy Beau Allen (still in the NFL) as his nose tackle. TITE is very popular in college football now, especially exploding after Iowa State went from bottom-barrel to conference contender by utilizing it extensively starting around 2016. To be more exact, Aranda uses a version of TITE called MINT. Which, for this article’s purposes, MINT is just TITE but still utilizing that “JACK” outside linebacker common to 3-4 defenses. Many other TITE front defenses, like Iowa State, don’t use a JACK but instead use 3 off the ball LBs.

Here is the TITE front run at LSU in 2019. Notice the nose tackle is directly over the OC. The two other DL are lined up as “4is,” which means on the inside shoulder of the OTs.

But after Allen graduated Wisconsin was bereft of said war daddies, so Aranda adapted. Namely, he crafted “peso,” a front that relies less on one war daddy in the middle as a nose tackle and instead relies on two lighter (but still big, think more like 6-3 275 lbs) guys who play inside over the guards while fielding a plethora of versatile linebackers. It looks like this:

The peso front at Wisconsin. Notice the two interior DL. Neither is lined up directly over the C like a true nose tackle. and notice the two standup outside backers.

Both schemes put the linebackers in terrific positions to make plays, they just do it in different ways. In relative terms, TITE/MINT uses the defensive lineman more as collateral to allow linebackers to run free while PESO brings more versatility and is more about hunting individual matchups but is less stout against the run.

So anyway, why am I talking about TITE/MINT and PESO? Well, to me that was the big question heading into 2020, which would Aranda base out of? Well, he threw us a curveball and said “neither,” instead opting to base out of a pseudo-UNDER front which is kind of an in-between between the two. Baylor didn’t run this exclusively on base downs last year, but they used it the vast majority of the time. It looked like this:

The Baylor 2020 “under” front. Notice how the nose tackle is not directly over the OC but instead playing as a 1 technique (also known as a shade nose). Instead of the DEs both playing as 4is, one is playing over the OG while the other is playing as a standard 5 tech (outside shoulder of the OT).

So what’s the idea behind this? Why not MINT or PESO?* Well, one can only guess (I’m planning to ask Aranda about this at the next available press conference), but my best guess is that 1) they didn’t have any war daddies to hold up at nose tackle in MINT, 2) PESO still relies on having two really good/stout DL inside to hold up against the run even if they aren’t “war daddy big,” and 3) they tried William Bradley King out at JACK but realized he was a true DE, so they couldn’t really play with 2 OLBs who could both drop into coverage. The UNDER front gave them more beef and a schematic advantage in the run given the guys they had to work with in 2020.

*To be clear, Baylor used both MINT and PESO in 2020. But both were curveballs—sometimes primarily playing MINT on base downs against certain teams like they did against Texas. They played a lot of PESO on passing downs where Aranda has always done a lot of crazy stuff. But as far as I could tell, the majority of the time on base downs they were in the under front, though it depended on the game and what personnel they had available.

Aranda Tells All

As I said previously, predicting what Aranda will do is very difficult because he’s so willing to change it up. Despite this, I think I have a pretty good idea of what Baylor will do in 2021, and I have Aranda himself to thank for this. Several months ago, some blessed Texas high school football coach uploaded a 1 hour clinic of Aranda. The topic was “Defending the Spread Offense,” a rather important topic for college football in 2021—It’s basically synonymous with “playing defense.”

This is a DENSE clinic. It will be difficult for the vast majority of fans to understand because there is so much jargon. But it’s really as good as gold—Aranda is really sharing his basic defensive ethos. I’ll avoid breaking down the entire thing here because that would take too much time, but here are the main points that will be important to know for the rest of this article.

While Aranda does not exactly say this, you get the sense that his overall philosophy for defending the pass and the run game are the same: create HESITATION. He opens the clinic talking about watching old NFL games, specifically guys like Dan Marino and other elite QBs. He said that he noticed that if you couldn’t get them off their rhythm—i.e., if you allow them to do their 3 step drop and immediately throw the ball on time—you essentially had no chance to defend the pass. The QBs are too good, you can’t rely on errant throws. You have to make them hesitate, and it is only when you make them come off their primary read that you have a chance.

His philosophy on run defense is the same. Yes, at the end of the day gap control (having every gap accounted for pre-snap) is important, yes it is important to play with the right leverage, etc. But where Aranda really separates himself is the emphasis he places on pre-snap alignment and post-snap technique with with the DL and LBs. He thinks that run defense is all about creating HESITATION from the running back. If the RB is attacking the A gap and never has to think twice about where he is going, you’re in trouble. Aranda wants to force the RB to think, make him think about where to go, and this allows time for secondary defenders to rally to the ball. In essence, the longer you can force the RB to hesitate, the more you can allot defenders to the pass game because it gives them more time to get to the line of scrimmage after initially playing pass.

Finally, using this as his philosophy, Aranda spends the entire clinic talking about what to do out of the TITE/MINT front. He talks about adjustments, what to do against certain teams, which coverages etc., but he’s talking about it using this front.

We’ve Got Ourselves a War Daddy

Let’s recap. Before Aranda got to Baylor, he primarily used either his TITE/MINT front or his peso front. But (probably) because of DL concerns, Baylor elected to use the pseudo-under front in 2020. Should we expect that they will still use this under front in 2021?

I don’t think so. For one, Baylor’s DL was decimated by COVID in 2020 which made an already young DL group even thinner. More importantly, Baylor has a war daddy they can use at nose tackle now. Meet Apu Ika

Ika is a monster. Listed at 6-4 340 lbs, he’s unlike any player that Baylor currently has on its roster. In my review of him there are multiple clips of him just throwing SEC interior OL to the ground. He’s massively powerful and he has good arm length. Like many massive interior DL, his biggest weakness right now is conditioning; he probably needs to lose 20 pounds. At most you’re probably getting 30-40 high quality snaps per game from him (most defenses are facing 70-90 per game)—when you watch game tape you’ll notice he’s much better at the start of a possession than at the end of it. He’s actually a better pass rusher than he is run blocker, mostly because he’s so good with his hands and doesn’t yet play with great technique in the run game, but he’s still young.

So yeah, Baylor added a tremendous interior nose tackle, something they didn’t have on the 2020 roster where that position was manned by a mix of Ryan Miller (6-2 290) and Josh Landry (6-1 285). This is no slight to either of those guys (Landry was actually Baylor’s best DL last year by a good margin, in my opinion), they just don’t have the frames you want for a nose tacke.

In his clinic, Aranda talks about the important of having good nose tackle play if you want to run TITE/MINT. The nose is the guy largely responsible for creating hesitation from the RB. If he can reliably take on a double team from the center and guard, then that gives the linebacker behind him time stay free and “play” with the RB. Aranda dives deep into this in his clinic, and Ian Boyd does a great job summarizing it here if you want get nerdy, it’s about not allowing teams to “scoop block” your NT.

It’s a sophisticated way of saying that a good nose tackle keeps the OL off the LBs so they’re free to make tackles. Ika can do this. As long as he isn’t playing too many snaps in a row, he will force a double team on every run snap keeping guys like Dillon Doyle and Terrel Bernard free to make tackles.

What Will Change In 2021

Hopefully I’ve set my point up somewhat clearly here: the addition of Ika means that Baylor can play more true TITE/MINT in 2021. Now, as Aranda has shown, he’s perfectly willing to mix it up and Baylor won’t just play one of anything in 2021 (and if you watch his clinic, you’ll realize that many of what look like his different fronts are really just “checks” from his base front). Here is my best current guess for Baylor’s starting defense in 2021:

Because Baylor brings back basically everyone, the only real question is how do the DL slot into a TITE front with the addition of Ika? The toughest question for me is where Josh Landry will play, given that he’s sort of a tweener that isn’t an ideal fit as either a nose tackle or a 4i. My best guess is that he plays as a backup NT and Baylor doesn’t play him over the OC when he comes in.

Franklin and Hall are ideal 4i candidates, both 6-4/6-5 guys who will play a little south of 300 lbs. They’re long, tough, and good athletes.

In 2020, Baylor was playing on its back foot trying to implement a new scheme with a new staff in a year that was totally inhospitable to doing so. In 2021 they added an integral piece to the type of defense that Aranda wants to run and are another year into implementing it. I’m very high on Baylor’s defense, though it does have it’s questions for whether it can become an elite unit. Adding Ika was a crucial step. If Franklin and Hall can play up to their potential in 2021, Baylor will have a formidable DL again. And a formidable DL with the rest of Baylor’s defense is an elite defense.