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Apu Ika and the Baylor Defense

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NCAA Football: Kansas at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In his last press conference, Dave Aranda gushed about star nose tackle transfer Apu Ika. In his answer he not only talked about Apu, but about how the defense will feature him and what he allows the Baylor defense to do. I thought his answer was a terrific opportunity for people who want to learn some more about defensive tactics. If you don’t know some of the lingo, Aranda’s answer will more or less be meaningless to you. But if you learn a few key terms, what he’s saying becomes obvious and will really help you understand defense.

Here’s Aranda’s answer about Ika. I’m paraphrasing here, but this was the general thrust:

So let’s walk through this step by step. Aranda — “We’ve been using a lot of 5 man fronts to challenge the offense.” What’s a 5 man front? This one is pretty straight-forward: a 5 man front is when you put 5 defenders on the line of scrimmage. This is always a threat to an OL which only features 5 players. If the offense doesn’t have a TE or RB staying in to help block, it means they only have one OL for each defender rushing. And even if they have help from a TE or a RB, it’s not always easy to allocate the right guys to block the right guys. Here’s a 5 man front from OU last year against Baylor—OU uses this front a lot.

When most defenses are running a 5 man front it is as OU is doing above — 3 big DL who are all lined up inside the OL with two versatile outside linebackers / nickelbacks who can either rush or drop playing outside them. Baylor does it the same way, the 3 big DL, a JACK linebacker (guys like Victor Obi who are 6’5 230 lbs), with Jalen Pitre opposite him who is 6’0 195 lbs. Here’s how it looked when Baylor did it against OU:

Aranda — “Very similar to what West Virginia did last year, they’d put one of the Sills brothers over the center so you had to choose whether you were gonna block it man or do a slide protection.” OK here’s where he loses most people. What is man blocking? What is slide protection? Let’s start with man-blocking, which is more intuitive. Each lineman is responsible for one man. It’s not 100% hard and fast, because there are always going to be switch calls and other specific calls for a gameplan, but in general it’s mano a mano. Here’s a simple example:

OK what about “slide” protection? Again, the name is very helpful. In slide, the OL will all “slide” to one side and it becomes a zone blocking scheme. In general, whenever you slide you are vulnerable opposite the slide of the slide call. So if you slide the OL right because you think the primary threats are coming from the right, you’re vulnerable to a rusher coming off the left side. Here’s an example of just that with Jalen Pitre against Texas last year:

So how does the NT factor into this? Well, in that man protection, if the NT (or any of the interior DL, really) are dominant pass rushers, then you can’t handle them with one guy. Man protection becomes a no-go unless you want to get dominated every play. Ika is a dominant NT at getting penetration. Despite being so big, where’s he’s really good is with his hands and getting upfield. He’s a guy who will get a lot of TFL because he’s so quick off the ball.

So you have to switch to some sort of zone scheme where you can have multiple OL handling the NT. But once you do that, as shown in the Pitre example against Texas above, you leave yourself vulnerable to rushers coming off the backside.

Here’s why that is so important for Baylor. Baylor’s unique in that their two best pass rushers are two guys—Jalen Pitre and Terrel Bernard—who don’t normally play on the line scrimmage. They’re coming on blitzes, and they’re coming from depth. So let’s say an OL can’t handle Apu Ika man to man, so they switch to a zone scheme. Now they’re getting beat by Pitre coming off the edge, so they make sure to zone TOWARDS Pitre. It might look something like this, with Pitre as the F, Bernard as the W, and Ika as the N.

https://throwdeeppublishing.com/blogs/news/the-bay-and-the-bayou-justin-wilcox-and-dave-aranda-s-defenses

What’s the final counter punch? Hit them with Terrel Bernard coming through the middle. You’re OL has to help on the nose, it has to help off the edge, and now you’ve got a picture-perfect matchup with your best pass rushing inside linebacker against a running back. It might look like this ...

Notice how the RT fans towards Pitre, but Pitre doesn’t even come! Because he put in the work previously in the game to establish himself as a threat, he’s essentially wasting an OL in protection. So the RT is blocking nobody while the running back is left to handle Bernard one on one. Exactly what Baylor wants.

Here’s what that play looks like on the chalkboard, with Pitre as the F and Bernard as the W.

https://throwdeeppublishing.com/blogs/news/the-bay-and-the-bayou-justin-wilcox-and-dave-aranda-s-defenses

Baylor’s three best pass rushers this year will almost surely be Apu Ika, Terrel Bernard, and Jalen Pitre. Ika is the new threat that will allow Pitre and Bernard to get more one on one matchups. Baylor was decimated on the DL last year by COVID and never had a threatening DL unit. The entire unit looks better this year AND they added a dominant force in Ika. Teams may try to see if they can handle him early in games, but after they realize they can’t that will start to open things up for Bernard, Pitre, and the other threats Baylor has on defense.

Here’s the setup:

  1. A dominant NT (Apu Ika) means you can’t block him 1v1 in man protection
  2. So you switch to some sort of zone scheme where you can get multiple OL on the NT
  3. But this leaves you vulnerable to other guys coming off the edge (namely Jalen Pitre)
  4. So finally your OL starts to slide towards guys like Pitre which leaves you vulnerable to guys like Terrel Bernard coming from the inside

This is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” setup that every defensive coordinator wants to setup. It’s not enough to have one guy you have to pay attention to. When you have multiple, it makes it impossible to cover all your bases. Baylor is setup to have a dominant defense this year and the addition of Ika makes it that much more likely.

In the words of Aranda, “long story short ... having a guy who is a mismatch at nose is a huge favor. You saw some of that today, when we put 5 guys up, they had a hard time handling Apu.”