By: Cameron Soran
The Core of the Justin Wilcox and Dave Aranda Defenses
Both Dave Aranda and Justin Wilcox run a lot of the same plays. This should come as no great surprise to anyone who viewed the transition from Aranda to Wilcox at Wisconsin in 2016. But are these common elements really all that effective? I will let the advanced stats speak for themselves.
LSU – Before Aranda
2015 – LSU Defense – 34th in Defensive S&P+, 48th in Defensive Rushing S&P+, 11th in Defensive Passing S&P+, and 31st in Defensive FEI
LSU – Aranda’s tenure as Defensive Coordinator
2016 – LSU Defense – 2nd in Defensive S&P+, 2nd in Defensive Rushing S&P+, 3rd in Defensive Passing S&P+, and 4th in Defensive FEI
2017 – LSU Defense – 8th in Defensive S&P+, 24th in Defensive Rushing S&P+, 33rd in Defensive Passing S&P+, and 34th in Defensive FEI
2018 – LSU Defense – 5th in Defensive S&P+, 32nd in Defensive Rushing S&P+, 2nd in Defensive Passing S&P+, and 8th in Defensive FEI
Cal – Before Wilcox
- 2016 – California Defense – 107th in Defensive S&P+, 120th in Defensive Rushing S&P+, 84th in Defensive Passing S&P+, and 117th in Defensive FEI
Cal – Wilcox’s tenure as HC
2017 – California Defense – 82nd in Defensive S&P+, 64th in Defensive Rushing S&P+, 58th in Defensive Passing S&P+, and 63rd in Defensive FEI
2018 – California Defense – 13th in Defensive S&P+, 29th in Defensive Rushing S&P+, 10th in Defensive Passing S&P+, and 15th in Defensive FEI
I think it is important to briefly state that what I will be covering in this article. Namely, just the schemes that these two men have in common. That should not be mistaken, however, for the entirety of either Cal’s or LSU’s defenses in 2018 (or, in several cases, 2017). Both coaches have numerous elements that are unique and not shared by the other: not simply in terms of plays, but also what tags they have available. Our focus here is just on those schemes that both guys use.
(For those interested in how both came to use many of the same plays, I will cover that briefly at the end of the article as an addendum.)
So what kind of defense is it? 3-4? 3-3-5? 2-4-5? Well, it is all of those and more. The defining feature of an Aranda or Wilcox defense is the absence of fixed position players. Nearly everyone is expected to play a hybrid of responsibilities, whether it be stopping the run, rushing the passer, or dropping into coverage.
The modern spread offense is essentially built around the premise of attacking negative space in the defense – the areas where no defender is present. (Think, for example, of the open B-Gap as the focal point of many spread-to-run offenses.) When defender positions are fixed, then the offense can focus their assault on the areas of the field they know will be unoccupied. The slot receiver slant, for example, is premised on the idea that the defensive end will never drop into coverage to protect that throwing lane.
Well, what if the defense end can drop into coverage to protect that throwing lane? What if all the defenders are versatile enough in their skill sets to protect potentially every area of negative space on a football field? In answering this question that you begin to get a vision of what guys like Aranda and Wilcox are trying to do on Saturdays. They know they cannot defend all areas of negative space on every play, but in presenting the threat of such a possibility, they cause hesitation in the opposing offense.
And a hesitant offense rarely scores points.
Pass Coverage Zones
Both Aranda and Wilcox do not run a man-matching defense. So rather than a strict set of rules for who each defender is assigned to cover depending on the route combination, a lot of the plays are more of a “match the dude in your zone”-type coverage. (This is commonly known as “zone-matching.”) On one hand, you’re never going to be able to cover the receivers as tightly as you might if you were to go full man-match. On the other hand, it is also less vulnerable to a running quarterback since you are going to have at least some eyes on the quarterback when he scrambles.
(The reader may be asking now: how does one tell the difference between the two? The simple answer is the eyes and footwork at the outset of a defender’s drop. Once a pattern-matching defender gets a pass read, he will typically open and crossover while eyeing his designated receiver. A zone match defender, however, will begin with a more of a backpedal while initially eyeing the quarterback to get a sense of the passer’s intentions while he is headed to his landmark. The two can end up in the same place, but the initial drops are quite different.)
Trade-off aside, any form of zone-matching coverage requires answering: where are these zones? And to be frank: I cannot answer that question 100% accurately from film or even a copy of a playbook. I’d have to see how the coaches teach it on the practice field to be sure exactly what area they mean by the term “Curl,” for example. But I can at least give a close approximation.
From there, I can then articulate several key pass coverage assignments I will be talking about.
- 4 Man – The corner has the #1 receiver man-to-man, the designated linebacker covers the first route in the Flat, and the safety is responsible for any vertical route by the #2 receiver/tight end.
- Nail – Essentially a soft Cover 2. The corner covers any route by the #1 receiver in the Flat or would take him into the Out area. If none, then defend against any route into the Flat by #2 or #3. The safety is responsible for all vertical routes by #1, and if none, help on any vertical by #2. The linebacker/nickel is responsible for carrying the final #2 or #3 to the safety (Hook 2 or Hook 3).
- Buzz – The designated defender covers the first route to the flat. This may be a hitch or slant by the #1 receiver, so the defender must often sprint to the flat upon getting a pass read. If there is no route in or coming to the Flat by the time the defender has gotten to the midpoint of the Flat, then work to help on any possible corner route behind you.
- Hook to Curl – The designated defender drops to his landmark in the deep right/left area of the Hook, eyeing the quarterback the entire time. Break on any route in the Hook-to-Seam-to-Curl area.
- SCF – The designated defender drops first to carry any receiver that may end up in the Seam. If there is none, then work to the first route in the Curl area. If none or the ball is thrown there, break on any route in the Flat.
- Fox the Post – Quarters check. If the #2 has no chance of going vertical, e.g., #2 is in the backfield, then roll to the deep middle third.
A portion of the article will delve into how specific pressures attack certain protection schemes, particularly as they relate to the so-called “simulated pressures” (a 4-man rush with at least 1 unexpected rusher and 1 unexpected dropper). Many a reader may not be particularly familiar with pass protection schemes or how they operate. Therefore, the following is intended only as a brief primer to the several major protection schemes run by spread offenses. (To the reader already familiar, feel free to skip.)
The 6-man half-slide protection is the most common in all of football right now. Against 4-down defensive linemen, the offensive line will handle all four defensive linemen plus the first blitz threat to the side of the slide. The running back is responsible for all blitz threats opposite the slide, generally working from the inside-out. If both blitz threats opposite the slide end up rushing, it is the quarterback’s responsibility to get the ball out in time (aka “the QB is Hot”).
Against 3-down defensive linemen, the offensive line will handle all three defensive linemen plus the first two blitz threats to the side of the slide. The same rules apply for the running back and quarterback.
Fan protection is most commonly used against defenses who have shown a tendency to bring more outside pressure (as opposed to inside pressure). Against 4-down defensive linemen, the offensive line will handle all four defensive linemen plus the widest blitz threat to the side of the call. The running back is responsible for all blitz threats opposite the call, generally working from the inside out. If both blitz threats opposite the call end up rushing, the quarterback is Hot.
Against 3-down defensive linemen, the offensive line will handle all three defensive linemen plus the two widest blitz threats on either side of the offense. The running back is responsible for all interior blitz threats, generally working from call side to opposite. If both interior blitz threats rush, the quarterback is Hot.
Backer-Out protection was relatively uncommon until the widespread use of Tite fronts, who often preferred one of their inside linebackers insert (i.e., rush the passer) once they got a pass read. Against 4-down defensive linemen, the offensive line will handle all four defensive linemen plus the first interior blitz threat to the side of the call. The running back is responsible for all blitz threats opposite the call, generally working from the inside-out. If both blitz threats opposite the call end up rushing, the quarterback is Hot.
Against 3-down defensive linemen, the offensive line will handle all three defensive linemen plus the two interior blitz threats. The running back is responsible for all exterior blitz threats, generally working from call side to opposite. If both exterior blitz threats rush, the quarterback is Hot.
5-Man Half-Slide aka Scat Protection
The 5-man half-slide is used when the running back will be part of the route concept and will not be part of the pass protection. It operates by the same rules as 6-man half-slide, except that if any blitz threat opposite the call rushes, then the quarterback is Hot.
Standard Downs vs. Passing Downs
The term “passing downs” – coined by Bill Connelly – is defined as second down with 8 or more yards to go, or third or fourth down with 5 or more yards to go. All other downs are standard downs. The distinction is important because offensive play-calling distributions are quite different on standard downs versus passing downs.
Overall, a college offense will run the ball on about 60% of all standard downs, with about another 10% of the plays being passes off RPOs. (Not to get too technical but the number of charted “passes” can vary depending on whether a shovel or a pitch is counted as a pass.) Therefore, a defense is looking at about a 70-30 run-&-RPO vs pass distribution on standard downs.
On passing downs, the offense will run the ball about 35% of the time, with about another 10% of the passes coming off RPOs. Thus, a defense is looking at about a 45-55 run-&-RPO vs pass distribution on passing downs.
Yes, these are averages and would not be accurate descriptions for many offenses, e.g., Army, Wazzu, etc. But it is a helpful generalization when you are discussing defensive play distributions across a season. Consequently, use of the terms standard downs and passing downs in this article is meant to concisely summarize the context in which certain defensive plays are called.
Broadly speaking, each defensive play can be grouped into one of four separate groups of fronts: (i) Odd/Under, (ii) Tite, (iii) Even, and (iv) Okie.
Odd/Under means those plays that start from a base 3-4 Odd front, but are just as often run out of an Under front as well.
Tite means those plays that again share a 3-4 structure, but with both defensive ends aligning on the inside shoulder of the tackles.
Even means those plays that adhere to a 4-down framework, similar to that of a 4-3 or 4-2-5. Most commonly, this results in an Over or Heads front, though Under is present as well.
Okie means those plays that place both “defensive ends” on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle or tight end.
Depending on how one designates personnel – whether by position listed in the school program, whether a guy lines up in a two-point stance or with hand in the dirt, or by physical profile – the characterization of the personnel used for each front group varies greatly. Very few guys have just one role (e.g., pass rusher) on defense, so a lot of guys get moved around based on their skill versatility and the opponent that week. Both Aranda and Wilcox are firmly committed to fitting their scheme to their players, so they are not particularly tied to the labels.
For example, the Odd/Under package adheres to a 3-4 framework, but the field side outside linebacker may be played by a ‘linebacker,’ ‘cornerback’ or ‘safety.’ The only relevant questions are: (i) what each defender spot will be asked to do on Saturday, and (ii) who on the roster has the skill set to fill that role? And if they don’t have an answer to the second, they go back and change their answer to the first.
Each front group, however, does have certain tendencies. Both Tite and Odd/Under primarily operate from 3-4 and 3-3-5 personnel groupings. Even is primarily run from 3-3-5 and 2-4-5. And Okie is a bit of a wildcard, running either 5 or 6 defensive backs, 0-3 defensive linemen, and the remaining spots filled by linebackers.
For the sake of simplification then, I will stick with one set of personnel for each front group.
These are probably the closest approximations to what you tend to see out of each front group, but as indicated before: Aranda and Wilcox are not really tied to position labels. So take it for what it is: an approximation.
The Odd/Under front grouping gets its name from the fact that all the following plays are run from both Odd and Under front alignments, and the defense will sometimes shift from one to the other before the snap.
Important to note here is that the field outside linebacker will always align to the field, and the boundary outside linebacker will always align to the boundary. Therefore, we will be calling them the “Field Backer” and “Bench Backer” respectively.
Regardless of whether they start in Odd or Under, the defensive linemen will end up in the same gaps for each play. They might start in the gap, slant to it, or even stunt across an offensive lineman’s face to get there. (See an example below.) This allows the defense to present a wide variety of looks – and therefore increasing the preparation time by the offense – without much additional learning for the defenders.
Easily the most prevalent play out of Odd/Under is a form of Cover 1 Man. The Boundary Backer will rush, and the corners and Field Backer will play man. The inside linebackers will play what Saban calls Funnel and Aranda calls Solo: both players will eye the running back, and the near side player will take the running back if he breaks to their side, and the opposite side player will become the hole/robber player in the Hook area.
The safeties have a similar assignment on any H-back/ fullback: the near safety to the side where the H-back goes drops down into the box and has him man-to-man if he releases on any route, while the opposite safety to drops to the deep middle of the field. (Saban calls this Alert and Aranda calls this Key.) If you feel comfortable leaving your corners one-on-one with the opposing wide receivers – and Aranda and Wilcox most certainly do – you can get a lot of mileage out of running just this one play.
The second is a play that can often act as a simulated pressure depending on offensive formation. Essentially, the Field Backer contain rushes the quarterback, the near safety drops down to replace him, and the Bench Backer drops into coverage. From there, either one of Cover 3 or Cover 1 can be run. For Wilcox, this tended to be more Cover 3. For Aranda, this was more Cover 1 (similar rules to Under 1 and Odd 1 shown above).
Less common is a 3-man rush play. The corners and the boundary safety bail to their respective deep thirds, the Field and Boundary Backer buzz to the flats to help out on the #1 receivers, the dropping safety and one of the inside linebackers drop and then take the #2 receivers man-to-man, and the Mike taking the running back. Essentially, it is a Cover 3 version of an 8-man drop. (I call this a P-Zone, though I am unsure if this is the commonly accepted term for it.)
Against 3×1 sets, the safety and Field Backer will flip responsibilities.
I was only able to identify a single, true simulated pressure both ran out of Odd/Under. Due to the alternating outside rushes offenses would see out of Odd and Under, some offenses would opt to run Fan protection. The response? A basic Cover 1 simulated pressure generally sending the boundary inside linebacker.
And this play just about killed Fan protection.
Before I get going into the blitzes, I must break down the concept known as a “Read Blitz.” A Read Blitz is when blitzing defender will read an assigned offensive lineman (generally a tackle) and will attack an assigned gap based on the offensive lineman’s slide. If the offensive linemen sets away from the defender, they will continue through their assigned gap. If the offensive lineman sets to them, however, they will instead attack the next interior gap not occupied by a defender.
So let’s say a linebacker is Read Blitzing the C-Gap:
- If the tackle sets/slides AWAY FROM you, then continue blitzing the C-Gap;
- If the tackle sets/slide TO you, then work to blitz the next interior gap not occupied by a defender (here the A-Gap).
Read blitzes are used to attack protections in the most advantageous way possible: by sending a rusher around the slide.
One of the more effective blitzes out of Odd/Under made use of this Read Blitz concept. The Field Backer is attacking the D-Gap and the Mike is attacking the C-Gap. The Field Backer and Mike, however, can be tagged to switch gaps they are attacking to cause further confusion for the offensive line (this was more of a Wilcox thing). In addition, the Mike can trade responsibilities with the Will if the Mike is in better position to cover the Will’s pass drop (this was more of an Aranda thing). Whoever the C-Gap rusher ends up being, they are on a Read Blitz.
There is also a similar blitz that instead runs a Cover 2 trap coverage instead of a fire zone.
Perhaps the most versatile blitz out of Odd/Under is the A-B Fire Zone. Essentially, the inside linebacker to the call side blitzes the call side A-Gap, and the other inside linebacker follows behind to hit the call side B-Gap. The safety to the call side rolls down to the middle hook area, and the other safety drops to the deep middle third. The remaining defenders play standard 3-deep, 3-under Fire Zone coverage. The reason why it may be the most versatile is that the “call side” can be to the field, bench, TE, away from the TE, etc.
My personal favorite blitz out of Odd/Under, however, is a well-established play with the boundary corner and Bench Backer rushing and running a Fire Zone coverage behind it. I know this play as “Dallas” (because it’s a variation of “Cowboy” – a corner blitz). It is a personal favorite because having played tackle in high school, I know how difficult it can be to pick up the boundary corner blitz when the boundary outside linebacker is coming as well.
The last is a 7-man peel blitz. It’s like the A-B blitz shown above (ILB to call side goes first to call side A-Gap, with the other ILB going second to the call side B-Gap), except now both outside linebackers are rushing and have “peel” responsibility: cover the running back man-to-man if he releases to their side.
For Wilcox, the Tite front is a specific response to 10 personnel and certain zone-heavy teams. For Aranda, it comprises most of his defense on standard downs.
Like Odd/Under, Tite adheres to the same Field Backer and Boundary Backer distinction.
Some coaches give their players a single-gap assignment in their run fits out of Tite, e.g., Mike has A-Gap, Will has C-Gap, etc. Aranda and Wilcox, however, give the inside backers flow assignments. What this means is that the Will and Mike will insert the A-Gap or C-Gap based on the running back and quarterback’s flow in the backfield. There is a certain danger that a gap will be left open if either one of them misses their read, but it also allows the defense to fit against the run more aggressively.
There are essentially six main coverages out of Tite front.
The first has the boundary inside linebacker rushing the boundary A-Gap once he gets a pass read with the Nose slanting to the field. The defensive ends work from B-Gap to contain. The rest of the defense plays the 4 Man variation of Quarters: corners play man-to-man, everyone else plays normal Quarters rules.
For most Quarters teams, whenever the #2 has a wide split, they will generally check to 2-Read (or, if you prefer, Palms). Aranda and Wilcox instead play Nail: a soft Cover 2. (Nail, for all intents and purposes, is the zone-matching equivalent of 2-Read.)
The second play is the same as the first, but with the Boundary Backer and boundary inside backer switching responsibilities: the Boundary Backer rushes the edge and the boundary inside linebacker takes the Flat. Against 2×2 sets, Aranda generally has the defense check to rush the boundary inside backer and drop the Boundary Backer into coverage. For Wilcox, this switch generally only occurs versus 2×2 when the Y is detached (i.e., lined up in the slot).
Against 3×1 sets, both have a preference to send the Boundary Backer rather than the inside backer. (This is partly based on game plan, but it is a strong preference.) In addition, the weak #2 does not immediately release with a threat to go vertical, then the weak safety will roll to the deep middle to help on any post routes or vertical route by #3. (Aranda calls this “Fox the Post”).
The third play has the Boundary Backer rushing like above, but instead the defense is running Nail (soft Cover 2) to both sides.
The fourth play again has the Boundary Backer rushing, but this time the defense is running Cover 3. (Though Aranda hasn’t run much of this one at LSU.)
The fifth play is again Cover 3, but instead has the Field Backer rushing and the Boundary Backer dropping into coverage. Like it’s Odd/Under cousin, it can act as a simulated pressure depending on offensive formation. (Again, got some use, but not an Aranda favorite in 2018.)
Less common is a 3-man rush out of Tite. Essentially, it gives everyone the same Quarters responsibilities like above, except for the boundary inside linebacker who instead helps out in the Hook or on #3 instead of rushing.
In obvious passing downs – and frequently subbing personnel – there is an interesting simulated pressure out of Tite. It breaks down as follows: The inside linebacker and safety to the same side of the running back contain blitz. Then the defensive end to the running back and Nose loop hard opposite. And the defensive end and outside linebacker opposite the running back both drop into coverage: the end is man-to-man on the back, and the outside linebacker is man-to-man on #2. If you’re comfortable with your defensive end covering the running back (or subbing personnel), then it is a great way to attack 6-man half-slide protection.
There are three main blitzes out of Tite.
The first is everyone’s favorite: the double OLB blitz. Some teams prefer to run a Fire Zone coverage off this look, but Cal and LSU preferred a straight Cover 1 Man look to keep things simple for the players. I still haven’t figured how they call the Nose Guard’s slant; just that he’s slanting to an A-Gap. (Most of the time, the Nose went to the strength/field, but not always, so it is likely called as part of the play.)
The second is an interesting take an established favorite. The inside linebacker and outside linebacker to the call side will rush the A-Gap and C-Gap respectively. This concept is fairly common. But then the defense runs a Cover 2 Trap blitz behind it.
The last one involves one of the more interesting line stunts you’re probably going to see. The defensive end to the running back and the Nose loop hard opposite the back. Then the other defensive end loops behind them to the A-Gap on the running back side. The outside linebacker opposite the back would rush, while the opposite inside linebacker would fake a rush before dropping to lock on the running back man-to-man. And then the safety to the side of the running back would sneak up and contain rush. From there, the rest of the defense plays Cover 1. It’s a pretty nifty pressure for obvious passing downs.
If Aranda can be accused of over-reliance on the Tite front, then Wilcox can equally be accused of the same when it comes to the Even front group. The base for Even is a Heads front based primarily out of 2-4-5 personnel.
From there, the defensive linemen can be shifted to create either an Over or Under front as desired by play call, or simply have the defensive linemen slant to the desired gaps as well. (They can also put both defensive ends in 3-tech or 2i; you’re really only limited by your imagination when playing around with this particular front group.) This allows the defense to present the mirage of complexity.
The central idea behind Even dating back to about 2013 is that by putting outside linebackers at the defensive end spots, both “ends” can be readily asked to drop into coverage. And this opens a world of simulated pressures for the defense. If you see an Even front out of either Cal or LSU – particularly on 2nd-&-7+ or 3rd-&-4+ – you should expect to get some form of simulated pressure. Coverages and blitzes, while certainly present, are just less common. Aranda is commonly known as the “simulated pressure” guru, so I was amused when I charted more such plays out of Cal than LSU. (Though this may be owed more to Tim DeRuyter – Cal’s DC and play caller – than Wilcox himself.)
There are four main coverages out of Even.
The most common is essentially the same Cover 1 play from Odd/Under but run from an Even front instead. The inside linebackers will Key/Funnel the running back, and if there is an H-back or fullback, the safeties will Alert/Key him. I’ve yet to study a Power 5 defensive coordinator that does not have this concept somewhere in their playbook, and I’m not optimistic that I ever will.
If the offense presented 4 wide (no attached TE) or the tight end wasn’t as much of a vertical threat, then Cover 1 Cross was more common. Essentially, the Will bumps over to cover the fourth eligible receiver and the safety opposite the running back drops into the box. (For Aranda, it also helped that the safety frequently dropping into the box will find himself playing on Sundays.) This would often be accompanied by a line stunt by the two interior defensive linemen, but not always.
In passing downs, the two-high coverages would come out. The first was your standard “two-high safeties with man coverage underneath” concept, commonly known as Cover 5. Nearly always this would be combined with one or more stunts by the four pass rushers.
Rarer was the Bracket package: each safety will help bracket a designated receiver or tight end. Essentially, the defense is going to bracket the two most dangerous receiving threats, and leave everyone else in man-to-man. (Wilcox appears to have a variation of this where only one receiver is being bracketed with the other safety dropping to cover the post, but I didn’t have enough example plays to confirm this; it may be the safety was playing the bracket with different technique.)
(Aranda prefers not to move his Nickel against motion, so the Nickel could end up bracketing a receiver with the two safeties rolling to double the man who motions across the formation.)
Most of the defensive coaches I’ve spoken with this offseason are starving for more information on two topics: (i) Iowa State’s 3-down, 3-safety defense, and (ii) simulated pressures. I’m currently not much help on the former, but you best believe you’re getting a ton of the latter in an article on Aranda and Wilcox. While its invention predates each man’s career, since about 2012, both coaches have absolutely unloaded simulated pressure on the world of college football.
(To be clear, this is not every simulated pressure Cal or LSU have run. We’re just covering the common ones.)
Let’s start with a basic one out of Even. The boundary inside linebacker will contain rush to the boundary C or D-Gap. The Boundary Backer will stab rush inside. The Field Backer drops into coverage. And the defense is running Cover 3. Overall, a very solid and safe way to isolate and attack several types of protections (e.g., Backer-Out).
The same concept, however, can be run with Cover 2 coverage instead. This gives you complimentary ways to complicate the quarterback’s read while sending the exact same pressure.
Also, you can also flip the Will and the Boundary Backer to give yourself another way to attack the offense’s protection, e.g., against Fan protection.
But why limit yourself to Cover 2? If the offense is running more middle of the field concepts, it would be helpful to have a Cover 1 Robber concept as well. This can be particularly effective if run to the running back side against most Air Raid teams, who often remain 6-man half-slide with the slide opposite the running back.
Sometimes, however, the offense isn’t doing the best job at telling you where they are going to set the protection. Therefore, sending the Will on a Read Blitz – hitting the A-Gap away from where the center is setting – is a pretty good answer for that.
If you’re getting more flat and out routes on the outside? Easy fix. Install a Cover 2 version of the same concept. This gives you the ability to (hopefully) get an inside linebacker one-on-one with a running back with two complementary coverages.
Often times your Nickel player has the best short-area quickness on your team, so including him on a pressure would be a great compliment. You can give him a break from coverage, and send him after the quarterback, while running Cover 3 behind it.
If the slot receiver is killing you on quick routes when the Nickel vacates, there is a ready answer for that as well.
I suppose we shouldn’t leave the boundary corner out of this, either.
Anytime you rush your boundary cornerback, you need an answer against quick routes by the boundary wide receiver (e.g., slant, hitch, etc.). So, you can put in a Cover 2 version as well with the safety driving hard into the flat just before the snap.
When’s the last time you saw an offensive line account for the safety in their protection? You can go ahead and capitalize on that as well.
Enough of that outside stuff. If you need more ways to attack Fan protection. Dial up another way to attack Fan with a double A-Gap pressure.
They can also throw in a Cover 2 version of the same pressure as well.
You can see that Aranda and Wilcox have ways of attacking virtually any 6-man protection scheme with only four rushers, with at least two coverage options for each pressure. If a defensive coordinator can track the offense’s protection tendencies – and Aranda and Wilcox are often very good at this – the defense can get a rusher one-on-one on the running back (or even sometimes a free rusher) without compromising coverage.
But that is the secret sauce of simulated pressure: having a good sense of the protection the offense will run and attacking it appropriately.
For example: If you see that the offense tends to run a 6-man half-slide away from the running back, then dialing up the Whip and Will simulated pressures shown above to the side of the running back would be a great option. The same Whip and Will pressures, however, would be far less effective if sent opposite the running back (into the offensive line’s slide). Similarly, if you are seeing a lot of Fan protection, then the Whip and Will pressures wouldn’t be ideal either. But Gut 1 and Gut 2 will often ravage Fan protection.
With today’s spread offenses often being very vanilla in their protection schemes, simulated pressures are often a cheap and effective way of capitalizing on this weakness. That is, at bottom, the primary driver for installing a series of simulated pressure packages.
(Keep in mind that the above plays can be readily adapted to man-match coverage with only minor tweaks. A pressure diagramed as Cover 3 or Cover 1 above, for example, can be readily switched to a Cover 3 Rip/Liz concept. Or a pressure diagramed as Cover 2 can be switched to 2-Read.)
Aranda and Wilcox’s simulated pressure philosophy of overloading an offense’s protection carries over into their blitz packages as well.
One of the more direct examples of this is when they use an inside linebacker and safety to the same side to overwhelm the offensive line. It requires the remaining inside linebacker to hold up well in man coverage, but if he can – you’re basically getting a free rusher every time.
Betting on the quarterback not figuring out that he was getting man-coverage is always a risky option. Ergo, they have a similar overload blitz – this time using the boundary corner – and running Trap Cover 2 behind it.
Arguably the deadliest pressure in their arsenal utilized the same concept as well. Sending both the Nickel and field inside linebacker while also giving the Field Backer a Read Blitz assignment is an effective way to attack virtually every protection scheme. The Fire Zone coverage on the back end wasn’t always perfect for either team, but that’s sometimes the price paid for running overload blitzes.
They have a similar version using the inside linebacker instead of the Nickel. It looks like they tended to run Cover 1 and the Field Backer did not have a Read Blitz assignment on this one, but don’t hold me to that. (With a limited sample size, it’s often hard to tell.)
If the running back’s eyes are always looking out, then it can be key to get the field safety involved since the back likely won’t see the safety until it’s too late. This play wasn’t particularly common, but it definitely had its uses.
And then there was Patterson’s old favorite: Bullets. Send both inside backers into the B-Gaps and play Cover 0. This was a fantastic run blitz against zone-heavy teams.
In obvious passing downs – particularly on third-and-6+ – both guys like to run Okie. The idea is to get as much speed on the field and relentlessly attack the quarterback.
I didn’t see much straight coverage out of Okie. One of the two that I saw was the same Brackets concept as Even, just out of a different front.
More common was a form of Cover 1 with one of the inside linebackers inserting in designated gap. This required the safety to drop down and play Funnel/Solo with the remaining inside linebacker. Depending on the gap called, this could almost act as a form of simulated pressure.
The two primary simulated pressures run are essentially the same concept except for coverage.
The first has the call-side inside linebacker rushing the B-Gap with the call-side safety contain rushing the C-Gap. The remainder of the defense plays Cover 1 Robber, with the opposite-side defensive “end” become the Hole player.
The second has the call-side inside linebacker rushing the B-Gap with the call-side Nickel/Dime player contain rushing the C-Gap. Instead of Cover 1, the remainder of the defense plays Cover 3.
A third play was a play on an old favorite from the 3-4: Jet 2 – rush both “outside linebackers” (here, the Nickel and Dime players), drop the Nose into coverage, and play Cover 2.
The fourth was another form of Jet pressure, but instead using the inside linebackers as the edge rushers and playing Cover 1 Robber. Generally, some form of line stunt would be run inside, and one of the “defensive ends” would drop and play the Hole. Of the four, this one appeared to be the most disruptive to the offensive line.
I only identified one true blitz that both ran out of Okie. It looks like it can be called to or away from the running back, as well as to the field or the boundary. The blitz involves sending both inside linebackers and the Dime/Nickel player in three adjacent gaps, with the defensive line looping opposite the call. The aim was to overload the man-protection side of the offensive line, but even sent into the slide, the looping “defensive end” could be missed by the opposite-side guard and become a free rusher.
Sun Tzu once said, “[t]he pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless: if it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it nor the wise make plans against it.” At its core, this is what Aranda and Wilcox are attempting to do: be formless on defense. By embracing the mutability of the defenders’ roles, the defense is able to reinforce and attack every aspect of an offense without tipping their intentions before the snap. It is not a new nor revolutionary idea – Sun Tzu first articulated it over two millennia ago – but it is a path forward against the pervasive and perpetual changes in today’s offenses.
In the current information age, no successful game plan is repeated. The future lies with those who adapt to constant change. As one can hopefully see from the above, Aranda and Wilcox are arming to do exactly that.
Before the Bear and the Tiger
To those only interested in scheme, please be aware that is not the focus of this section and feel free to ignore it. If you are interested in the history of how some a lot of the above-defensive schemes ended up at both Cal and LSU, then this may be more up your alley.
Justin Draper Wilcox and David Christopher Aranda were born less than two months apart – Aranda being the slightly older of the two – in 1976. While each man grew up on the West Coast, that’s about the only thing they had in common early on.
Wilcox grew up just outside Eugene, Oregon as the son of NFL Hall-of-Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox. The older Wilcox had played linebacker for Boise Junior College for two years before transferring to Oregon, and then spent 11 years playing for the San Francisco 49ers. It should come as no surprise that both his sons inherited part of his athleticism. Justin Wilcox’s brother Josh, 3 years his senior, played tight end for the Ducks and briefly for the New Orleans Saints.
Naturally, Justin went to Oregon where he ultimately played both safety and cornerback for then defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and secondaries coach Bob Gregory. Bob Gregory would later describe the younger Wilcox “the smartest player I’ve ever been around.” Important to Wilcox’s career trajectory was that Bob Gregory had also recently worked as an assistant under Dan Hawkins at Willamette University.
Wilcox also earned the respect of the offensive coaches as well, which at the time included individuals such as Chris Petersen (wide receivers’ coach) and Jeff Tedford (offensive coordinator). After graduating with a degree in anthropology – a very common degree among football coaches – Wilcox failed to make the roster in the NFL and started looking for other options. And when Dan Hawkins got promoted to head coach at Boise State in 2001, Wilcox joined Gregory and Petersen in Boise as a graduate assistant. Two years later, Wilcox was coaching linebackers under Gregory and Tedford at Cal. And three years after that – only 30 years old at the time – Wilcox was the defensive coordinator under Petersen at Boise State.
Aranda’s early career was far less linear. He graduated from Redlands High School in California in 1994 (six surgeries to his right shoulder ended his playing career), and then spent a year coaching their JV squad before becoming a graduate assistant at Cal Lutheran, where he was a roommate of now-Texas head coach Tom Herman. By all accounts, Aranda was voracious in his football appetite, devouring every bit of football film and literature that he could get his hands on. After three years there, graduating with a degree in philosophy – again, a very common degree for a football coach – he spent another two years as a graduate assistant at Texas Tech where he was mentored by Greg McMackin. This stint lead to him finally landing his first big assistant job as Houston’s linebacker coach under defensive coordinators Dick Bumpas, Bradley Dale Peveto, and Ron Harris. He returned to Cal Lutheran for two years as their defensive coordinator and linebackers’ coach, leading the Kingsmen to reign as the top scoring defense in the conference.
Then in 2007, Aranda accepted a position as the co-defensive coordinator at Delta State. He would work there under Ron Roberts: a renown “coach’s coach” in college football circles. And by all accounts, Aranda’s one-year stint there had a long-lasting impact on his development. Under Roberts, Aranda changed his defensive philosophy more towards 3-down fronts, and often had to help game plan for the offense at a moment’s notice. The fact that Aranda and Roberts still watch film together gives you a sense of the bond formed between the two men.
The next year, Aranda got a call from his old mentor Greg McMackin to coach the defensive line for the Rainbow Warriors in 2008. Two years later, McMackin – now the head coach – would promote Aranda to defensive coordinator.
A WAC Meeting
While it is not often stated publicly to avoid scrutiny, coordinators and position coaches on the same side of the ball will often chat in the offseason to discuss ideas – even within the same conference. And Aranda is particularly known for traveling the country to do this with several coaches every offseason. After arriving at Hawaii, Aranda and Wilcox began to chat with one each other over the phone. (Except games where they would stand on opposite sidelines, it does not appear they ever met in-person.) The pair would remain in communication over the years to come. Unsurprisingly, a few schematic ideas seemed to find their way over to the other guy’s playbook.
An example: Wilcox had begun experimenting with running Tite fronts to combat the spread as early as 2007, albeit primarily from a 4-down front. Tite fronts would later become a mainstay of Aranda’s defenses, though he would run it more from 3-down.
And on the other side, Aranda had extensive experience running what are commonly known as simulated pressures (Aranda calls them “creepers”) at Delta State in 2007. And simulated pressures began to become much more prevalent in Wilcox’s defenses as well.
In 2010, Wilcox elected to leave Boise State and take up the defensive coordinator position at Tennessee for two years, where he struggled to improve the Volunteers defense. In 2012, he took the coordinator job at Washington under Steve Sarkisian. There he succeeded in dramatically turning around Washington’s defense in a two-year span. When Sarkisian went to USC in 2014 and Chris Petersen took over as head coach at Washington, Wilcox waited for a time in hopes of getting an offer from Petersen to remain as defensive coordinator for the Huskies. It didn’t come. (Pete Kwiatkowski would take over from a Wilcox-led defense for a second time; the first being at Boise State.) So, Wilcox followed Sarkisian to USC, and turned out arguably the worst defenses of his entire career in 2014 and 2015. Sure, Wilcox was not alone in his ineptitude – nearly every aspect of USC’s coaching staff was in free-fall during this period under Sarkisian – but his tenure with the Trojans is uncontrovertibly a black-mark on his record.
Meanwhile, Aranda spent two years guiding the Rainbow Warriors defense to a solid – if sometimes inconsistent – set of performances. After Hawaii finished 6-7 in 2011, Aranda and the rest of the coaching staff were let go. Gracefully, when the then-head coach of Utah State Gary Andersen needed a defensive coordinator, he gave Aranda a call. And to say that Aranda thrived under Andersen would be an understatement. The Aggies would only surrender more than 20 points twice that season. The next year, Andersen took the head coaching job at Wisconsin and brought Aranda with him. Excepting the 2014 BigTen title game, Aranda’s defenses with the Badgers were consistently excellent.
In 2016, however, Aranda took the leap and accepted a post to become LSU’s defensive coordinator. Paul Chryst’s choice to replace him? Justin Wilcox. While the players and staff had to get used to the new terminology (e.g., “Tite 4” for Aranda would be “Tulsa” for Wilcox), nothing really changed schematically. For almost everything Aranda had been running at Wisconsin, Wilcox had a similar version. The transition was nearly seamless. And the Badger defense continued to thrive under Wilcox in 2016. While Aranda remains the defensive coordinator at LSU, Wilcox became the head coach at Cal after only one year at Wisconsin. Both succeeded in dramatically improving their respective defenses, and appear poised to do so in 2019 as well.
Connection or Collaboration?
It is tempting to conclude that all commonalities between their respective defenses have been the result of collaboration. I view that conclusion as incorrect. A lot of coaches will share and discuss play ideas with each other, but it is actually quite rare for two coaches – without working under the same coaching tree – to end up with similar systems. At bottom, it requires a shared philosophy and overall approach to defense. And a lot of what pushed both men in the same direction were the similar answers each had to answering the problems presented by the spread offense.
In his book “Hybrids,” Cody Alexander argues that the best counter to spread offenses is to have hybrid players to allow the defense to dictate the terms of engagement with the offense (e.g., not suddenly needing to check out of a blitz because the offense motions). I agree with the renown Coach Alexander in his answer, though view the rationale a bit differently. (I see the need for hybrid defenders against the spread as giving the defense the ability to defend any potential negative space that the spread offense might attack.) But Aranda and Wilcox? They had already come to the same conclusion a decade earlier.
Wilcox, for example, started off initially using Bob Gregory’s 4-4, but this scheme was not particularly flexible against 3+ wide receiver sets nor particularly conducive to the types of athletes available to Boise. Therefore, Wilcox began moving towards more a 3-4 type structure with a lot of single-high coverages, effectively creating the same result (more guys in the box) but with greater adaptability. At Washington, he would continue to push this even further by going to 2-4-5 sets even on standard downs. (The image below shows how Wilcox achieves a similar result as the 4-4, but with personnel far better suited against the spread.)
Aranda followed a similar trend, utilizing the Badger’s wealth at linebacker to deploy his 2-4-5 defenses that were particularly famous at Wisconsin. (Aranda ran, among others, 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5, 2-4-5, and 1-4-6 at Wisconsin, but it was the 2-4-5 that caught everyone’s attention. Go figure.) In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the success of each man’s defenses has been entirely contingent on developing players to take on multiple responsibilities from play-to-play and throughout the course of the season.
Even if they had never spoken with each other, I think both men were trending in the same direction with the use of hybrid personnel to aggressively attack the spread. It was just the offseason chats made their schemes more alike than they might have been. Sometimes that’s all it takes for these types of schematic changes to emerge: a chance phone call between two Group-of-5 assistant coaches.