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.