HOUSTON - Dave Aranda is not one for transition or lulls, especially in the seemingly ever-changing world of college football.
Having developed the reputation for delivering defenses with stunning quickness, pressures and turnovers, Aranda knew that it would take some time to get a veteran group of bigger Wisconsin players playing his ideal version of the 3-4 defense.
Even thought the situation was less than his ideal vision, Aranda found a way to maximize what the Badgers had, restructuring the front seven and had guys shed the pounds to squeeze out every ounce of talent he could.
“We want to find better ways to do what we’ve always done,” Aranda said. “We want to be creative. We want to reach a player’s peak and have them perform greater than they thought they could.”
With a bunch of 4-3 players needing to learn new positions and techniques, Wisconsin found a way to deliver. There were five games where the Badgers allowed over 30 points, but Wisconsin finished the season ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense (16.3 ppg), the lowest since 2006 and tied for the fifth-best in school history since 1964. The Badgers were third nationally in scoring defense at home (9.6) and finished seventh in total defense (305.1 ypg), also the lowest total since 2006.
Aranda did all of those schemes without knowing much about a majority of opponents on the tough schedule and doing a good portion of the work in a one week span.
Imagine now what he can do preparing for over eight months for an opponent in LSU. Nose tackle Warren Herring has, which was why the senior’s smile got bigger as pondered the possibilities at the Big Ten preseason meetings.
“It’s going to be more havoc for the opponent,” Herring said. “He’s a smart guy, and he puts us in a position for success. He moves us around, puts us in different spots and keeps offenses off balance, which is what a lot of teams had trouble with last year.”
Wisconsin started putting in big parts of the game plan for tonight’s tilt against No.13 LSU at NRG Stadium midway though fall camp and has spent the last few weeks adjusting and fine tuning different packages.
In reality Aranda has been working on the game plan since the spring, building his football IQ at several stops along the way.
Back to the Lab
Former Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland defined Aranda as a “mad scientist,” always seeing his defensive coordinator pouring over film, paging through scouting reports and breakdowns and reaching out to those in connections in the coaching industry for necessary information.
When he’s not in season or recruiting, Aranda travels the country to meet with other “scientist” who could help him build his knowledge base. For the second straight season he made the drive up to Green Bay and spent a day with Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and watched how they installed a defense over the course of workouts and camps.
“When the Packers install something, on the day it’s going in, they have lists of these techniques being used on that install,” said Aranda. “They apply the defense by techniques, which I think is really cool that it’s taught that way. It always roots back to fundamentals, which is Coach Capers’ belief.”
He also sat down with Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and spent two days with coaches from BYU in Madison. He even met with members of the San Francisco coaching staff and managed to squeeze in a lunch with Borland, who is starting to cut his teeth on the 49ers’ scheme.
“I think of all the teams we are most like the 49ers,” said Aranda. “They play three deep, they are getting reroutes on people and they’re max dropping and taking away all the windows. They are defending the spread so much better with that defense that they put in last year.”
Aranda always has a list of prepared questions he wants to try to get answered during a visit and tries to schedule his trips during a time frame when the players are going through workouts, taking the teaching and implementing it into the game plan.
“The in-between time, seeing how people work, how they handle their business, you see more of them treat it like art work instead of a job that has to be done,” said Aranda.
Painting the Picture
Losing a senior class of over two dozen plays who played a lot of games and won three Big Ten championship over their tenure, Aranda knew a lot of things would be different. Wisconsin lost its top five defensive tackles and four linebackers, including Borland, who won the league’s defensive player of the year last year. Wisconsin also had to replace safety Dezmen Southward – the team’s highest pick in the 2014 NFL draft – and saw Tanner McEvoy switch back to quarterback.
What remained for Aranda was a lot of inexperience, but a group of players who had talent, a fair amount of speed and a comfort level with the 3-4 defense.
“We knew we needed to change,” said Aranda. “We would keep a lot of the same basic principles, but we would play better to our strengths. We put in a few different schemes, changed a few movements (and) some tweaks in coverages that were all predicated on the visits I took. These people do this and do it well, so a lot of those things will be on display.”
What exactly the Badgers put on display is unknown. Although a lot of those new tweaks now represent a portion of Wisconsin’s lead calls for its base defense, the formations were very basic during the camp’s open scrimmage and didn’t reveal much more in the practices open to the media.
What we do know is that Badgers have gone smaller (choosing speed and athleticism over size), will move around more than in the past and do more things within coverage that will dictate how the unit will be able to disguise pressures and calls to be even more complicated for offenses.
“We’re fitting into the mold of what Aranda wants better,” said redshirt freshman defensive end Chikwe Obasih, one of the handful of projected first-time starters in the young front seven. “Before he came in we had a bunch of very experienced, very skillful guys, and (he) tried to add on things to what they already knew. Now we’re playing the way they want with the technique that they want. We’ve been coached on it for two years now, so we’ll be able to shine with what Aranda wants us to do.”
Hitting the Layups
One would think a meeting conducted by Aranda would be all schemes, diagrams and film study. According to Herring, some of the many offseason meetings start out like a comedy club before transitioning into deep football talk.
“Meetings can be funny because he’s very open,” said Herring. “He’ll say whatever is on his mind. The meetings are very intellectual. He has great words of wisdom. He is a defensive mastermind and it’s a learning experience from a guy who knows a lot about defense. You take advantage of that. It helps you build your knowledge so when it’s time to move on to the next level or coach you have a little bit of insight on what positions do in different defensive packages.”
During film study, Aranda will not only critique players on his team, but he’ll show clips of other players in college or the pros running certain fits or calls to illustrate what the end goal is, a tip he took away from Coyle during his visit in Miami.
“They (the Dolphins) show film of the best people in the league doing it,” said Aranda. “Here are the best people in the NFL and here’s how they look when they do. This is what we want to be like.”
One of the things head coach Gary Andersen did during fall camp was show the team clips from Wisconsin’s 31-24 loss to Penn State in the regular season finale. With the potential to play in a BCS bowl game hanging in the balance, Andersen said the team looked flustered, unorganized and unlike the team who had won the previous six games.
“That’s the facts,” said Andersen. “Our football team was not as good pre-snap, awareness and preparedness as they should have been in those situations, and that’s all of us. It’s not just one coach upstairs.”
In order for the group to take and understand responsibly, Andersen put together what he called a layup tape to highlight easy plays that need to be made.
“If I am Warren Herring and I come unblocked up the A-gap, I miss a sack on the quarterback,” Andersen said in an example. “It’s throwing a ball to a wide-open receiver and we miss him. It’s an interception that hits me right in the chest and we drop it. It’s all those things that come your way.”
“We got to make layups,” he added. “A great team finds a way to make a lot of those layups.”
Aranda had plenty of things to show from the last two games. Blown coverages, poor communication, missed opportunities for turnovers and bad angles were just some of the things that caused the Badgers to give him 65 in the last two games after giving up 13.4 points per game to that point, turning a once promising season into an average one.
“I look back at last year’s defense in general as a bunch of hard-nosed guys, fighters and we very much played that way, but we didn’t make a bunch of big plays compared to some previous years,” said Aranda. “As opposed to knocking someone out in the third round, we went 15 rounds and took some punches along the way.”
Crunching the numbers after the season, Aranda recognized that the Badgers registered fewer tackles for loss and sacks than the 2012 season despite calling blitzes on approximately 35 percent more plays. That led Aranda to create pressure-driven drills in fall camp (a blitz circuit, he called it) to instruct the players how to blitz and the proper technique to blitzing.
They also increased the number of periods dedicated to blitzing throughout practice. As a result, the number of interceptions in camp has tripled from where it was a year ago.
If anyone can attest to the improvement of the defense from year one to year two it’s offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Having not met Aranda until they were hired for Andersen’s staff, the two coordinators spend a lot of time communicating and planning spring and fall practices, devising a practice schedule that would benefit both the offense and the defense.
“He’s got a great system and he’s very creative with the way he uses his player’s skill set and puts them in a position to play fast,” said Ludwig. “It presents great challenges to offenses.”
The First Prep
Putting together a game plan in a week for LSU would have been admittedly tough. Not only will the Tigers likely present the Badgers with their toughest challenge of the season, Aranda had to sort through a lot of different players to figure out what it had and what exactly LSU’s freshmen were bringing to the table.
Heading into the opener, Aranda feels he has a good grasp on his group and has developed a scheme that will maximize a lot of new strengths while masking some weaknesses.
“This first game especially it’s important to have a mix,” said Aranda. “You play to your strength, but you still have mixes in there. I reference a pitcher who has a fastball, change-up and slider. The more pitches you have and if you can throw them well and not be afraid to throw them when the count is 3-2, there’s a lot to be said to that. Last year we were a fastball team. I think we have some more pitches this year.”
He admitted he was getting close to be over prepared, until an idea for a new wrinkle came to him for the defense. Until the last possible moment, Aranda is always willing to tinker with his formula to put the Badgers in the best situation possible.
“There are some unknowns (with LSU), but I am confident in our preparation,” said Aranda. “I know our players are confident. I know the coaches that are involved have put in a lot of work all spring through summer. LSU has always been in our minds. To be honest, it’s time to start.”