Dave Aranda flummoxed the Gophers with his deceptive blitzing strategies for three years as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. So when he left the Badgers for LSU last winter, Minnesota’s coaching staff seized a chance to get his advice.
The Gophers run a base 4-3 defense — four down linemen, three linebackers — and Aranda had done a masterful job transitioning Wisconsin from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The Badgers led the nation in scoring defense last year.
After seeing Minnesota’s own talent shift, with considerably more talent at linebacker than defensive end, first-year defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel called Aranda for some tips.
“I firmly expected, ‘Hey, you know, I’m not going to do that,’ ” Sawvel said. “But he said, ‘Sure, let’s talk after recruiting.’ ”
Aranda spent several hours over two days in February talking with Sawvel at the Gophers football complex. They’d known each other from recruiting circles, and since they weren’t scheduled to compete against each other anytime soon, the time seemed right to share ideas.
“Some of our pieces and players are pretty similar to Wisconsin’s pieces and players,” Sawvel said. “We’ve been good on defense; they were borderline great on defense. So our biggest challenge is we’ve got to find a way to maintain good, but let’s try to become great.”
Does this mean the Gophers are shifting to a 3-4? No. Senior linebacker Jack Lynn was adamant Thursday in saying the Gophers still run the 4-3. But anyone paying close attention during spring practice saw them experiment with some four-linebacker sets.
And those plans didn’t spring out of the blue.
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys had conversations in years past about the 3-4 with Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In the NFL, it can be expensive to land premier defensive ends in free agency, and it’s similar in college recruiting, especially in the Midwest.
“We’re going to be a 4-3 team this year,” Claeys told WCCO (830-AM) this spring. “But at the same time, looking toward the future, you don’t want to be pigeonholed if you can’t find some D-linemen. We have enough linebackers to do some of those things.”
The talent gap has grown, as the Gophers graduated two of their top defensive ends — Theiren Cockran and Alex Keith — while adding freshman linebackers (Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin) with the speed to chase down quarterbacks.
The Gophers saw the impact these pass-rushing linebackers can have last year with Julian Huff, whose 3½ tackles for a loss came in limited duty.
Collectively, the Gophers slipped last year, ranking 45th nationally in scoring defense (25.2 points per game), 89th in opponents’ third-down conversion rate (41.63 percent) and 84th in sacks (22).
“We probably had the best secondary in the Big Ten, but it didn’t show because our blitzing wasn’t there, our pass rushing ability wasn’t there,” junior linebacker Cody Poock said.
Sawvel sought advice from Aranda on how to get the team’s best 11 defensive players on the field. Wisconsin’s strength has been keeping quarterbacks guessing where pressure is coming from.
“We could have lined up the same exact way that we’ve been playing,” Sawvel said. “But realistically — recruiting-wise, geographically where we are — some positions are hard to find, and sometimes you’ve got to maximize what you have.”
Aranda had a trip back to Madison planned for after national signing day. He offered to swing through Minneapolis first.
“Football-wise, we connected fairly well because there weren’t any breaks,” Sawvel said. “I picked him up, we got something to eat real quick, and we started at like 6:45 Friday night. We went until 11:30, and we went right back at it at 8:15 [a.m.], and kept him here until like 5:00. We just went through a lot of different things.”
Sawvel had tinkered with linebacker assignments for the Quick Lane Bowl, when the Gophers held Central Michigan to 145 yards passing, less than half its season average. The experimentation continued through spring practice. Poock said the Gophers are “getting more speed on the field” and “just beating the offensive line with speed.”
They’ll continue honing their systems, getting ready for the Sept. 1 season opener against Oregon State, which is coached by Gary Andersen, Aranda’s old boss.
Andersen brought Aranda with him from Utah State to Wisconsin in 2013. When Andersen left for Oregon State, Aranda stayed one more year under Paul Chryst before LSU gave him a deal that nearly tripled his salary, to $1.3 million.
If the Gophers defense smothers Oregon State and helps snap the program’s 12-game program losing streak to Wisconsin, they’ll have to drop Aranda a thank-you note.