LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda continues to be creative with the unique athletes at his disposal

You never know where you might find Grant Delpit.

He could blitz off the right side. He may come in late from the left.

He might be lined up tight inside the box. He could drop deep to help in coverage.

No matter where LSU’s star safety is positioned, you’d better keep your eye on him. If you’re a fan, you could miss a big play. And if you’re an opponent, you could be in trouble.

Delpit wreaked havoc last season to the tune of 74 tackles—the third highest for the Tigers—and a team-high five sacks and five interceptions. He did a little bit of everything, thanks in part to the creativity of LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

“I feel like we have the best defensive coordinator in the nation,” Delpit tells 225. “[I’m] blessed enough to be able to move throughout the defense and just open up the defense, because we have guys around us that know what they’re doing.”

I feel like we have the best defensive coordinator in the nation.

[LSU safety Grant Delpit on coach Dave Aranda]

Delpit is looking to build upon his stellar season, which netted him unanimous All-American  and All-Conference honors, as well as national recognition as a Nagurski Award finalist, given each season to the best defensive player in college football.

But he’s just one of the many dynamic pieces LSU returns to its defense this fall.

Along with Delpit in the secondary, LSU brings back cornerbacks like Kristian Fulton and Kary Vincent Jr.—who combine for 17 starts—as well as fellow safety JaCoby Stevens.

Stevens, who previously tested the waters at multiple positions on offense, finally settled into his own late last season. Aranda found a role for the former five-star athlete similar to Delpit’s—all over the field as an almost “position-less” player.

“[It’s great] for him to find his unique position,” Delpit says of his cohort. “It might not even be just one position. You can put him anywhere. He had to work on his craft in the post, but that’ll make him an all-around safety. [Aranda] definitely puts us in the right spot to make plays, and we’ve got to trust in the defense and everything is going to work out.”

Despite not starting in the first nine games of the season, Stevens worked his way to 35 tackles (six for a loss), one and a half sacks and an interception, ultimately earning himself a starting role for the final four games.

It showed, too, as 28 of those tackles, including five and a half of his tackles for loss and his half sack, all came during those final four contests. Aranda calls Stevens’ unique role the “quarters” position and describes it as being a “glorified linebacker.”

JaCoby Stevens running back a fumble recovery against Southeastern last year. Photo by Jordan Hefler.

It also allows Aranda to move his new toy all around the defense, causing confusion and chaos to the opposition.

“JaCoby is very smart, very intelligent,” Aranda said at the LSU Coaches Caravan this summer. “He knows the ins and outs of the defense. Having JaCoby on the field is an absolute plus for us. Putting him in a situation where he can be successful rushing off the edge and covering tight ends man-to-man—we want to build off of that. I think we’ll continue to build and highlight him and put him in spots where he can really excel.”

That “quarters” position is just one example of the unique surprises Aranda has up his sleeve for LSU this fall.

As strong as the Tigers’ defense was a year ago, it didn’t have a full arsenal of weapons at its disposal. Part of that was due to injuries, and the rest was a simple numbers game—the team didn’t have enough proven pieces at key positions, particularly in the front seven.

Highly touted pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson tore his ACL at the tail end of the Tigers’ season opener against Miami, causing him to miss the remainder of the year. The former four-star recruit was poised to be the Tigers’ leading pass rusher, but his injury forced others to step up in his absence.

“I took pass rush more serious once K’Lavon got hurt,” outside linebacker Michael Divinity Jr. tells 225. “I had to overwork myself and work harder because K’Lavon was a great pass rusher. He has speed. He has power. He has it all. I would just sit there and watch film with him, and he’d give me ideas. After every game, he would text me to tell me [what I could do better]. That’s one thing I love about him: He’s a brother. He’s always going to be there for me.”

Divinity wound up tying Delpit for a team-high five sacks last year, and he’ll team up with Chaisson this season to make what could be a dominant pass-rush duo.

Outside linebacker Michael Divinity Jr. (pictured above) tied with safety Grant Delpit for a team-high five sacks last year. Photo by Chris Parent / Courtesy LSU Athletics.

All signs point to Chaisson making a full recovery this season, and the early returns are nothing but positive.

“I’ve seen hunger in his eyes every day,” Divinity says. “He’s gaining weight in the right places. He’s getting muscular. He’s getting faster, stronger. He’s just doing the right things. He took this injury very serious, and he’s made good decisions throughout this whole process of him rehabbing. He’s going to come back great.”

Chaisson recorded five tackles (one for a loss), one sack and a quarterback hurry in his lone appearance in 2018, but that just may be the tip of the iceberg for him.

Aranda spoke highly of Chaisson since his return to the defense this spring, praising the versatility he brings to the unit as a whole.

“There’s some dynamic players at the second level,” Aranda says, referencing Delpit, Stevens and Chaisson. “We’ve got guys on the perimeter that can make plays sideline to sideline, can blitz, can cover, and guys that need to be isolated on pass rush one-on-ones. I think we can move around and use them. I’m excited about that. Before, without K’Lavon, we’d have to work hard to get something just right. We have to really be right on target to get where we want to get to. Whereas with K’Lavon, as long as he’s doing it, it’s probably going to be OK. The more that we can free him up to rush and not have him drop, the better we’ll be.”

In order to free up Chaisson, it all starts up front.

“He has speed. He has power. He has it all.”
—Michael Divinity Jr., referring to pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson. Photo by Gus Stark / Courtesy LSU Athletics.

Aranda prefers to run a 3-4 defense, putting an extra emphasis on a big nose tackle in the middle. LSU has struggled to find an elite body to fill that role in the past, but the Tigers feel they’ve finally acquired some quality talent and depth in sophomore Tyler Shelvin and incoming freshman Siaki “Apu” Ika.

Senior defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko, who weighs in at 291 pounds, was plugged into that role often last season. But the rise of Shelvin, 362 pounds, and Ika, 347 pounds, allows Fehoko to move back to his more natural defensive end position.

“My body was taking a beating,” Fehoko says of playing nose tackle last year. “[Shelvin and Ika] are big enough to do it. [Defensive end] is a position I was built to play. Being able to focus on [defensive] end knowing what I’ve got to do, it’s been big for me. I think now that [the coaches] have done such a great job recruiting, they’re putting the pieces in place.”

The best news of all: That means more weapons for Aranda.

Fehoko says his versatility and experience all along the defensive line allow him to move back inside for certain pass rush situations, which makes the defensive front even faster overall.

“Coach Aranda has got so many things on his mind and so many things up his sleeve,” Fehoko says. “You would think that the defense we ran a year ago—because that was successful—is what we’re going to run this year. But the defense we’ve put in so far this year has been so crazy, especially for the defensive linemen. … I think people are in for a surprise when they see how good we’re going to be this year.”

This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.

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