Popeyes, crawfish boils and new schemes: How LSU’s defensive line is melding in DC Dave Aranda’s ‘total package’
Rashard Lawrence orders the three-piece meal at Popeyes and asks for a fourth.
“Extra drumstick,” Lawrence smiled.
Why is LSU’s defensive end talking about his lunch? Because this is where the bonding happens — each Sunday at Popeyes over fried chicken.
This is where the melding of LSU’s defensive line happens, where Lawrence, Breiden Fehoko and sometimes other defensive linemen create those off-the-field bonds that breed success on the field.
This — Popeyes — is where these two old friends, Lawrence and Fehoko, speak about the past, present and the future: how Fehoko’s offseason and Lawrence’s two ankle sprains last year provide motivation (past); how coordinator Dave Aranda’s new packages will lead to goose eggs this fall (future); and why their very own unit helped pitch a shutout Saturday in the first scrimmage of spring practice (present).
Yes, a winner of what coach Ed Orgeron described as a “half scrimmage” in Tiger Stadium was declared: It’s the defense.
“I don’t want to brag,” Fehoko said, “but the offense really didn’t score.”
The scrimmage was closed to media, but players say the defense pitched a shutout. A big reason why: Fehoko, Lawrence and a swarming defensive front that is emerging five practices into spring as a strength on this squad.
The result of the scrimmage — 0-fer for the offense — is probably more bitter than sweet for an LSU fan base salivating for offensive improvement. New offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger is only in the early stages of installing his scheme, one that players say is more pass-heavy, leaning on four-receiver sets.
There are wrinkles and hiccups, while Aranda’s group — Fehoko and Lawrence included — are leagues ahead of where they were in previous years, players say. They’re so far ahead that they’ve even implemented defensive schemes new to veteran offensive players like tight end Foster Moreau.
“They installed some stuff,” Moreau said of the scrimmage, “we hadn’t seen.”
Fehoko added: “Right now, we’ve got a whole lot of fronts in, a whole lot of blitzes.”
There were hints of Aranda’s tweaked defense well before spring began March 11.
“(We want to) let Dave (Aranda) run his total package. You know, he’s been limited in some of the things he’s done,” Orgeron said earlier this month in an interview with The Advocate. “In Year 3, I think you’re going to see a Dave Aranda package that’s going to be fantastic. Dave can be very multiple and very creative. We were very basic his first two years here. He wanted to get the fundamentals down.”
This spring under Aranda has been different than the first two. He spent the 2016 spring installing his system, converting LSU’s 4-3 unit to a 3-4 set. Last spring, he had a grand total of one scholarship inside linebacker by the time the spring game rolled around.
The key players on his unit this spring have been around, operating under his system for at least a year if not two. Aranda is “expanding the playbook,” Fehoko said. By Day 2 of spring last week, LSU’s defense had already installed half the playbook it used last season.
By Day 5 on Tuesday, they were running things they had never run.
“This year we have a lot of smart football players — not that we didn’t have last year, but we have a lot of young returning guys from last year’s defense. When you have a lot of guys experienced in the base defense, you can do more around that,” Fehoko said. “You have all these young guys that know what to expect and know what to do, it makes it that much more lethal and versatile for the defense.”
“We’ve got so many plays going in right now,” Lawrence said. “It’s amazing compared to last year. We were just running base and nickel packages. We’ve got stuff we didn’t even run last year in.”
Lawrence and Fehoko are key members to this defensive makeover, a pair of leaders who enjoy their Popeyes on Sundays. There are a great many topics discussed at these Sunday meals, and there is a great amount of food eaten.
“They already know, when we come in, what’s up,” Lawrence laughed.
These two go way back. They knew each other before Fehoko arrived last summer after transferring from Texas Tech. Ed Alexander, LSU’s projected starting nose tackle, introduced Fehoko and Lawrence at an Under Armour recruiting event more than three years ago.
“Ed was like, ‘This (is) my boy Rashard. We’re going to LSU together.’ It clicked from there,” Fehoko said. “Everything comes full-circle.”
While Fehoko sat out last year because of NCAA transfer rules, Lawrence missed three games because of injuries to each ankle. He never played a game in 2017 while fully healthy, he said.
He hurt one ankle three series into the opener against BYU when Alexander rolled on the ankle. Adrenaline kept him in that game. He knows this because he returned to Baton Rouge that night and could not walk. He sat out two games, returned against Syracuse and promptly injured the other ankle when a lineman toppled onto it.
“It slowed me down a lot,” Lawrence said. “I felt like some of the stuff I put on film wasn’t me. I’m looking forward to having a healthy spring.”
And eating more Popeyes, right? Sure, but this group does more than chow on chicken. The D-line together consumed about 45 pounds of crawfish Saturday, Fehoko said. It was a first for the Hawaii native.
“They were like, ‘You’ve got to twist the tail and suck the head,’ ” he said. “I twisted the tail, but I broke it in half the first time and was like, ‘What do I eat?’ ”
Mike Gegenheimer contributed to this report.