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Previewing Alabama versus Louisiana Lafayette: The Ragin’ Cajun defense

Though no one expects the Ragin’ Cajuns to grind the Crimson Tide’s offense to a halt, they do pose an interesting conundrum with an unconventional scheme

Louisiana Lafayette v Mississippi State
If they had this much trouble with Nick Fitzgerald, it’s hard to imagine they’ll handle Tua Tagovailoa.
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

You may or may not know the name Ron Roberts. After all, he’s not been much of a player on the stage of major college football, rather serving as head coach of small-schools across the South like Delta State and Southeast Louisiana.

But even if you don’t know Roberts’ name, you know the names of his proteges. LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Bama co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding. Bama defensive backs coach Karl Scott. All these men coached under Roberts during his time at Delta State (Aranda) and Southeastern Louisiana (Golding and Scott). The trio is considered amongst a handful of rising defensive stars in the game, and they all cut their teeth under Roberts.

While the unassuming Louisiana Lafayette defensive coordinator may not be a household name, his fingerprints are on the defenses of SEC teams. Though no one would mistake ULL’s roster for the one they’ll line up across from on Saturday, Roberts is trying to revitalize the Ragin’ Cajun defense and make them contenders in the Sunbelt Conference.

Unfortunately, he has a long way to go before the defense can do battle with SEC teams. Mississippi State gully-washed them in the second week of the season by a score of 56-10. Alabama’s offense brings considerably more firepower to the table, which is likely the reason the Tide is a seven-touchdown favorite over the team from Lafayette.

There won’t be any upsets in Tuscaloosa this weekend, as the Tide should have its way with the Cajun defense. But it will be interesting to see how the Tide handles ULL’s unconventional “sharks in the water” style of defense, as Alabama hasn’t faced a similar unit in terms of scheme to date. Do the Cajuns have the tools to even slow down Alabama? Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

There aren’t many household names on the ULL roster that would be familiar to fans of the SEC. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t talent on the roster, but as of yet, no one has emerged as a sure-fire pro prospect.

The Cajuns use an alignment that may appear odd to current fans of the game, as it’s a variation of the “33 Stack” defense. That means there are three down linemen, three linebackers, and a nickel back end that can take a variety of shapes to suit the philosophy of the coordinator.

Up front, there’s a typical 0-technique two-gapping nose in the center of the line, flanked by two ends that play a static left or right orientation rather than flipping when an offense lines up a strong side. At that nose position is senior LaDarrius Kidd (6-3, 317 pounds) who has the kind of size one would expect of a lineman who must take responsibility for anchoring the defensive push. He can eat up blocks and hold the rope while the athletic ends push up field. As a result of being a space-eater, his stat line isn’t gaudy. He has only six tackles this season, but he’s an invaluable fulcrum upon which the defense pivots. Behind him is another solid big man in freshman Masry Mapieu (6-4, 294 pounds). Mapieu has a lot of promise and has earned some early playing time, accruing three tackles on limited snaps.

At left end the starter is junior workhorse Bennie Higgins (6-0, 266 pounds), an athletic edge-pincher who is tasked with playing a two-way go in the pass rush and manipulating passing lanes to force QBs into hesitation. Higgins has been active, as the defense is designed to spill the run from the middle to the edges where it can be sealed off and tracked down. Higgins has 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and a quarterback hurry. His back-up, senior Garrard McDowell, doesn’t offer much drop-off, as he too has 11 tackles on the year to go along with a pass broken up and a quarterback hurry.

The right end is sophomore Chauncey Manac (6-3, 252 pounds), a player who despite his relative youth has been every bit as effective as the senior bookend on the other side. Manac has 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. His relief comes in the form of another sophomore Andre Jones (6-5, 225 pounds). Jones has impressed coaches with his length and work ethic, and he has two tackles and a TFL to his credit.

The linebacking corps is charged with cleaning up the gaps behind the line and playing an aggressive style of run defense. They are responsible for gaps in the middle, but when the defense is unsuccessful in forcing the run inside, they are charged with pursuit and tracking down the ball carrier. The linebacking corps is led by junior Jacques Boudreaux (6-1, 228 pounds), who leads the team in tackles with 17 along with 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass broken up, and a quarterback hurry. Another excellent defender who steps in at Mike is junior Ferrod Gardner (6-2, 215 pounds), and he is having quite a year with 13 tackles to his credit.

At the Left position, senior Justin Middleton (6-1, 225 pounds) is a stalwart, as he has 11 tackles and a tackle for loss so far. Promising sophomore Lorenzo McCaskill (6-0, 202 pounds) spells him, and while McCaskill only has a quarterback hurry on his stat line, he has been disruptive in limited play. The starting right linebacker is senior Chaziere Malbrue (6-2, 215 pounds), and Malbrue has five tackles on the season, two of which are sacks. Depth is suspect behind him, however, as true freshman Andre Riley is the second stringer. Riley has five tackles and a sack to his credit.

The defensive backfield does feature nickel personnel in a sense, but it’s unlike the nickel package you see trotted on the field by many other teams. There are two corners responsible for coverage on the edges, and the free safety plays deep over the top most of the time. It’s the other two defensive backs that make Roberts’ defense different, however. The terminology has differed at each of Roberts’ spots, but one if known as the Nitro or Rover, while the other is the Diamond or Slash. Both positions line themselves up just beyond the linebackers, and they have responsibilities in blitzes, in coverage, and in run support. They can crash the line and attack gaps, or they can drop off into coverage. On running plays, they follow the linebackers in cleaning up ball carriers that are successfully forced inside, and if a play spills outside they use their speed to take advantage of the ball carrier’s horizontal movement on the field.

At the Slash position is junior Terik Miller (6-0, 215 pounds), and he is perfectly cut out for the role because of his hybrid size that gives him the hitting power of a ‘backer with the agility and speed of a safety. Miller has flourished in the role, wracking up 14 tackles and two quarterback hurries already. When he sits, sophomore Ja’len Johnson (6-3, 212 pounds) comes out and there’s not much drop-off. Johnson has four tackles on the year.

At the Rover spot, senior Corey Turner (6-1, 204 pounds) is the starter, and he flied around and gets involved in the run defense often. Because of that, he already has 10 tackles on the season. Behind him is junior Blair Brooks (6-1, 205 pounds), and Brooks has six tackles this year so far.

The free safety is the critical safety valve in Roberts’ defense, as senior Koa Haynes (6-1, 180 pounds) is the last line of defense in the passing game. So far this season, he has 13 tackles. His counterpart, junior Deuce Wallace (5-11, 196 pounds), has been dynamic in relief, collecting nine tackles, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble so far.

At the corners, the Cajuns have opposites on the experience spectrum. On the left side is seasoned senior Kendall Johnson (6-0, 193 pounds), who has 12 tackles and a pass broken up this season. Behind him is Daijuane Dorsey (6-1, 180 pounds), a true freshman who has been used sparingly to date. He has a single tackle on the year. On the right side, the starter is true freshman Eric Garror (5-9, 180 pounds), who has the team’s lone interception to go along with six tackles and a sack.

How Louisiana Lafayette Will Attack the Alabama Offense

Again, make no mistake, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ defense is not going to stop Alabama consistently. What they will do is give Tua Tagovailoa yet another test (for as long as he plays, anyway) because they will offer him looks and formations to which he isn’t accustomed.

First, a little about the defense. The typical 33 Stack (or 3-3-5 or 3-3 Stack) defense is not all that rare. Lots of undersized/ undermanned teams have installed it as a way of dealing with spread offenses by developing a mechanism to successfully force the run inside where the defense has an unblockable numbers advantage. The coordinator basically uses the simple stacked alignment up front and can play any coverage look on the back end. Many 33 Stack defenses will put their front in a 4-0-4 gap alignment and have the linebackers line up directly behind the linemen. Roberts uses a slightly different tactic, instead preferring to shade a defensive end on one side or the other inside in more of a 3-0-5 gap alignment with the linebackers directly behind. In those cases, he’ll usually bring a fourth rusher to the line, which is either one of the outside linebackers or one of the inverts.

The idea is that the nose can two-gap or one-gap out of the 0-technique, while the ends attack upfield in their gaps using a two-way-go tactic. In other words, when the ends attack the blockers, they get the initial push to disrupt the lineman’s footwork, then decide whether to take the rush outside or inside. By delaying the commitment, they can effectively stay in the passing lanes of the opposing quarterback, and delay allowing a back to choose a hole on running plays. Roberts calls it a “four-spoke pass rush,” meaning that on every down there are at least four pass rushers attempting to penetrate, and they typically come from four distinct angles like four spokes of a bicycle wheel. On the side with the 3-technique end, Roberts will allow a linebacker to play a proxy end role from a two-point stance or bring either the Slash or Rover up to the line in a blitz look. The defensive linemen can attack vertically upfield because the linebackers are responsible for containing the edge against the run, as they flatten out along the line at the snap to the strong side to force backs back into the middle (at least in theory.)

Though the front is technically a three-man front, it plays like a four-man front with over and under principals at play. Literally any player on the defense can serve as the fourth man on the front, though typically it’s a linebacker or the Rover/ Slash.

Speaking of those oddly named defensive back types (which you will also hear Roberts call “inverts”), they line up just off the outside shoulders of the outside linebackers and just a few steps deeper. Technically, they are just out of the box, but they can close into the box in a split second to present a quarterback with a confusing RPO-disrupting bit of camouflage. This allows them to insert themselves into every facet of the game. They can crash interior gaps to clean up behind linebackers. They can spill outside and use their speed to close on running backs when they get pushed to the boundary. They can blitz from all sorts of angles and make life hell for a quarterback. They can also play in zone coverage underneath and in the flats, since the linebackers typically play downhill and have gap responsibilities up front, creating an exploitable zone just beyond the line of scrimmage in the short passing game.

The corners play in their traditional roles on the edges, but they can either play man (not advisable this week against the Tide), Cover-3 with the free safety taking the deep middle third and each corner taking a boundary third, or almost any other coverage variation. The free safety almost exclusively plays over the top in some deep zone or other and is typically not present in the run defense or pass rush.

While these coverages may all seem rather conventional, rarely will Roberts give a quarterback an unimpeded look. He loves to disguise coverages. He’ll give them one look and then take it away pre-snap, like the way Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko did last week against Alabama.

While the front will be different from any Alabama’s seen so far this year in alignment, the philosophy of the Cajun defense will be similar to others. They want to contain the run and put the opposing running game in a close-quarters fight in a phone booth. They want linemen in the lanes with their hands up while simultaneously rushing to disrupt the view of the passer. They want coverages that look like one scheme but play like another. Those are all concepts Alabama has seen and conquered handily this season, and they’ve done so against teams with superior athletes to the ones they’ll face Saturday afternoon.

The Result

Let’s not mince words. Though the Ragin’ Cajuns have a nifty system and Roberts is a small-college coaching legend of sorts, that won’t get the ULL defense much when they face off against Alabama Saturday. Last week, the Tide played well short of its best offensive game against the Aggies, and they still shredded up a more talented, statistically superior defense with relative ease. The Cajuns don’t have the caliber of athlete fielded by A&M, and there’s no reason to believe there’s much that they’ll be able to do to stop Alabama.

There’s not much to it other than that. Alabama’s offense will move up and down the field on ULL, and Tagovailoa will likely be sitting by halftime. Heck, Jalen Hurts may have joined him by the time the halftime buzzer sounds.

What Alabama can do is continue to work on execution while polishing up on their roughest outing of the year last weekend. There’s no doubt that Nick Saban and his staff have been in the ears of their offense this week, as despite their explosiveness, there was a lack of discipline at times and the running game sputtered.

While outmanned, ULL does have good size up front, and the running game was the facet of the Tide’s offense that needs the most work after last week. The Tide struggled at times to dominate the Aggie front, so this week could present Alabama’s offensive line with an opportunity to get in quality reps against a physical, run-clogging front to work out some of the kinks and build cohesiveness. That will be a blessing, as the Tide will need a finely-tuned running game heading into the bulk of its conference schedule this season. The passing game fills the seats, but the running game wins championships. Alabama must use these low-stakes opportunities to hone their rushing attack to a razor-fine edge before anything more substantial is on the line.

The Alabama offense will do as it pleases Saturday against ULL, make no mistake. But the Ragin’ Cajuns are good enough to force the Tide to improve, which is something Saban has been harping on since the Tide’s lackluster performance last week against the Aggies. The question is not whether the Tide will roll, but whether they’ll look good doing it while making the improvements that Saban demands.