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Now on Auburn’s staff, Josh Aldridge ‘copy and pasted’ Ron Roberts’ defense while at Liberty

AL.com 2/9/2023 Tom Green, al.com

Before Josh Aldridge and Ron Roberts became colleagues on Hugh Freeze’s staff at Auburn, Aldridge already had a pretty good feel for Roberts’ defensive scheme.

After three years as Liberty’s defensive line coach under Freeze, Aldridge was promoted to the Flames’ defensive coordinator last season while also serving as linebackers coach. As he put together his vision for how he wanted Liberty’s defense to look under his watch, Aldridge drew inspiration from what Roberts was doing defensively at Baylor.

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“We played a really tough schedule last year at Liberty, and I knew we needed to be aggressive and switched a few things, and the defense I studied was Baylor, actually,” Aldridge said last week. “I actually copy and pasted Baylor’s defense basically.”

Why Aldridge was drawn to Roberts’ system is understandable.

Roberts is one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the sport, and his coaching tree has helped produce the likes of Baylor head coach Dave Aranda, Ole Miss (and former Alabama) defensive coordinator Pete Golding, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Bryan Brown and Florida defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, among others. That’s to say nothing of the success he had at Baylor in 2021, the season immediately preceding Aldridge’s promotion at Liberty.

Roberts helped Baylor produce a top-10 scoring defense that season, limiting opponents to 18.3 points per game in a conference — the Big 12 — that’s known for its prolific offenses. The Bears were also 28th nationally that season in yards allowed per play (5.15), and they produced one of the highest havoc rates in the nation (27 percent) while ranking fifth in sacks (44), seventh in tackles for loss (104), third in interceptions (19), 28th in pass breakups (48) and seventh in turnovers forced (27).

“When you turn his defense on, I don’t think you can say, ‘They’re a this; they’re a that,’” Aldridge said. “He’s got a lot of answers on how to attack people week-to-week based on the offense you face, which is great in this league because in this league you’re going to face teams that throw it 60 times, all the way to the Alabamas and Georgias, that’ll have three tight ends on the field. I think that’s what makes a great coordinator on defense. You’ve got to have a big enough toolbox to have answers.”

In attempting to emulate Roberts’ system at Liberty, Aldridge added support staffers and off-field assistants who already had familiarity with that scheme. The results at Liberty, albeit against a lighter schedule than the one he’ll be seeing at Auburn, were promising.

While the Flames were 53rd nationally in scoring defense last season (24.6 points per game), they were a top-20 unit in terms of yards allowed per play (4.96) while leading the nation in tackles for loss (121), finishing third in sacks (45) and ranking top-15 in takeaways (24).

When Freeze accepted the Auburn job in late November, Aldridge took over as Liberty’s interim head coach for the team’s bowl game. As Freeze worked to put together his inaugural staff on the Plains, Aldridge had a pretty good indication of who he was going to target as defensive coordinator — Roberts, who was on the market after being let go at Baylor, where the Bears took a step back defensively in 2022.

That’s why, when Freeze approached Aldridge about serving as a position coach for the Tigers, he jumped at the opportunity — even if it meant no longer calling plays on defense.

“That really sealed the deal for me about me wanting to come here and learn from him,” Aldridge said. “He’s one of the best minds in college football, and it’s going to be really neat for me to be with him this year.”

Now Aldridge will have a chance to see how Roberts operates firsthand. Roberts will serve as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2023, while Aldridge is the Tigers’ linebackers coach.

Following a rigorous push on the recruiting front over the last two months, Roberts and Aldridge—as well as the rest of the defensive staff—finally had their first meetings last week when it comes to X’s and O’s and what Auburn wants to accomplish as spring rapidly approaches. While they’re still in “the beginning stages” of figuring all that out, Roberts and Aldridge have discussed what they look for at each linebacker position as they prepare to do a full assessment of Auburn’s returning personnel and newcomers.

“We can go into it and say, ‘In the past, this type of style of a player has done well at MIKE; this one’s done well at WILL,’” Aldridge said. “But this staff on defense, especially, we’re not going into the spring saying ‘This is who we are and this that and the other.’ We’re really more so getting out there and seeing what our guys are good at and having enough confidence in ourselves as coaches to run the scheme that’ll put them in a position to make plays.

“We don’t ever want to handcuff our guys into being in a system that they don’t fit in, right? Especially in today’s climate, where your roster might flip a little bit, or being a new staff, you need to be a good enough coach to tailor your defense to what they’re good at and not vice versa.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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