Film Room: Who is Ron Roberts?
Auburn's new defensive coordinator isn't a household name. But he's highly regarded for all the different ways he uses his personnel — and his influential "Creepers.”
Two weeks ago, during his introductory press conference at Auburn, Hugh Freeze shed some light on what he would be looking for in his defensive coordinator.
It was just a quick sentence at the start of an answer about team culture and transitioning to a new program, but it turned out to be pretty important in hindsight:
“Staff has to drive the culture,” Freeze said. “I'm not near as concerned about Xs and Os with most of the staff. The defensive coordinator has got to be masterful at that.”
Auburn was linked to a range of defensive coordinators over the last two weeks. Some were top-notch recruiters with Auburn ties, like Alabama’s Charles Kelly and UCF’s Travis Williams. Others were known for their scheme and doing more with less talent, like Mississippi State’s Zach Arnett and NC State’s Tony Gibson.
Freeze, as he hinted during his press conference, went with one of the latter group instead of the former.
Ron Roberts is Auburn’s new defensive coordinator, as was first reported by The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman on Sunday night.
While the program hasn’t formally announced any of Freeze’s hires yet, Roberts has already put “DC at Auburn University” in his Twitter bio and made a pretty funny profile picture change Monday. (Don’t worry, he’s got a better Photoshop job done now.)
The average fan probably doesn’t know who Roberts is. But, in football circles, Roberts is highly respected for his schemes, and his influences have been wide-ranging at several levels of the sport.
Roberts worked in the high school and small-college ranks for more than 15 years before getting his first chance to be a college head coach at Division II Delta State in 2007. In five seasons at Delta State, Roberts coached four playoff teams and went 47-16. He parlayed that success into an FCS job at Southeastern Louisiana, where he went to the playoffs in back-to-back years and finished 42-29 overall.
He stayed in Louisiana for his next job, serving as Billy Napier’s first defensive coordinator at Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns won the Sun Belt’s West Division in 2018, then again in 2019 in what would be an 11-win season. In 2019, Louisiana-Lafayette allowed just 19.7 points per game, ranking No. 18 nationally, to go along with a top-45 defense in yards allowed per play.
In 2020, Roberts reunited with one of the top defensive names in college football — Dave Aranda, who took the Baylor head coaching job after winning a national title at LSU as a coordinator. Back in 2007, Roberts was Aranda’s boss, as he worked as the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Delta State.
And Aranda isn’t the only well-respected defensive mind who has ties to Roberts. Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding was a graduate assistant and later coordinator under Roberts at Delta State and Southeastern. Florida co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney was also on Roberts’ SELA staff. Karl Scott, the former Alabama defensive backs coach who is now in the NFL, worked for Roberts twice.
Roberts and Aranda, as one might expect, had similar philosophies on the defensive side of the ball and meshed well. In their second year back together, Baylor won the Big 12 with a defense that ranked No. 10 nationally in points per game (18.3) and inside the top 30 in yards allowed per play (5.15). The Bears were No. 7 nationally in takeaways, No. 6 in sacks and No. 10 in tackles for loss that season.
Things didn’t go nearly as well for the duo in 2022, as Baylor slumped to a 6-6 record overall with the nation’s No. 55 total defense and No. 65 scoring defense. After being one of the nation’s best in a lot of areas, it was in the middle of the road for most of the 2022 campaign. Aranda, who was quick to change an entire offensive staff after a rough first season in Waco, made the move to part ways with Roberts and another defensive assistant earlier this month.
Why did Baylor regress that much this season? Some of it has to do with personnel. Baylor lost four of its top seven tacklers from the championship season, including four NFL Draft picks — second-rounder Jalen Pitre, third-rounder JT Woods, third-rounder Terrel Bernard and seventh-rounder Kalon Barnes. Baylor had to replace most of its coverage weapons, which can explain how Baylor went from one of the nation’s best third-down defenses in 2021 to one of its worst in 2022.
But that doesn’t fully explain the downturn that led to Roberts being back on the job market this winter. And it’s understandable for some Auburn fans to have a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to the hire of Roberts.
Still, Roberts was linked to several big-time defensive coordinator jobs recently, most notably at Arkansas. For a coach whose only time spent at the Power 5 level was at a program that doesn’t recruit at a particularly high level, there’s a lot of intrigue in finding out what he could do with SEC athletes.
Roberts hasn’t had the same type of consistent statistical successes of his proteges, but they’ve also all had bigger and better opportunities when it comes to the talent at their disposal. And there’s no question that Roberts comes highly regarded among coaches for what he does with his Xs and Os — particularly when it comes to manufacturing pressure on the quarterback.
In this special edition of the Film Room, let’s take a closer look at what we might be able to expect from Roberts’ defenses at Auburn from both his personnel and strategic standpoints, primarily in the area of generating pressure.