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At LSU, running back skills and Ravens influences helped turn Patrick Queen into a defensive star

Ravens Eric DeCosta, John Harbaugh and Joe Hortiz on this years draft picks and different draft process.

Four years before he became the Ravens’ inside linebacker of the future, Patrick Queen was a rising high school senior who’d never started on defense.

It wasn’t a matter of know-how. He’d played linebacker in scrimmages. But Livonia High School needed Queen elsewhere. In 2015, his junior season, the Wildcats were coming off a Louisiana state championship. Queen was their all-state running back.

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A few months later, he committed to LSU, which wanted him on defense. But just where he’d fit was the question. Months before his senior season, Queen told reporters that he wanted to play safety. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, also the Tigers’ linebackers coach, told Queen’s high school coach that his inexperience at linebacker made him a little wary.

Then Aranda watched him at an LSU-hosted seven-on-seven summer camp in 2016 and glimpsed the future.

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“He’s making plays — similar to the play he made versus Alabama this year,” Aranda recalled in a telephone interview Monday. He was talking about maybe Queen’s defining highlight from a breakout 2019 season: The junior drops into coverage, recognizes Alabama’s route concepts, reads All-American quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s eyes, relocates and steps in front of a crossing pattern for an interception.

“You could just see the potential that was there. Obviously, there was a fair amount of rawness, but you like that if you have the ability to work with somebody and build them up as close as you can to what their potential is.”

Queen’s path to a likely starting job in Baltimore was as sudden and impressive as the 20-year-old himself. It evinced everything the Ravens covet in a defensive star: speed and strength, versatility and passion. But for Queen to become the first LSU player ever drafted by the Ravens, he also needed a coach whose career was shaped by the franchise.

Two decades before he was considered one of college football’s brightest defensive minds, Aranda, now the head coach at Baylor, was a young coach looking for an edge. In 2000, after four years of work at Division III California Lutheran, his alma mater, he took a job as a graduate assistant on Texas Tech’s staff.

Over the next few years, Aranda had a handful of fruitful visits with Mike Nolan, now the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. He’d reached out to Nolan years earlier, after reading a magazine article Nolan had authored on linebacker play. When Aranda wrote him a letter, Nolan replied with more insights. They struck up a long-distance friendship.

In 2001, the Ravens hired Nolan as an offensive assistant. (The next year, Nolan was promoted to defensive coordinator.) Whenever Nolan would see Aranda or Aranda would stop by Baltimore, the young coach would learn a little bit more. The Ravens’ defensive staff in the early 2000s was teeming with bold ideas and rising stars: Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Mike Smith, Jack Del Rio, Mike Pettine.

But maybe no concept grabbed Aranda’s attention like “creepers,” or simulated pressures. By sending a second- or third-level defender — say, a linebacker or safety — after the quarterback and dropping a first-level defender — like an edge rusher — he could stress an offensive line’s protection without sacrificing a player in coverage.

“If you could get a great, big, juicy hamburger for three bucks instead of paying six bucks, why don't you just pay the three?” he said.

By 2018, Aranda’s career had taken him to LSU, where, as the nation’s highest-paid defensive coordinator, he got his money’s worth on simulated pressures. He ran them on nearly half of the Tigers’ snaps that year, when they finished No. 10 nationally in ESPN’s defensive-efficiency ratings. Last season, as the Tigers romped to a national title despite losing All-America linebacker Devin White and cornerback Greedy Williams, they were No. 11.

Aranda had made sure to keep an eye on Baltimore. At Utah State in 2012, coaches would find Aranda watching Ravens film at his desk. He recalled visits from former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees at other stops. Even as recently as last offseason, he hailed the team’s approach to simulated pressures.

“It’s a direct result of how they are practicing it,” Aranda said in an interview with X&O Labs. “Because these schemes require universal teaching, it becomes necessary to rotate players through different skill sets in the form of a circuit. For example, on Day One install, the linebackers will do linebacker things, the defensive backs will do defensive back things and the bigs will do big things. The next install, the LBs will switch with DBs and then the LBs will switch with the bigs.”

In 2019, Queen emerged as the defense’s fulcrum, just as White, the No. 5 overall draft pick, had been the year before. Aranda called him the unit’s most improved player and, by the season’s end, one of the team’s top players. Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz, in a conference call Tuesday, remembered being struck by his potential: “Wow, he’s a 20-year-old kid who’s showing this right now.”

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Queen had come a ways since high school. Aranda recalled how he had to learn how to take on blocks, how to blitz, how to fine-tune his footwork — how to be the versatile playmaker LSU and the Ravens desired. Queen didn’t start until late in his second season in Baton Rouge. He didn’t reclaim the job until the Tigers’ fourth game in 2019.

But what made Queen a natural at inside linebacker was also what had kept him from the position for so long at Livonia: He was a darn good running back, too.

“His strengths are the starting points that he would always come back to throughout his time at LSU: 'Hey, here's a gap. You're responsible for this gap. But there's a running back. If that running back is near that gap, play that gap. If the running back is not near the gap, play the running back,' ” Aranda said. “So that's probably cleanly stated, but there's a lot that goes into that.”

In a scheme shaped by Aranda’s Ravens influences, Queen knew how to process angles. He understood where running backs wanted to cut. He could play downhill and dictate the action or handle two gaps at an undersized 6 feet, 229 pounds or make plodding linemen whiff in space. He could do all that because he’d already done it on offense.

“I think it's just the reverse of what he was doing in high school as a running back,” Aranda said. “Those fields were reversed, so to speak.”

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The Ravens do not need a running back; they have four of them already, including second-round pick J.K. Dobbins. They need Queen to uphold the legacy of Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley, until last month the only two Ravens inside linebackers taken in the first round.

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Baltimore, Aranda believes, is an ideal destination. Unlike LSU, the Ravens did not mind paying for $6 burgers in 2019; they blitzed on over half of their snaps, easily the NFL’s highest rate. But defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s schemes are complex and demanding. Aranda’s system, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been called the same.

Whenever he started to install his defense before games last season, only to worry it’d become “too much,” Aranda’s first tell was his linebackers. Queen, he said, was “always able to handle it.” When the Tigers reached the postseason and Queen hit the first-round radar, the defensive tempo revved up even higher. To Aranda, it never seemed like too much, too soon.

“I think you project that out forward,” Hortiz said Tuesday. “He’s a smart kid, he works his butt off, he loves the game and he’s a great character kid. So you say to yourself, ‘Man, as this guy gets experience in the NFL, he’s just going to get better and better.’ We really think he’s got a high ceiling and also a high floor. So we’re fired up to see what comes of him.”

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