New Defensive Coordinators Under The Microscope in 2017

    These new college football defensive coordinators will be enduring the most scrutiny and pressure during the 2017 season.

    February 9, 2017

    These new college football defensive coordinators will be enduring the most scrutiny and pressure during the 2017 season.


    No, you can’t fire an entire team, but wholesale staff changes are tools coaches have long used to chart a new direction for a program.

    Somewhat overshadowed by the pub generated by the head coaching carousel are the spate of defensive coordinator hirings from coast to coast, each coach with a mandate to plug holes, create takeaways and generally coach up the defenders they inherited.

    Each of this offseason’s promoted defensive coordinators is being asked to accept a new reality and improve upon it. Their predecessors have either been let go or opted for greener pastures elsewhere. For the rookie on the payroll, there’s an enormous opportunity to beef up the resume and repay the new boss for his confidence. But miss the mark, and the following assistants will be magnets for an onslaught of criticism.

    15. Tim DeRuyter, Cal

    Justin Wilcox may not have any head coaching experience, but both of his coordinators do. In fact, DeRuyter and Beau Baldwin were head guys last year, a real boon to the staff. DeRuyter spent five seasons at Fresno State, unable to sustain a fast start in the Valley. But he brings a ton of experience to Berkeley, and a chance to once again focus on one side of the ball, sans the myriad distractions of being the CEO. DeRuyter plus Wilcox is a formidable defensive tandem for a program that’s been a sieve for far too long.

    14. Robb Smith, Minnesota

    Smith and P.J. Fleck are reuniting after spending two seasons together at Rutgers earlier this decade. However, Smith didn’t arrive in the Twin Cities with the wind at his back. After a strong start in 2014, his last two Arkansas defenses were liabilities, getting gashed on the ground in 2016. Smith takes over a D that was underrated a year ago for Jay Sawvel, who now holds the same position at Wake Forest. The Gophers ranked No. 14 nationally in yards per play allowed, but have holes to plug at each level.

    13. Phil Bennett, Arizona State

    If Todd Graham is going to rebound in Tempe, he’ll do so with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Bennett is replacing Keith Patterson, who remains on the staff but was demoted to linebackers coach after the Sun Devils yielded nearly 40 points per game last fall. Bennett is one of the most seasoned defensive assistants in the country, landing his first coordinator job 33 years ago. Through it all, he’s endured the usual peaks and valleys of coaching, spending the previous six seasons overseeing the Baylor defense.

    12. D.J. Eliot, Colorado

    Eliot will have some enormous shoes to fill in Boulder this year. Before leaving for Oregon, Jim Leavitt completely transformed a Buffalo defense that was instrumental in the program’s improbable ascent to the top of the Pac-12 South in 2016. Now, not only must Eliot follow Leavitt, but he also takes the controls of a defense that lost eight starters to graduation. Eliot, who’ll keep Colorado’s 3-4 set, is no stranger to daunting defensive challenges, having coordinated Mark Stoops’ Kentucky D the past four seasons.

    11. Peter Sirmon, Louisville

    Louisville and Mississippi State basically swapped coordinators this offseason, Todd Grantham going to Starkville and Sirmon joining Bobby Petrino’s staff. In Sirmon, the Cards have gotten a real up-and-comer, despite the struggles of the Bulldog defense in 2016. He’s a young coach whose seven seasons as a Tennessee Titans linebacker help him better connect with players and prospective recruits. Sirmon can attract talent, but after last season’s disappointing results on Dan Mullen’s staff he’ll have a lot to prove in Louisville this fall.

    10. Paul Rhoads, Arkansas

    In the end, no one made more sense than Rhoads after Robb Smith left for P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota staff. Rhoads was already on staff in 2016 as the defensive backs coach, making for a smoother transition for both the staff and the players. And he possesses the requisite experience to reverse the trend for a D that’s given up 30 points per game in three of the last five years. In the 16 seasons prior to getting to Fayetteville, Rhoads was a successful coordinator for nine of those years and the Iowa State head coach for seven.

    9. Randy Shannon, Florida

    The promotion of Shannon after Geoff Collins took the head Temple job was a mere formality. Shannon had already been on Jim McElwain’s staff for two seasons, serving as the co-coordinator and the interim coordinator for the Outback Bowl win over Iowa. He has ample experience as a coordinator and a head coach from his days at Miami, and keeping his recruiting prowess in Gainesville was a priority for McElwain. Sure, Collins will be missed, but the Gator D doesn’t figure to skip a beat now that Shannon’s role is expanding.

    8. Wesley McGriff, Ole Miss

    Hugh Freeze has gone back to a familiar face to fill his defensive coordinator opening. McGriff was a part of Freeze’s first staff in Oxford, serving as the co-coordinator of a young team that grew markedly throughout the season. With McGriff, there’ll be no surprises. Ole Miss knows exactly what it’s getting, an energetic and creative coach who’ll be well received by the players. The Rebels are going to need a change-maker after floundering on D in 2016, capped by a 55-20 Egg Bowl loss to rival Mississippi State.

    7. Phil Snow, Baylor

    Snow is a coach’s coach. He’s unassuming, unheralded and yet consistently effective at crafting suffocating defenses. Think lesser-known version of Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster. Matt Rhule invited Snow to Waco after the two had a successful run together at Temple. Snow’s teams are smart, physical and very well coached. Over the last three years, the Owls allowed fewer than 20 points per game, while notching more cumulative picks than touchdown passes allowed. Bear fans probably don’t know it yet, but this is a terrific hire for a program that’s been erratic on D.

    todd grantham
    New Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham [Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports]

    6. Todd Grantham, Mississippi State

    Grantham is back in the SEC, making what could be couched as a lateral move from Louisville to Mississippi State. Dan Mullen has dealt with a revolving door on his defensive staff, this being his fourth coordinator in the last four years. Grantham is an upgrade from Peter Sirmon, who had a rough time in his debut at the position. Grantham’s 3-4 defenses this decade, four at Georgia and three at Louisville, had a reputation for creating turnovers and being rock-solid versus the run. The Bulldogs can use a little bit of both this fall.

    5. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin

    It feels like just the other day that Leonhard was defying the odds as a walk-on Bader defensive back. A little more than a decade later, and after just one season as a coach at any level, he’s now Paul Chryst’s defensive coordinator in Madison. Leonhard’s meteoric rise won’t continue without the inevitable hiccups, though it would be foolish to doubt a guy who’s spent a lifetime overcoming obstacles. The Wisconsin D has long been a breeding ground for overachievers, and now it’ll piloted by one of its own.

    4. Todd Orlando, Texas

    Getting Orlando to follow him to Austin was a top priority for Tom Herman. And Herman got his wish after Major Applewhite, not Orlando, was offered the head coaching job at Houston. Orlando brings a wealth of experience to the Longhorns, having held coordinator jobs at five different schools this decade alone. However, he should be ready to settle down unless a head coaching opportunity arises in the next few seasons. Orlando’s defenses traditionally attack from all angles and create a mess of turnovers, which ought to blend nicely with the athletes Texas targets in recruiting.

    3. Bob Diaco, Nebraska

    Diaco as a head coach was a failed experiment. He just wasn’t ready for the boundless challenges of leading UConn football. But Diaco has a strong reputation as a defensive teacher, going back to his days on Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame staff. And his Big Ten roots are deep, including his playing days at Husker rival Iowa. Mike Riley sent shockwaves through the league when he parted with longtime assistant and friend Mark Banker. But the coach feels that the energy of Diaco, who’ll switch to a 3-4, is necessary for Nebraska to finally return to title contention.

    2. Jim Leavitt, Oregon

    Willie Taggart has yet to coach a game in Eugene, but he’s off to a fast start with the additions of offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal and Leavitt to oversee the D. Getting Leavitt from Colorado was a coup for the new Oregon regime. Leavitt has been a masterful motivator at every step of his career, from his time as the architect of South Florida football to his past two seasons in Boulder. If Leavitt can do for the Ducks, who allowed 41 points per game in 2016, what he did for the Buffs, the program will be off and running.

    1. Mike Elko, Notre Dame

    A staff shakeup in South Bend was inevitable after the Irish sunk to 4-8 last season. And no offseason hire was more important than Elko, who’s tasked with turning around a D that cost Brian VanGorder his job last September. ND has actually been spotty on defense the last three seasons, particularly in terms of producing big plays and turnovers. Elko has been off the radar because of his venues, most recently Wake Forest and Bowling Green, but he has a track record for consistently turning unheralded talent into stingy defensive units.

    MORE: Campus Insiders’ 2017 Recruiter Of The Year

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