You can have the best ingredients and still make a bad dish if you aren’t a good chef. Similarly, college football coaches squander talent all the time. Bad schemes, bad fits, bad ways of communicating with players, it could be any number of things that takes a promising defense and turns it into a subpar unit.
On the other hand, some teams just don’t have a lot of talent. The best coordinators find ways to maximize whatever talent they have.
There are also a lot of DCs that go into new jobs and are looking to change schemes, maybe going from a 4-3 to a 3-4 or going to a 4-2-5, which seems to be more popular in college football these days than it used to be.
If you aren’t handicapping the coordinators in CFB, you are doing it wrong. Most head coaches are household names and a lot of offensive coordinators are really well-known as well. The defensive guys don’t seem to get as much love. They seem to have a little bit harder of a time getting the head coaching jobs as well.
A good defensive coordinator matters a lot. So many teams in college football face different schemes week in and week out. A good defensive coordinator helps with a fast-paced offensive team. There are so many benefits to having a good one and they are most likely to be fired during the season, which also speaks to how much it matters.
There are a lot of new defensive coordinators out there this season. I’ll highlight the ones I believe will make the most impact or those that are changing up schemes that could require an adjustment period.
I’ve also looked at some of the new offensive coordinator hires, so you can view that here.
New Defensive Coordinators
Daronte Jones (LSU) – LSU has two new coordinators this season, as Jake Peetz takes over on offense and Daronte Jones takes over on defense. Jones has an NFL background as a defensive backs coach and LSU desperately needs help in that area after allowing 323 passing yards per game last season. The Tigers went from a 3-4 to a 4-3 with DC Bo Pelini. The 4-3 does stay, but Pelini does not. LSU allowed 7.3 yards per play. There is nowhere to go but up.
Derek Mason (Auburn) – Former Stanford DC Derek Mason stays in the SEC, but now serves as the defensive coordinator at Auburn after a long and arduous tenure as the head coach at Vanderbilt. Mason did the best he could with what was at his disposal, but he’s going to have lots of talent at his disposal with Auburn. This is a great defense year in and year out and that should remain the case.
Steve Wilks (Missouri) – Steve Wilks was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns two years ago. He’s spent most of his career in the NFL, so we’ll see how he translates to the college game. Missouri’s defense has been extremely inconsistent, but Wilks is a respected name on that side of the ball and has some talent to work with in Columbia. You also wonder about the verbiage and the teaching style of a guy that has been working with professional athletes as opposed to college students. This could work out really well, but it could take a while.
Mike Macdonald (Michigan) – Going from veteran defensive coordinator Don Brown to 33-year-old Mike Macdonald, who was coaching linebackers for a model organization in the Baltimore Ravens. The Wolverines have had a good defense most years, but faltered badly last season. Macdonald certainly comes highly recommended from head coach Jim Harbaugh’s brother, John, and this could provide a big spark for Michigan both on the stat sheet and also in the recruiting rankings.
Jim O’Neil (Northwestern) – This is an interesting situation for the Wildcats. Outstanding defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired. Jim O’Neil has tons of experience, most of which has been at the NFL level. Hankwitz has had a ton of great years with average to above average talent in Evanston. O’Neil is going to be a change of pace for the defense and he has a rather inexperienced unit to start. This could be a tough year for the defense by their lofty standards.
Brad Lambert (Purdue) – Personally, I’m a little higher than the market seems to be on Purdue this season. Brad Lambert is an excellent hire as the defensive coordinator. Lambert had some success at Charlotte, including the program’s transition to FBS. He was at Marshall the last two years. Purdue’s defense has held the team back. If Lambert can have success, the Boilermakers could be a surprise team.
Pete Kwiatkowski (Texas) – Steve Sarkisian didn’t have Pete Kwiatkowski as his defensive coordinator when he was at Washington, but he was certainly well aware of what was transpiring at Boise State. When Chris Petersen took over in Seattle, he brought Kwiatkowski with him and the two had a lot of success. Now Kwiatkowski will try to do the same in Austin. He should do very well here and also improve the recruiting pipeline on D.
Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame) – The splashiest DC hire is undoubtedly the one in South Bend. Marcus Freeman, who will be a head coach soon, was hired by Notre Dame after Clark Lea took the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. Freeman was with Luke Fickell at Cincinnati. Given how good Notre Dame’s defense has been the last several years, Freeman isn’t going to come in and produce some grand turnaround, but the solid play should continue. Most DCs inherit a mess. Freeman does not.
Jim Leavitt (SMU) – As far as defensive coordinator upgrades go, there may not be a bigger one than Jim Leavitt at SMU. The highly-regarded veteran has some talent to work with here. The Mustangs just had one of their best defensive seasons in a while, but have allowed over 30 points per game several seasons in a row. We know a Sonny Dykes offense will be good. If a Leavitt-led defense improves, SMU could have a special year.
Ephraim Banda (Utah State) – Utah State is in much better hands all the way around this season with huge upgrades on the coaching side. That includes Ephraim Banda, who was with Miami coaching safeties. The Hurricanes have a lot more talent than what the Aggies have to work with, but Banda comes from a solid defensive program and should be able to do good things during his tenure. Maybe they just won’t happen right away.
Zac Alley (Louisiana Monroe) – Zac Alley is only 27 years old. He is the youngest DC in FBS and is a Brent Venables disciple, having been a graduate assistant at Clemson. From Clemson, he went to the coaching staff at Boise State. Alley has worked under some brilliant defensive minds and this is a great place for a 27-year-old to get his feet wet calling plays. The bar is extremely low for the Warhawks, who have allowed at least 6.3 years per play each of the last five seasons. Alley has a blank slate to work with in Monroe.