New College Football Coordinators with Toughest Tasks in 2014
Each winter, college football’s coaching carousel spins with furious abandon, seemingly faster with each passing year.
The dominoes fall from the highest level to college football’s lowest rung, affecting everyone from power-five programs to the sacrificial lambs who march into power-five stadiums for a huge paycheck on autumn Saturdays.
We focus on the head coaches who shuffle, but the coordinators who change zip codes are equally important. Last winter, over 50 FBS coordinators changed jobs, whether they were following their boss to a new job, chasing a bigger paycheck or simply taking a job, period.
And some jobs are easier than others. Here are five coordinators who face potentially difficult transitions this fall.
Todd Grantham: Louisville Defensive Coordinator
Last winter, Todd Grantham needed a change of scenery. In his fourth year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, the Bulldogs defense took a step back. While regression was expected after Georgia returned only three starters from a 2012 defense that allowed 19.7 points per game, the Bulldogs yielded 29.4 points per game (No. 81 nationally in scoring defense) and 351 yards per game.
So when the opportunity came to join Bobby Petrino’s staff at Louisville (with a healthy salary of $975,000 annually), Grantham jumped at the chance.
Over the last two years, the Cardinals defense was a huge factor in their run to a 23-3 record with Sugar and Russell Athletic Bowl wins. Last fall, Louisville ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (yielding 251.1 yards per game) and No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (giving up a stingy 12.2 points per game).
However, that is not the defense that Grantham inherits.
Louisville returns only four starters from that group. Safety Calvin Pryor, the Cardinals’ best hitter, was selected in the first round (No. 18 overall) by the New York Jets, and AAC Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smith went eight picks later to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals’ leading tackler, linebacker Preston Brown, was snapped up in the third round by the Buffalo Bills.
Grantham has some pieces to work with (most notably senior defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin and junior defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins), but he is transitioning Louisville from the 4-3 it ran a year ago to his preferred 3-4, which raises further questions about the Cards’ defensive ceiling in 2014.
Petrino said on an ACC teleconference this spring, via The State, that the transition is “exciting for us because we really feel like the outside linebackers/defensive end guys that we have fit perfect into Todd Grantham's scheme and guys will be able to really show their abilities to rush the passer and play the pass, also.”
However, the Cardinals’ schedule will be more difficult than it was in the AAC. It includes visits from Florida State and Miami and trips to Clemson and Notre Dame, and there’s reason to believe Grantham’s first season in Louisville will not be easy.
Doug Nussmeier: Michigan Offensive Coordinator
Last fall, Michigan tried running a pro-style offense headed by a run-pass quarterback in Devin Gardner. The plan’s failure cost offensive coordinator Al Borges his job. Michigan’s rushing attack was positively anemic, averaging 125.7 rushing yards per game, which ranked No. 102 in FBS. Leading rusher Fitz Toussaint averaged only 54 rushing yards per game.
Following Borges’ firing, Michigan coach Brady Hoke plucked offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama.
Alabama ran a pro-style, balanced attack last fall behind quarterback AJ McCarron, averaging 454.1 yards of total offense per game (248.5 passing and 205.6 rushing).
Michigan and Nussmeier are focused on avoiding negative plays, but first, they must fix an offensive line that struggled to open holes throughout 2013 and lost both starting tackles in NFL first-round pick Taylor Lewan and third-round pick Michael Schofield.
The projected starting five, per MLive.com, does not feature a senior and includes only one junior in center Jack Miller. It will need a big effort from new left tackle Erik Magnuson, who missed spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery.
In addition, the quarterback situation is unsettled. Gardner was expected to hold off sophomore Shane Morris in spring practice, but neither were impressive in spring, and it appears the battle will carry over, at least nominally, into preseason practice. Hoke said as much following spring practice, telling MLive.com that Gardner was No. 1 entering fall but the competition "would continue."
With Toussaint and top receiver Jeremy Gallon gone, it could be a difficult first year in Ann Arbor for Nussmeier unless the offensive line improves.
The offense struggled as a whole in an open scrimmage that closed spring practice, an ominous sign for this fall.
“Is there room for improvement?" Brady Hoke asked rhetorically, according to MLive.com. "Oh my gosh. There's no question. We need a lot of improvement."
Jeremy Pruitt: Georgia Defensive Coordinator
As previously mentioned, Todd Grantham didn’t exactly endear himself to Georgia fans last fall. So there were few tears shed when he left for Louisville and was replaced by Jeremy Pruitt, fresh off a BCS National Championship as Florida State’s defensive coordinator.
However, the change that swept Pruitt into Athens was followed by change, change and more change.
The Bulldogs lost 31 starts from what was a young secondary in 2013 for a variety of reasons. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, a former 5-star recruit, was dismissed in mid-February for “an unspecified violation of team rules,” and safety Tray Matthews was dismissed for similar reasons in early June, with coach Mark Richt telling The Macon Telegraph, “we are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right.”
Harvey-Clemons joined Grantham at Louisville, as did cornerback Shaq Wiggins. Matthews will transfer to Auburn, which is ironic since he, along with Harvey-Clemons, failed to bat down the ball caught for the Tigers’ miraculous victory over UGA at Jordan-Hare Stadium last November.
Both Harvey-Clemons and Matthews were facing disciplinary issues. Harvey-Clemons would’ve served a three-game suspension to start the season due to his second violation of UGA’s student-athlete drug policy, while Matthews was arrested, along with four other UGA players, after he tried to cash scholarship checks on multiple locations, doubling the checks’ value. He received pretrial intervention in the case earlier this month.
However, the cupboard isn’t bare in Georgia’s secondary. A pair of returning starters in cornerback Damian Swann and safety Corey Moore return, while tailback J.J. Green has moved to corner and receiver Tramel Terry has moved to safety. Incoming defensive back recruits Malkom Parrish and safety Shattle Feteng are also well-thought-of players.
Beyond the secondary, seven defensive starters return, led by senior linebacker Ramik Wilson, who's considered one of the SEC’s best linebackers.
However, the questions in the secondary could mean a step back before a step forward for the Bulldogs defense, which could lead to some growing pains for Pruitt in Athens.
Kurt Roper: Florida Offensive Coordinator
Florida’s 2013 season was, in a word, miserable. The Gators were beyond bad offensively after losing a cadre of players (most notably starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and starting tailback Matt Jones) to season-ending injuries.
The Gators finished 113th nationally in total offense (316.7 ypg), 112th nationally in scoring offense (18.8 ppg) and 107th in passing offense (170.9 ypg).
Following a 4-8 record, coordinator Brent Pease was shown the door, replaced by Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Roper’s scheme was a huge reason why Duke won 10 games, the ACC Coastal Division and made the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Blue Devils averaged 426.1 yards per game (47th nationally) and 32.8 points per game (41st nationally).
Driskel will have weapons to throw to in wideouts Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose, among others, as well as Virginia transfer tight end Jake McGee, the Cavaliers’ leading receiver from a year ago.
But a much-maligned offensive line (which allowed 27 sacks a year ago) must take a big step forward: Florida does return three starting linemen.
The Gators’ 2014 slate is rather difficult. The Gators must travel to Alabama and Tennessee and also draw LSU from the SEC West (the Tigers will visit The Swamp). Florida hosts SEC East foes South Carolina and Missouri and has its usual neutral-site tilt with Georgia in Jacksonville.
In a season where Will Muschamp could be fighting for his job, the Gators offense will need to show huge improvement. While it has potential, a number of question marks surround Roper’s first year at Florida.
Brian VanGorder: Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator
Brian VanGorder is used to transition. Over the last 14 years, the mustachioed defensive coordinator has made stops at Auburn, Georgia and Georgia Southern and stops in the NFL in Atlanta, Jacksonville and with the New York Jets.
He’ll find even more of it in his first season at Notre Dame, where he’ll shift the Fighting Irish into a 4-3 system and away from the 3-4 scheme favored by Bob Diaco, who left to become the head coach at UConn.
VanGorder must rebuild the Irish’s front seven thanks to a number of departures. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Run-stuffing defensive tackle Louis Nix was a third-round pick of the Houston Texans. Linebacker Prince Shembo was a fourth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, and key contributors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox are also gone.
Notre Dame’s pass rush was anemic last season (ranking No. 83 in sacks), and it is hard to imagine that it can be better this fall with those departures.
Projected starting linemen Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams are all moving to new positions on the line, and they combined for two sacks last season. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the only known quantity in the linebacker group.
A good secondary got even better when Florida transfer safety/cornerback Cody Riggs arrived, but it is hard to imagine that the Fighting Irish won’t see their share of bumps in the road in VanGorder’s first season at the defense’s helm.