The 15 Best Defensive Coordinators in College Football

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJune 25, 2014

The 15 Best Defensive Coordinators in College Football

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Offenses—along with any potential rule changes designed to slow them down—have been the talk of college football this offseason, but the old adage about the other side of the ball winning championships has never been more true.

    Last year's national champion, Florida State, finished No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, passing defense and Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings. The two national champions before that—both times the Alabama Crimson Tide—finished No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (along with total defense) as well.

    The offensive renaissance in college football has not been overblown, but it also hasn't made offense the most important unit on the field.

    Au contraire, it has actually shined an even brighter light on the men running each program's defense. The only thing more important than having one of these new-fangled, high-scoring offenses is having someone capable of slowing them down.

    In looking for the 15 best defensive coordinators in college football, a number of factors were considered. Historical, time-tested success was obviously preferred over a one- or two-year wonder, but because of the offensive innovation in college football, recent years were weighted more heavily than older ones.

    Their results are more germane.

    Also of note: First-year coordinators such as Charles Kelly at Florida State were not considered for the list. Regardless of how they fared as positional coaches, it would be unfair to project that onto a new role—and to list them over someone who is proven—with no resume.

    Sound off below, and let me know who I missed.

    Note: All defensive F/+ rankings—an opponent-adjusted metric that was featured heavily in this list—come courtesy of Football Outsiders.

Honorable Mentions

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Geoff Collins, Mississippi State

    A disciple of Nick Saban, Geoff Collins took over as the full-time defensive coordinator at Mississippi State just last season and led a unit that finished top-20 in defensive F/+. The Bulldogs promptly locked him up with a two-year extension, a much-deserved reward for the great job he has done in Starkville. Experience—i.e., a longer track record—is all that keeps him from the top 15 on this list.

    D.J. Durkin, Florida

    Like Geoff Collins, D.J. Durkin has only been a defensive coordinator for one season. But—again like Collins—that sole year featured one of the most well-coached and best units in the SEC. Even as the season crumbled around him, Durkin kept the Gators among the most fearsome defenses in America. Before his promotion to coordinator, he did a fine job coaching linebackers in Gainesville.

    Phil Parker, Iowa

    Phil Parker has been at Iowa for a long time, coaching the secondary through the golden years of the Kirk Ferentz era. He took over as defensive coordinator in 2012, and even though there was a learning curve during his first season, the Hawkeyes' 2013 defense bounced back in a big way to finish top-15 in defensive F/+. With some talented young secondary pieces to work with, Parker's defense should be able to withstand the loss of its three star linebackers next season.

    Dave Steckel, Missouri

    What happened against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game put a blemish on an otherwise sparkling season for Dave Steckel's defense at Missouri. That was enough to keep him off the proper list, but he still deserves a mention. Steckel's units get after the quarterback and force turnovers—two important facets of the modern college defense. It has been 44 games since Mizzou did not force at least one turnover.

    Brian VanGorder, Notre Dame

    Brian VanGorder's last season at the college level was not pretty. He coached under Gene Chizik on the now-infamous 2012 Auburn Tigers, struggling to put together a coherent defense. Before that, though, BVG coached up some great defenses at Georgia during the early 2000s, and he also has an NFL background. Brian Kelly would not make an outside hire unless the candidate was too good to pass up.

15. Greg Mattison, Michigan

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Greg Mattison has been around the block and back again during his career as a defensive coordinator, coaching at Notre Dame, Florida and Michigan—three of the most recognizable programs in America.

    The Wolverines defense did take a step back in 2013, but it was solid during his first two years in Ann Arbor, finishing top-30 in defensive F/+ during 2012 and top-20 during 2011. Plus, considering the spring ACL tear of star linebacker Jake Ryan, Mattison actually did a good job keeping his unit respectable throughout the season.

    Brady Hoke might have never been hired at Michigan if not for his ability to lure Mattison—an old friend—away from the Baltimore Ravens, where he also served as defensive coordinator under John Harbaugh from 2008-2010. The results have not always been pretty, but there is reason for the UM defense to be optimistic in 2014.

14. Dave Aranda, Wisconsin

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Dave Aranda had a sterling debut at Wisconsin last season, coaching a unit that finished No. 9 in the country in defensive F/+.

    The obvious criticism to that stat would be that Aranda and Gary Andersen were "coaching Bret Bielema's players." In most cases, that line of thinking—while unbearably trite—does hold a little bit of merit when a small-school staff takes over at a much bigger school.

    This is not one of those cases.

    Because even without "Bielema's players," Aranda led a Utah State defense that finished No. 9 in the country in defensive F/+ two seasons ago—the same exact spot his Badgers finished in 2013.

    This is important because F/+ is a stat that adjusts for strength of opponent. The Aggies ranked even higher in non-adjusted stats such as scoring defense (No. 7) and yards per play allowed (No. 3).

    Aranda can win with anybody's players on the field.

13. Brent Venables, Clemson

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    Clemson broke the bank to lure Brent Venables away from Oklahoma a couple of seasons ago; according to USA Todayhe is currently the seventh-highest paid assistant coach in all of college football.

    Has he been worth it so far? Definitely.

    Clemson has not had a dominant unit since Venables' arrival, but it is no longer a defensive laughingstock. After finishing No. 59 in defensive F/+ in 2011 (Venables' final year at OU), the Tigers finished No. 51 in 2012 and all the way up at No. 13 last season.

    With superstars Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony foregoing the NFL draft to return in 2014, it is not crazy to think Clemson can finish with a top-five unit nationally. Seriously…that is not a typo.

    Venables is a big reason why.

12. Justin Wilcox, USC

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Justin Wilcox coached a dominant Boise State defense in 2008, leading it to a No. 4 ranking in the country in defensive F/+. In 2009, his unit "dropped" down to No. 14, but the Broncos finished 14-0 as a team.

    Since then, he has fared pretty (but not exceedingly) well at a couple of more high-profile coordinator gigs: Tennessee from 2010-2011 and Washington from 2012-13. His most recent Huskies defense was one of the most under-appreciated units in the country last season.

    With the roster he will enjoy at USC, it is not unreasonable to expect Wilcox to start rising up this list. The depth is depleted in the short term thanks to scholarship restrictions the past few seasons, but the talent is still better, on the whole, than any team he's ever coached.

    Now it's time to see what Wilcox can really do.

11. Glenn Spencer, Oklahoma State

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    If not for a certain national champion (who we'll get to in a bit), Glenn Spencer would have been by far the best first-year defensive coordinator in the country last season.

    In truth, he might still have been.

    Oklahoma State's once-inconsistent defense was phenomenal in 2013, finishing No. 6 in defensive F/+. Right from the season-opening win Mississippi State, one could tell there was something different about last year's 'Pokes. It showed in an even bigger way when they held Baylor—arguably the nation's top offense—to 17 points in November.

    Before taking over as coordinator, Spencer spent a long time coaching linebackers under Mike Gundy at OSU and developed a reputation as one of the best positional coaches in America.

    After losing so much talent from last year's roster, he will have his work cut out for him (and then some) in 2014. But if his debut season was any indication, Spencer will be up for the task.

10. Lorenzo Ward, South Carolina

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Lorenzo Ward does not get nearly enough credit.

    South Carolina's resurgence the past half-decade has been chalked up mostly to head coach Steve Spurrier, which is not necessarily wrong. The Old Ball Coach has been the major reason for the revival.

    But especially these past three seasons, when the Gamecocks have won 11, 11 and 11 games, Ward's defense has been the predominant unit on this football team. It has steadily gotten better each year between 2010-2013, going from No. 22 to No. 11 to No. 7 to No. 5 in the country in defensive F/+. That is a ridiculous incline.

    And Ward has been the mastermind behind it.

9. Vance Bedford, Texas

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    When he's not doing his best impression of T-Bag from Prison Break, Vance Bedford is on the sideline helping his long-time partner-in-crime Charlie Strong mold some of the best defenses in America.

    Last year, Louisville finished top-10 in defensive F/+ and a saw a couple of former unheralded recruits—safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end/AAC Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smith—get selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.

    Before turning Louisville into one of the nation's most fearsome defenses, Bedford and Strong teamed together at Florida—Bedford as the secondary coach, Strong as the coordinator—to coach units that finished No. 3 and No. 2 in the country in defensive F/+ during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, respectively.

    Strong gets a lot of the credit for the things he and Bedford have accomplished together (and he's earned it), but it would be unwise to take his right-hand man for granted. He is every bit as capable.

8. Ellis Johnson, Auburn

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Ellis Johnson is a veteran of the trade, having served in the defensive coordinator role—or something similar—at Clemson, Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina before ending up at Auburn.

    Although the Tigers took a while to gel on the defensive side of the ball last season, they eventually came together and finished top-20 in defensive F/+. A big part of that was their performance against Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game, when Johnson in many ways outcoached his coordinator counterpart (who, again, we'll get to in a bit) despite coming up just short on the scoreboard.

    There are few more trusted minds in the coordinator profession than that of Johnson, who struggled in his one year as an FBS head coach at Southern Miss in 2012 but has always been a valuable assistant.

    Some are just more suited to a supporting role.

7. Mike Stoops, Oklahoma

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    Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

    The ending was not pretty, but all things considered, Mike Stoops did a pretty good job in his eight seasons as the head coach at Arizona.

    Still, his greatest accomplishments have always come at the side of his older brother, Bob, as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma—a role he held (along with Brent Venables) from 1999-2003 before returning (in a sole capacity) in 2012.

    Since coming back to Norman, Stoops' defenses have both finished top-25 in defensive F/+, and this year's unit stands poised to become one of the best he has ever coached. He also put together the pressure package that gave Alabama such uncharacteristic fits in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, resulting in a seven-sack performance.

    The Big 12 should fear this year's Sooners defense.

6. Dick Bumpas, TCU

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dick Bumpas has been the defensive coordinator at TCU since 2004, teaming with Gary Patterson to help bring the Horned Frogs to national prominence. Mostly on the strength of a dominant defense, the team went 77-13 in the Mountain West between 2005-2011.

    That record has regressed to 11-14 since TCU moved to the Big 12 in 2012, but Bumpas' defense has not been the culprit. It has finished No. 12 in the country in defensive F/+ in each of the past two seasons—a remarkable number for a team with a losing overall record.

    With the offseason hiring of Sonnie Cumbie, who served as Kliff Kingsbury's co-offensive coordinator at Texas Tech in 2013, one could argue TCU has a top-five combination of coordinators in the country.

    Would it really be a shock to see this team do well in 2014?

5. Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Jeremy Pruitt has spent most of his career (and life) in Alabama, coaching at two of the state's most venerable football institutions—Hoover High School and the University of Alabama (Nick Saban era).

    However, his first foray out of the Heart of Dixie—which also happened to be his first FBS defensive coordinator gig—ended pretty well at Florida State last season, when he and fellow Saban disciple Jimbo Fisher led the Seminoles to the national championship on the heels of a defense that finished No. 1 in the country in defensive F/+.

    That success led to Pruitt's new job at Georgia, which gave him a big raise to replace Todd Grantham (who did not make this list). The Bulldogs are stacked in the defensive front seven next season but have big questions in a secondary that has hemorrhaged players off the roster due to disciplinary issues and transfers this offseason.

    Fortunately, Pruitt is a secondary specialist by trade, having coached defensive backs at Alabama from 2010-2012 and at Florida State last season. Those four units finished sixth, first, seventh and second in the country in opposing QB rating allowed, respectively.

    It is safe to say the Bulldogs are in good hands.

4. John Chavis, LSU

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    John Chavis left Tennessee after 20 seasons as part of the purge of Phil Fulmer back in 2008. The Vols' loss has been LSU's massive gain.

    The recipient of the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach in 2011, Chavis has consistently churned out productive defenses since arriving in Baton Rouge. Last year's unit took an understandable step back after losing so much talent to the NFL draft, but it was still able to stymie Johnny Manziel for a second consecutive season.

    The Tigers lose another exodus of players to the NFL this upcoming season, which puts them at risk of fielding a second straight sub-optimal defense. If that happens, Chavis' name might begin to lose a little bit of luster.

    But despite what happened in 2013, there is enough raw talent on this roster for Chavis and the defense to succeed; and despite what happened in 2013, the betting man might wager that they will.

3. Kirby Smart, Alabama

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    The biggest knock on Kirby Smart—if there is one—is that he's never had to "do it" away from his mentor, Nick Saban.

    Smart has worked under Saban at three different stops: LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. And Saban is one of the greatest defensive minds to ever roam the sideline. The knock, then, is that he is in control of the defense—not Smart.

    But isn't that a little bit absurd to say without any proof? And isn't there something to be said for becoming better under one's mentor instead of simply riding coattails? And whom would you rather become better under than Saban?

    All we have before us are the facts, and the facts say Smart has led the nation's most consistently dominant defense the past five seasons.

    It would be foolish to leave him out of the top three.

2. Bud Foster, Virginia Tech

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The method by which Virginia Tech has dominated the past 20-plus years—with defense and special teams above all else—has been rightfully coined "Beamer Ball" after head coach Frank Beamer.

    But defensive coordinator Bud Foster has been every bit as influential in the process. He is one of the most tenured assistant coaches in America, having held his position as defensive coordinator since 1995, and, if 2013 was any indication, he is only getting better with age.

    Despite the 7-6 record, Virginia Tech finished No. 3 in the country in defensive F/+ last season, holding opponents to a scant 4.53 yards per play. Only Michigan State, Florida State and Louisville were more efficient in the latter statistical category.

    Those teams combined to 39-2 on the season.

    "We had an ACC championship defense, if not a national championship-type defense," Foster told his team after the season, per David Teel of the Daily Press.

    It's hard to disagree based on the numbers.

1. Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Pat Narduzzi won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach in 2013 after leading Michigan State to a resurgent 13-win campaign, the Big Ten Championship and a victory in the Rose Bowl.

    Even in 2012, when the Spartans struggled to qualify for a bowl before finishing 7-6, his defense was a dominant unit, finishing No. 3 in the country in defensive F/+. It finished No. 2 in 2013 and No. 5 during an 11-win season in 2011. That is three consecutive top-five finishes.


    Narduzzi was a hot name this offseason and was reportedly offered (and turned down) the head coaching job at Connecticut before it was given to former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Bob Diaco, per Bruce Feldman of Instead, he "settled" for a raise to $904,583 per year that ESPN Big Ten reported makes him the highest-paid assistant coach in the conference.

    But, as Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer said in the wake of his new contract, Narduzzi is "still probably a decent bargain" at that near-seven-figure price. 

    (He would probably remain one at eight figures, too.)


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