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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Who could be the defensive coordinator in 2019?

Thoughts on some on-and-off-the-radar candidates to fill OU’s vacancy at defensive coordinator in 2019.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

With Mike Stoops out of the picture, the Oklahoma Sooners eventually need to figure out what to do about a permanent defensive coordinator. That’s easier said than done.

The unfortunate reality when it comes to filling an opening at defensive coordinator in the Big 12 is that it’s not an overwhelmingly appealing job. You have to scheme against a steady diet of explosive offenses, and you’re probably paired with a spread O that will do little to control the clock. So if you’re looking for a stepping stone on the way to running your own show, you’re upping the degree of difficulty traveling through Big 12 territory.

A defensive coordinator in the Big 12 hasn’t left for a head coaching job in the Power Five conferences since Florida hired Will Muschamp away from Texas. That was seven years ago.

On a related note, the right candidate to coach defense in an uptempo conference like the Big 12 has to know how to deal with 80-plus plays per game. It’s a challenge for even the best defensive minds in the sport.

With all that in mind, I’ve assembled a few thoughts on some of the candidates I’ve heard mentioned most often for the gig, as well as a few names I find intriguing.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Boston College Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Dave Aranda - LSU defensive coordinator
Mike Elko - Texas A&M defensive coordinator

I won’t spend much time on either of these two except to mention that they are excellent defensive strategists who have proven their worth at multiple stops. Even if they want the job, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione isn’t signing off on paying upwards of $2.5 million per year for a coordinator (nor should he).

Alex Grinch - Ohio State co-defensive coordinator

Grinch is supposedly a mean one when it comes to stopping the spread. For proof, see his work with Mike Leach in 2017 at Washington State when his D finished 29th overall in Defensive S&P+.

I don’t share the same level of enthusiasm for his candidacy that seems to be running rampant in the pundit and fan classes. Ohio State’s defense has taken a few steps back since he arrived there in the offseason to share coordinator duties with Greg Schiano, falling from eighth last year to 41st in the nation in Defensive S&P+ through seven games this year.

Normally, I’d say OU head coach Lincoln Riley would have no shot at prying Grinch away from the Buckeyes, but that has changed in the wake of the Schiano-Tennessee debacle earlier this year. It would likely involve paying him a base salary north of a million bucks, however.

To be clear, I wouldn’t be upset at all if OU hired Grinch. I just don’t think he is a grand slam.

Erik Chinander - Nebraska defensive coordinator

The Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator is doing solid work in year zero for new head coach Scott Frost: NU ranked 110th nationally in Defensive S&P+ in ‘17 and has improved to 79th overall in 2018. Chinander came to NU with Frost from Central Florida, where the Golden Knights’ nasty offense stole the spotlight from a D that finished 30th and 74th, respectively, in 2016 and ‘17.

The most appealing aspect of Chinander’s resume is his experience coaching in the uptempo ecosystem. He spent a combined five years in different positions with the Oregon Ducks before taking over as defensive coordinator at UCF for two years. In ‘16, the Golden Knights faced an average of 78 plays per game on defense and went over 80 plays in six of 13 games; it was 75 plays per game in ‘17 with four of 13 games going over 80 plays.

Chinander’s salary isn’t an albatross at a base of $800,000, but I imagine that NU and Frost would put up a fight to keep him away from the Sooners.

Jon Heacock - Iowa State defensive coordinator

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Akron David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

Heacock really showed up on the national radar screen over the weekend with ISU’s dismantling of the West Virginia Mountaineers, but Riley was already singing the praises of the Cyclone D in the offseason. Heacock’s hybrid-heavy scheme is widely seen as a cutting-edge approach to taming the spread, and it plays well in the uptempo ecosystem.

If there’s a downside with Heacock, it’s age: He is almost 60. How does that fit with Riley’s push to be more aggressive on the recruiting trail? Frankly, if age actually is a problem, I think it would be worth the hit to get him on the staff. But I don’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of recruiting culture.

At $500,000, Heacock currently looks like a bargain compared to some of the other candidates on this list.

Someone(s) from the Utah State tree

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been paying close attention to the college football landscape for the last decade or so, you know how much innovation on the defensive side of the ball is coming from Logan, Utah. The Utah State Aggies have been running the 3-4 to combat the uptempo offenses of the WAC and Mountain West since before it was en vogue.

USU’s climb up the college football food chain started with the hire of Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen as head coach in 2009, a tenure that lasted until Wisconsin hired him away at the end of the 2012 season. Former Utah State defensive coordinators who moved on to larger programs include Aranda and Texas’ Todd Orlando.

Hiring a coordinator from that lineage seems like an intriguing option. But who?

After ducking out of Wisconsin and flaming out at Oregon State as a head coach, Andersen is back at Utah as a defensive assistant under Kyle Whittingham. He might be in play.

The Aggies also enjoyed some success with the co-coordinator duo of Frank Maile and Kendrick Shaver running things in 2016 and 2017, finishing 46th and 42nd in the country in Defensive S&P+. A native of Eufala, Oklahoma, Shaver left Utah State after seven years in 2018 to coach safeties at Washington St. (Admittedly, I’d like to know more about why Shaver left a spot where he was calling the defense for a position coaching role.) Maile is still coaching the defensive line in Logan, where Keith Patterson has joined him as co-coordinator.

Going for the Maile-Shaver combo would probably lead to a mutiny among the fan base, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Bob Diaco - Oklahoma outside linebackers coach

NCAA Football: Tulane at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

I’m including Diaco in the mix since it is believed that he’s playing a role in coordinating OU’s defense now. One school thought is that Riley is giving the former UConn head coach a six-game audition for the gig.

Diaco boasts an overall body of work as a coordinator that is solid. Yet, there’s a glaring red flag:

And we haven’t even touched on Diaco’s generally bizarre public persona yet.

I feel like there are better fits out there for the Sooners. We’ll see what he can do the rest of the year, though.

Other names to know

Pete Kwiatkowski or Jimmy Lake - Washington co-defensive coordinators

Kwiatkowski, who has been part of Chris Petersen’s staff since 2006, no longer calls the plays on defense after ceding that role to Lake. Does that make him more willing to bail on the Huskies, or does it show his contentment with his place at UW?

Marcus Freeman - Cincinnati defensive coordinator

Freeman’s unit is No. 26 in Defensive S&P+. However, he’s 32 and is in only his second season as a coordinator. Perhaps a young guy like Riley would pull the trigger here, but it seems unlikely. It’s also worth asking how much of the Bearcats’ success is due to head coach Luke Fickell, a longtime defensive coordinator at Ohio State.

Bryan Brown - Appalachian State defensive coordinator

Another young up-and-comer like Freeman, Brown is flying high in his first season as defensive coordinator at App State (No. 28 in Defensive S&P+).

Tim DeRuyter - California defensive coordinator

The well-traveled defensive coordinator and former Fresno State head coach has Cal’s defense clicking in his second season in Berkley: The Golden Bears are No. 12 in Defensive S&P+ in 2018, up from No. 79 in 2017. DeRuyter has experience recruiting in Texas and California to boot.

Ruffin McNeill - Oklahoma interim defensive coordinator

Word is that McNeill doesn’t want the job permanently, so it’s tough to see him holding on beyond this season. In fact, McNeill seems closer to retirement at this point than moving back up to a full-time coordinator role.