To Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, the Southeastern Conference defensive coordinator carousel amounted to a fashion statement.
“We just kind of passed them around, didn’t we?” Sumlin said last month at SEC Media Days. “A lot of them just got new shirts and new hats.”
Indeed. New bosses oversee defenses at eight of the 14 schools, and the schools didn’t need search firms, search teams or search engines to identify the new hires.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star’s Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
Some became college football’s version of corporate raids. John Chavis left LSU for Texas A&M. Will Muschamp was fired as Florida’s coach and was snapped up to run Auburn’s defense.
Florida’s Geoff Collins was at Mississippi State last year, and Manny Diaz, formerly the Bulldogs’ coordinator, returns to that position.
Kevin Steele moved from Alabama’s linebacker coach to LSU’s coordinator. Former Missouri safeties coach Barry Odom returned to Mizzou after leading Memphis’ defense since 2012.
Jon Hoke, who spent the last 13 years in the NFL, returned to the college ranks at South Carolina.
The most familiar face roams the coaching hallways at Vanderbilt, where coach Derek Mason appointed himself defensive coordinator.
Mason, winless in SEC play in his first season, said he regretted not creating double duty for himself from the outset.
“I thought maybe it was taboo because you don’t see too many defensive coaches doing it,” Mason said. “But if you’re a defensive mind, or an offensive mind, you do what you know. I believe I know defensive football.”
Five of the bottom six teams in total defense brought in new coordinators, and the SEC’s offensive revolution partly explains the revolving door.
The game has changed. SEC offenses are playing faster and scoring more. It’s taken at least 513 yards per game to lead the league in total offense over the last three years. That’s the longest such stretch in league history.
The increased pace has prompted one of college football’s great philosophical debates of recent years.
On one side is Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who brought in a no-huddle attack and promptly won an SEC championship in 2013 in a 51-42 shootout with Missouri in the title game.
On the other side are Alabama’s Nick Saban, a defensive mastermind who has been openly critical of the rapid-fire offenses, and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, who won Big Ten championships at Wisconsin and is shaping the Razorbacks with a ground-oriented, ball-control attack.
Saban is resigned to the game’s pace.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that it’s more difficult to play defense, and I think that’s why you see more points being scored,” Saban said. “I don’t think that trend’s going to change any time soon.”
Before the 2014 season, a proposed rule change that would’ve required offenses to wait 10 seconds before snapping the ball never reached a vote. Saban and Bielema were the most outspoken supporters of the rule.
Sumlin’s motivation for hiring Chavis away from LSU was simple. The Aggies were 0-4 against Chavis-coordinated Tigers defenses, losing three times as members of the SEC. In those years, A&M, with high-scoring offenses, was held to 19 or fewer points.
If you can’t beat him, hire him away.
“That’s exactly what I did,” Sumlin said. “There’s really nothing more to the answer than that. We’ve studied the defense. We struggled.”
The move was comparable to what Georgia’s Mark Richt did in January 2014. After coordinator Todd Grantham left for Louisville, Richt hired Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State, where he had spent one year. Before then? Six seasons at Alabama.
Malzahn fired his defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson, to hire Muschamp — “the best defensive mind in football,” Malzahn said. “He’s been like a breath of fresh air to our program.”
Also one of the richest as a coordinator. Muschamp is earning $1.6 million. Chavis and Alabama’s Kirby Smart are next at $1.5 million. Those are the game’s top three defensive-coordinator salaries. Pruitt makes $1.3 million and Steele $1 million, giving the SEC five of the game’s seven million-dollar defensive coordinators.
Will the investments pay off? Offensive production may dip in the SEC this season with plenty of uncertainty at quarterback. Only five QBs who started at least 10 games return. Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson, who hasn’t started a game, was chosen to the preseason all-SEC second team.
But more than half of the SEC teams are feeling better about their defenses this season, perhaps none more so than Texas A&M with Chavis. He led the league’s top-ranked defense at LSU. He takes over one that finished last at College Station.
“His style, we’ve studied it so much over the course of the last three years in the offseason to try and get better,” Sumlin said. “I told him I know this thing like the back of my hand. I’ve been looking at it in the offseason trying to figure out a way to score more points than we’ve scored against it.
“Are we going to be the (1985) Bears? I don’t know. But I know our confidence level is better. We’re playing faster, we’re playing harder and we’re being more physical, and that’s what we needed.”
SEC defensive coordinator changes