The SDS Top 25: Ranking the best defensive play-callers in college football
Editor’s note: SDS Top 25 Week continues with a look at the nation’s best defensive play-callers. Coming Thursday: Top 25 RBs in the country and the Top 25 defensive players in the SEC.
High-flying offenses capture headlines, but everyone knows defense wins championships. Many of the coaches below might not be household names just yet, but they all have something in common — their teams wins more often than not thanks to their defensive knowledge and schemes.
Here are the Top 25 defensive play-callers in college football.
No. 25 Tracy Claeys, DC, Washington State
Claeys took over Mike Leach’s defense after Alex Grinch went to Ohio State and the unit did not miss a beat. In fact, the Cougars got more aggressive, leading the Pac-12 with 38 sacks and finishing second in tackles for loss and takeaways during the team’s 11-2 season. Washington State’s defense also improved its scoring defense figures under Claeys.
No. 24 Phil Parker, DC, Iowa
Under Parker’s leadership, Iowa always seems to find a tough defense that makes life difficult for opponents. The former college defensive back was Iowa’s defensive backs coach before being elevated to defensive coordinator, but his DB roots remain clear as the Hawkeyes finished second in the nation with 20 interceptions last season. That performance came after Parker’s defense led the nation with 21 interceptions in 2017. Parker’s unit ranked No. 18 in defensive efficiency and held 6 opponents to 14 points or less last season.
No. 23 Bud Foster, DC, Virginia Tech
The Hokies’ defense didn’t live up to expectations last season, but Foster’s history in Blacksburg can’t be overlooked. True 2018 was a down year, but in 2017, Virginia Tech ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring defense, led the nation in opponent completion percentage was second on third downs conversion rate. Foster has won the Broyles Award once and been a finalist 3 times.
No. 22 Mike MacIntyre, DC, Ole Miss
It has been a few seasons since MacIntrye last served in this role, but his previous accomplishments as a defensive assistant make him worthy of inclusion on this list. If Ole Miss shows some progress next season, given the defensive talent he has to work with, MacIntrye could take a big jump up this list this time next season. MacIntyre has previously been honored as the AFCA’s National Assistant of the Year serving as Duke’s defensive coordinator.
No. 21 Clark Lea, DC, Notre Dame
The former walk-on Vanderbilt linebacker was promoted to defensive coordinator following Mike Elko’s departure to Texas A&M. In his first season running the Irish defense, Notre Dame went undefeated and marched to the College Football Playoff. Last season, Lea’s defense held 8 opponents to 17 points or fewer and allowed only 18.2 per game.
No. 20 Bert Watts, DC, Fresno State
Another rising defensive mind, Fresno State has quietly turned into a defensive monster under Watts. The Bulldogs allowed only 14.1 points per game last season, which ranked No. 3 nationally. They were No. 1 nationally in red-zone defense, 4th in passes intercepted, 5th in team passing efficiency defense and 9th in turnover margin. All that production resulted in a 12-2 team that beat Boise State in the Mountain West title game.
No. 19 Jay Bateman, co-DC, North Carolina
Mack Brown’s return to UNC might have turned some heads, but the former Texas coach appears to have made a pair of outstanding coordinator hires in OC Phil Longo and Bateman. Bateman, Army’s former defensive coordinator, led the Knights to back-to-back top 10 total defense rankings during his final 2 seasons and finished as a top 10 scoring and top 10 rushing defense last season during Army’s incredible 11-2 season.
No. 18 John Chavis, DC, Arkansas
No assistant can touch Chavis’ experience as The Chief has more years as a coordinator than the rest of the SEC’s defensive coordinators combined. Chad Morris’ debut in Fayetteville wasn’t memorable, but Chavis’ unit was the strength of the team and even pitched a shutout against Tulsa. With the recruiting efforts ongoing on The Hill, look for Chavis to get better production from his unit next season. Judging from the defense’s spring performance, Chavis’ crew will once again be the team strength this fall.
No. 17 Todd Orlando, DC, Texas
Following a very successful run as Houston’s defensive coordinator, Orlando followed Tom Herman to Austin and the results were immediate for his Longhorns defense. In 2017, Orlando’s first Texas defense led the nation in touchdowns scored and pick-6s. Also serving as the team’s linebackers coach, Orlando coached Malik Jefferson to Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year honors his first year on campus. The Longhorns also improved in scoring defense immediately under Orlando, going from the league’s No. 8 scoring defense to No. 3 in his first year on the job.
No. 16 Pete Golding, DC, Alabama
There’s a reason Nick Saban reached into the Texas-San Antonio program just last offseason and has already turned over the keys to his defense to Golding: Alabama’s defensive coordinator is one of the rising stars of the profession. Ole Miss did everything it could to hire the young assistant from Tuscaloosa, but after Tosh Lupoi was cast aside, it cleared Saban to promote the 35-year-old Golding to full-time defensive coordinator role. Golding’s final unit at UTSA ranked No. 8 nationally in scoring defense and No. 2 in first downs allowed.
No. 15 Justin Wilcox, HC, Cal
One of the few head coaches who calls defensive plays, Wilcox had his Cal defense ranked as the nation’s No. 13 most efficient defense in only his 2nd season in Berkeley. Wilcox’s unit also led the Pac-12 in interceptions, defensive touchdowns, turnovers gained and passing yards allowed last season. Wilcox landed the Cal job due to his ability to call a defensive game plan and now that he’s finding success continuing to call the plays, look for the Bears to have continued success as more of the players he recruited rise up the depth chart at Cal.
No. 14 Mike Elko, DC, Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher made a great hire when he named Elko his first defensive coordinator in College Station and it showed immediately last season. In his first season, the Aggies improved significantly against the run — A&M ranked 71st nationally in run defense in 2017 and No. 3 in 2018. For Texas A&M’s defense to take the next step, Elko will have to replace several top tacklers and significantly improve the unit’s pass defense and limit the number of explosive plays surrendered.
No. 13 Alex Grinch, DC, Oklahoma
For Oklahoma to have a realistic shot at winning a national title, Lincoln Riley has to get the defense to a respectable level. That’s where Grinch comes in. Mike Leach’s Washington State’s defense was in a similar state, and turning to Grinch resulted in the immediate results for the Cougars. During his tenure at Washington State, Grinch’s defense steadily improved before becoming one of the best in the Pac-12.
No. 12 Don Brown, DC, Michigan
Brown’s stock took a big hit following Michigan’s epic failure against Ohio State last season, but he’s still worthy of a spot in the top half of this list. All 3 of his Michigan defenses have ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense, and his final Boston College unit ranked No. 4 in the same category. Last season, Michigan surrendered 17 or fewer points in 6 games.
No. 11 David Reeves, DC, UAB
Bill Clark deserves all the praise thrown his way for rebuilding the UAB program, but his defensive coordinator deserves the same as Reeves ran one of the best defenses in the country last season. The Blazers ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense, sacks, tackles for loss, third-down defense and fourth-down defense. Those results would be outstanding on their own, but considering UAB didn’t field a team in 2015 or 2016, those results are nothing short of miraculous.
No. 10 Manny Diaz, HC, Miami
The Miami program fell apart under Mark Richt, but you can’t put any of that on Diaz’s shoulders. The Hurricanes’ defense led the nation in havoc rate (which measures total tackles for loss, passes defended and forced fumbles divided by games played) last season and ranked No. 10 nationally in efficiency. The inventor of the “Turnover Chain” also deserves some credit for bringing some energy and fun to Miami’s sidelines 2 seasons ago. The gimmick was overused by others since that time, but it worked wonders for the Hurricanes upon its introduction.
No. 9 Todd Grantham, DC, Florida
Grantham’s stock took a hit following the end of his Georgia tenure, but the coordinator turned Mississippi State’s moribund defense into one of the better units immediately before joining Dan Mullen in Gainesville. In Year 1, he took a Gators unit that appeared to lack depth and star power and turned it into one of the best units in the East. There’s a reason the Cincinnati Bengals attempted to hire Grantham this offseason: He’s an outstanding defensive coach.
No. 8 Mike Tressel, DC, Michigan State
In his first season as MSU’s full-time defensive coordinator, the Spartans led the nation in rushing defense and finished with the No. 2 most efficient defense in the country. Michigan State’s defense also finished No. 8 in scoring defense, No. 8 in third-down defense, No. 10 in total defense and No. 10 in first-downs defense. Not bad for a first-year coordinator.
No. 7 Jim Leonhard, DC, Wisconsin
One of the rising stars of the coaching profession, it took Leonhard only 2 seasons as a coach before he was honored as a Broyles Award finalist in 2017 — his first as a defensive coordinator. The former Badgers walk-on and standout safety, Leonhard’s units have finished in the top 5 in scoring defense in the Big Ten both seasons and ranked No. 3 nationally in 2017. The sum has been better than the parts. Wisconsin’s defense has featured just 6 draft picks in the past 2 drafts — none higher than a 4th-rounder. Leonhard has shown he can produce results without the star power many coaches rely upon.
No. 6 Kevin Steele, DC, Auburn
Gus Malzahn still has a job at Auburn due to 2 reasons — his massive contract and Kevin Steele. Without the first one, Steele might very well be the head coach at Auburn right now. He’s that good of a defensive coach. Steele’s upcoming unit might be his best yet if the line lives up to the hype and some solid replacements can be found at linebacker. Auburn’s program is notoriously inconsistent, but the same cannot be said for Steele’s units. Since he arrived, he always has his unit up and ready to play and his stock has not been hurt despite Auburn’s disappointing 5-loss season.
No. 5 Bob Shoop, DC, Mississippi State
No defensive assistant improved his stock more last season than Shoop, as the first-year Mississippi State assistant proved his stop on Rocky Top was a fluke after leading arguably the best defense in school history last fall. While many are expecting State’s defense to regress this fall, the Bulldogs will feature arguably the best linebacker corps in the league and plenty of experience in the secondary. Shoop has a reputation for getting the most out of previously unsung pass rushers. If he can do so again, Mississippi State should once again field a formidable defense.
No. 4 Jimmy Lake, DC, Washington
There’s a good reason Lake is the highest paid assistant in the Pac-12; he’s earned that honor after Washington led the league in scoring defense for the 4th consecutive season. Lake is so well regarded that UDub co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski gave up the defensive play-calling duties in order to keep him on Chris Petersen’s staff. Few staffs in the country develop talent at the level of Washington’s group, and it’s the defense that annually churns out the best NFL prospects since Petersen’s arrival. Not only did Lake’s defense lead the Pac-12 in scoring — finishing No. 5 nationally — it ranked 2nd in rushing defense, passing yards defense and pass efficiency defense in 2018.
No. 3 Jeremy Pruitt, HC, Tennessee
Pruitt plans to give up his defensive play-calling duties this season and it remains to be seen how involved he will be. But he’s earned a spot near the very top of this list following an outstanding career as a defensive play-caller to date. After facing Gus Malzahn’s offense annually, Pruitt could be heard calling out Auburn’s plays before the snap last fall during Tennessee’s upset of the Tigers on The Plains. Without Pruitt’s knowledge of Auburn’s offense and his ability to read and react on the field, there’s no chance the Volunteers would have beaten the Tigers on the road last season.
No. 2 Dave Aranda, DC, LSU
The Tigers have had issues with a lack of talent or depth on the line and in the secondary during Aranda’s time in Baton Rouge, but that hasn’t stopped the defensive assistant from fielding some elite units. LSU lost the nation’s best inside linebacker and one of the best corners this offseason, but that won’t stop the Tigers from fielding one of the best defenses in the nation in 2019.
No. 1 Brent Venables, DC, Clemson
The mastermind behind Clemson’s tenacious defense in recent seasons is clearly on the top of his game after his unit shut down undefeated Notre Dame and Alabama in back-to-back Playoff games last season. Venables has had a ton of elite defensive linemen to work with in recent seasons and he deserves credit for building the Tigers into arguably the best program in the nation for elite defensive linemen recruits to sign with. You can’t have a great defense without a talented and deep roster of linemen, and Venables understands that as well as any defensive coach out there.