Examining which coordinator hires will have the biggest impact
College football’s coordinator carousel was active once again for the 2018 season. Top defensive coordinators seemed to be in demand, as four of Athlon Sports' top five hires came on that side of the ball. Texas A&M's Mike Elko ranks as Athlon's top coordinator hire for 2018, with Ohio State's Alex Grinch checking in at No. 2. Outside of the Power 5 ranks, Marshall upgraded its offense by hiring Tim Cramsey from Sam Houston State, while SMU (Kevin Kane and Rhett Lashlee) and Houston (Kendal Briles) also earn spots among top coordinator moves.
Which teams made the best coordinator hires in college football for 2018? Here are 30 hires at offensive or defensive coordinator from all 130 FBS teams ranked based on impact for 2018.
College Football's Top 30 Coordinator Hires for 2018
Others to Watch: Jeff Grimes, OC, BYU; Andrew Thacker, DC, Temple; Ron Roberts, DC, Louisiana; David Blackwell, DC, East Carolina; Rod Smith, OC, Illinois; Calvin Magee, OC, New Mexico; Mike Tressel, DC, Michigan State; Jeff Knowles, DC, Northern Illinois; Tom Kaufman, DC, Kent State; Carl Pelini, DC, Bowling Green; Jerry Mack, OC, Rice; Corey Batoon, DC, Hawaii; Randy Shannon, DC, UCF
30. Glenn Spencer, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Charlotte
The 2018 season is a big one for coach Brad Lambert’s future at Charlotte. Coming off a 1-11 record last fall, marked improvement is necessary for Lambert to secure his long-term status with the program. A reset of the coaching staff should help the 49ers in 2018, especially on the defensive side. Spencer arrives at Charlotte after working at Oklahoma State from 2008-17, including the final five seasons as the program’s defensive coordinator. Spencer’s best season with the Cowboys came in 2013, as the defense ranked first in the Big 12 in points allowed and second in fewest yards per play allowed.
29. Danny Gonzales, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona State
San Diego State coach Rocky Long is one of college football’s top minds on defense, so it’s no surprise Herm Edwards hired his pupil to direct Arizona State’s group in 2018. Gonzales arrives in Tempe after working under Long at New Mexico in a variety of roles from 1999-2008 and again from 2011-17 at San Diego State. Gonzales worked with the safeties from 2011-16 and earned the defensive coordinator title prior to the 2017 season. Long handled the play-calling on gamedays for the Aztecs, but Gonzales certainly gained a lot of insight as an assistant and plans to utilize the 3-3-5 alignment with Arizona State.
28. Bryant Vincent, Offensive Coordinator, UAB
After a three-year stint at South Alabama, Vincent has returned to UAB to handle the play-calling duties on offense. Vincent’s offenses at South Alabama never climbed to the top of the Sun Belt in scoring, but there’s optimism for better results in Birmingham. He was the play-caller for UAB in 2014, helping the offense average 33.2 points a game and set a school record for most total yards in a season (5,182).
27. Erik Chinander, Defensive Coordinator, Nebraska
Chinander has been on a fast rise through the coaching ranks after his playing career at Iowa ended in 2002. He landed at Ellsworth (Iowa) Community College for a year in 2003, followed by a six-season stint at Northern Iowa coaching tight ends. Chinander left the Panthers after 2009 and landed on Chip Kelly’s staff at Oregon as a graduate assistant and intern from 2010-12. After spending a season with the Eagles under Kelly in 2013, he returned to Eugene and worked as the program’s outside linebacker coach from '14-15. Chinander departed Oregon for UCF alongside Scott Frost and was a key part of the program’s improvement over the last two years. The Iowa native inherited a defense that allowed 37.7 points a game and 6.5 yards a play in 2015. UCF showed steady progress under Chinander, allowing just 4.8 yards a snap in 2016 and 25.3 points a game in ’17.
26. Keith Patterson, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Utah State
After picking up David Yost as the program’s offensive coordinator last season, coach Matt Wells dipped back into the Pac-12 to add help on defense for 2018. Patterson arrives in Logan after a four-year run at Arizona State. Prior to his stint with the Sun Devils, Patterson worked as a defensive coordinator or assistant at Tulsa, Pitt, Arkansas State and West Virginia. Under Patterson’s direction, Arizona State ranked in the top five in the Pac-12 in sacks in each of the last four years.
25. Kevin Kane, Defensive Coordinator, SMU
SMU has finished last in the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense in four out of the last five seasons. The Mustangs' best finish during this stretch was ninth last season, and they still gave up 36.7 points per game. Addressing this side of the ball was a priority for new coach Sonny Dykes, and he assembled a good staff, starting with Kane as the play-caller. The Missouri native has been on a fast rise through the assistant ranks. He started his career as a student assistant at Kansas in 2006 and joined Wisconsin as a graduate assistant from '08-10. He later worked at Northern Illinois as a linebackers coach from 2011-14, before spending the 2015 season coaching that position at Kansas. Kane returned to the Huskies as defensive coordinator in 2016, and this unit showed marked improvement in his two years at the helm. After giving up 30.3 points a game in 2016, Northern Illinois cut that total to 22 in ’17 and led the MAC in fewest yards per play allowed (4.6) and sacks (43).
24. Clark Lea, Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame
Lea is a coach on the rise and a name to watch in 2018. The Nashville native was promoted to defensive coordinator after Mike Elko left South Bend to take over as Texas A&M’s defensive play-caller. Lea followed Elko to Notre Dame after spending the 2016 campaign at Wake Forest coaching linebackers. He also has stints in his career as a linebackers coach at UCLA (2010-11), Bowling Green (2012) and Syracuse (2013-15). This is Lea’s first time working as a defensive coordinator, but his experience as an assistant and familiarity with the current scheme and players should provide a seamless transition for Notre Dame’s defense in 2018.
23. Tyson Helton, Offensive Coordinator, Tennessee
After two seasons working under his brother Clay Helton and former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin at USC, Tyson Helton was hired by Jeremy Pruitt to be the Volunteers’ new offensive coordinator. Helton has not handled the full play-calling duties on his own in his career, but he’s built a promising resume with stops as an assistant at Hawaii, Memphis, UAB, Cincinnati and WKU in addition to this time at USC. Helton was instrumental in Sam Darnold’s development at USC and worked under one of college football’s top offensive minds in Jeff Brohm from 2014-15 with the Hilltoppers.
22. Jason Tarver, Defensive Coordinator, Vanderbilt
After Vanderbilt’s defense slipped to 11th in the SEC in points allowed last fall, coach Derek Mason is handing off the play-calling responsibilities to Tarver. There’s no shortage of familiarity between these two coaches, as Mason and Tarver worked together on Stanford’s staff during the 2011 season. Tarver also has stops in his career in the NFL with the 49ers and Raiders, spending 2012-14 as Oakland’s defensive coordinator.
21. Josh Gattis/Mike Locksley, Co-Offensive Coordinators, Alabama
Brian Daboll’s departure to the NFL means Alabama will have three full-time coordinators over the last three years. Coach Nick Saban stayed in-house for one half of his offensive coordinator designation, promoting Locksley to play-caller after working alongside Daboll as a receivers coach last fall. Locksley has previously worked as an offensive coordinator in stints at Illinois (2005-08) and Maryland (2012-15). Gattis joins Locksley as a co-coordinator after spending the last four years at Penn State as a receivers coach. The North Carolina native is a rising star at just 34 years old and also has spent time at Western Michigan and Vanderbilt in his career. Gattis is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail.
20. Herb Hand, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Texas
Texas and coach Tom Herman took full advantage of the new 10th assistant coach rule for 2018. Herman used the extra position to upgrade his offense, hiring Hand after two seasons at Auburn. Hand also has worked as an offensive line coach at West Virginia, Tulsa, Vanderbilt and Penn State during his career. In addition to Hand’s experience at developing offensive lines, he’s worked under two of college football’s top 25 coaches in Gus Malzahn and James Franklin. Under Hand’s direction last season, Auburn’s offensive line allowed 15 sacks and helped clear the way for rushers to average 5.1 yards per carry in SEC games.
19. Bob DeBesse, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern started 0-6 last season but showed signs of life in the second half after Chad Lunsford was promoted to the interim role. After recording two wins in November, Lunsford earned the full-time job and set out in the offseason to overhaul a program that has slipped over the last two years. While several areas need attention, Lunsford’s top priority is to get the offense back on track. The Eagles led the nation in rushing offense from 2014-15 but slipped outside of the top 20 over the last two years. DeBesse arrives in Statesboro after leading New Mexico’s offense for six seasons. Under DeBesse’s watch, the Lobos finished in the top 10 nationally in rushing offense five times. He also has a previous stint as a play-caller at Sam Houston State (2010-11). The head coach for the Bearkats during that stint? Willie Fritz. DeBesse’s track record and overall scheme should help Georgia Southern’s offense take a step forward after finishing ninth in the Sun Belt in scoring last fall.
18. John Chavis, Defensive Coordinator, Arkansas
New Arkansas head coach Chad Morris is regarded as one of college football’s top minds on offense. While scoring points won’t be a problem for the Razorbacks under Morris, the defense has to improve in order for this program to consistently finish in the top 25. Arkansas finished last in the SEC in scoring defense and has surrendered more than seven yards a play in conference matchups over the last two years. Chavis inherits a tall task to get this unit back on track, but he’s a proven defensive coordinator with a wealth of experience in the SEC. Chavis coordinated Tennessee’s defense from 1995-2008 and worked from LSU at 2009-14. He made the jump to Texas A&M in 2015 and spent three seasons with the Aggies. Texas A&M’s defense didn’t rank among the best in the SEC, as this unit faced some obstacles, including injuries in 2016 and a wealth of young players seeing major snaps in ’17. The experience in College Station also provided Chavis with his first opportunity to work under a coach using an up-tempo approach on offense -- similar to the situation he will have to navigate at Arkansas.
17. Matt Canada, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Maryland
Maryland will be Canada’s fourth job in four years and the seventh program for which he's served as offensive coordinator. High expectations surrounded Canada’s hire at LSU last season, but he and Ed Orgeron never seemed to click. However, Canada guided Pitt’s offense to an average of 40.9 points a game in 2016, and his 2015 group at NC State finished third in the ACC by averaging 33.2 points a contest. Canada also has stops as a play-caller from stints at Northern Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. He will share the co-coordinator title with Chris Beatty but will handle play-calling duties.
16. Nate Woody, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson wanted to implement more of an aggressive approach on defense, which prompted the hire of Woody from Appalachian State and a shift to a 3-4 scheme. The Yellow Jackets have finished 12th or worse in the ACC in sacks generated in each of the last four seasons and never finished higher than seventh in scoring defense in that span. Woody started his career as an assistant coach at Wofford from 1988-93 and again from '97-99. He was promoted to defensive coordinator prior to 2000 and remained in that role until ’12. Woody took over as Appalachian State’s defensive coordinator prior to 2013, while helping the Mountaineers transition to the FBS level. Under Woody’s direction, Appalachian State finished three times inside of the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. The Mountaineers led the Sun Belt in fewest yards per play allowed in 2015 and consistently ranked near the top of the league in sacks and turnovers generated. Woody doesn’t have the big-name pedigree of some of the other names on this list, but he should be a standout hire for the Yellow Jackets.
15. Jim Knowles, Defensive Coordinator, Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy decided change was needed on Oklahoma State’s defense after finishing sixth or worse in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed in three of the last four years. Knowles wasn’t a flashy or big-name hire, but the veteran coordinator should be a good fit in Stillwater. The Philadelphia native has assembled a wealth of knowledge on defense, making stops in his career at Cornell, Western Michigan, Ole Miss and Duke. Knowles was Cornell’s head coach from 2004-09 and went 26-34 over six years. After his tenure ended with the Big Red, Knowles landed on David Cutcliffe’s staff in Durham. The Blue Devils made improvement on defense during Knowles’ tenure, finishing fifth in the conference in fewest yards per play allowed in 2015 and ’17. Duke also finished third in the ACC in scoring defense last fall, holding opponents to just 20.2 points a contest. Knowles will have more talent at his disposal at Oklahoma State, while his 4-2-5 scheme should be a good fit in the wide-open Big 12.
14. Tony Pecoraro, Defensive Coordinator, FAU
Pecoraro is making an intra-conference move from Conference USA’s West Division to the East, replacing Chris Kiffin as FAU’s defensive coordinator. Pecoraro has ties to the state of Florida, as he previously worked at Florida State as a student assistant from 2002-03 and again as a defensive quality control coach from '07-09. The New York native coordinated North Alabama’s defense under Terry Bowden from 2010-11 and later joined Jay Hopson’s staff at Alcorn State prior to the 2012 season. Pecoraro’s 2014 unit finished 12th in the FCS in rush and scoring defense and was instrumental in helping the Braves win the HBCU Championship. He followed Hopson to Southern Miss and guided the defense to back-to-back finishes of fourth in Conference USA in fewest points allowed.
13. Rhett Lashlee, Offensive Coordinator, SMU
Lashlee left UConn after one season but remained in the American Athletic Conference with a move to SMU. Under Lashlee’s watch, the Huskies made significant progress on offense. After averaging only 14.8 points a game in 2016, this unit improved its average to 23.6 a contest. Additionally, UConn improved its yards per play from 4.8 in 2016 to 5.5 last season. Prior to the 2017 season in Storrs, Lashlee worked under Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State in 2012 and again at Auburn from '13-16. The Arkansas native took over the play-calling duties during the 2016 campaign, helping the Tigers average 31.2 points a game that year.
12. Kendal Briles, Offensive Coordinator, Houston
Briles returns to his home state and alma mater after spending the 2017 season at FAU. During his one year with the Owls, Briles teamed with Lane Kiffin to direct one of the nation’s top offenses. FAU led Conference USA by averaging 40.6 points a game and 6.8 yards a play and finished with the league’s top rushing attack. Additionally, the Owls produced more plays of 60 yards or more (14) of any team in college football last season. Prior to FAU, Briles worked from 2008-16 at Baylor, including the final two years as the program’s offensive coordinator. There’s certainly some baggage with this hire, but Houston coach Major Applewhite felt comfortable adding the former Baylor assistant to the staff.
11. Ricky Rahne, Offensive Coordinator, Penn State
Rahne (above, right) inherits big shoes to fill in Happy Valley. Joe Moorhead helped Penn State’s offense take a significant step forward over the last two seasons, finishing third in the Big Ten in scoring in 2016 and tied for first in ’17. The improvement on offense also propelled the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten title in 2016 and back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games. Rahne worked as an assistant at Cornell (2005) and Kansas State (2006-10), before landing on James Franklin’s staff as a quarterbacks coach in 2011. Rahne followed Franklin to Penn State in 2014 and has worked with the team’s quarterbacks (2014-15) and tight ends (2016-17). He also called plays in the 2015 Gator Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl last season. In the bowl win over Washington, Rahne guided the offense to 35 points and an average of 6.9 yards a play. This will be his first full season calling plays at the FBS level.
10. Bush Hamdan, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Washington
Hamdan is back at Washington following a one-year stint with the Falcons as the team’s quarterback coach. The former Boise State quarterback previously worked with the Huskies and under Chris Petersen as a quality control assistant (2015) and wide receivers coach (’16). The Maryland native has moved quickly through the coaching ranks. He started his career as a student assistant at Colorado in 2009, followed by jobs at Maryland, Sacramento State and Florida, before landing at Arkansas State as the co-offensive coordinator in 2013. Hamdan will share the offensive coordinator role with receivers coach Matt Lubick.
9. Tracy Claeys, Defensive Coordinator, Washington State
Washington State’s defense made considerable improvement under former coordinator Alex Grinch, and coach Mike Leach is hoping to build off that in 2018 and beyond with Claeys at the controls. The Kansas native was out of football in 2017 after his dismissal at Minnesota following the '16 season. Claeys was 9-4 in his only year as the head coach with the Golden Gophers. Prior to serving as head coach, Claeys worked as the program’s defensive coordinator (2011-15) and also has stops as the play-caller from stints at Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Emporia State under Jerry Kill.
8. Harlon Barnett, Defensive Coordinator, Florida State
Barnett left his alma mater for an opportunity to work at Florida State under new coach Willie Taggart. The Ohio native followed Mark Dantonio from Cincinnati to Michigan State in 2007, working under previous coordinator Pat Narduzzi as a defensive backs coach from through the ''14 season. Barnett was promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2015 and called the plays for each of the last three years. Barnett’s best defense in East Lansing came in 2017, as the Spartans held opponents to just 20 points a game and 4.9 yards a play. Additionally, the 2015 unit led the Big Ten in turnovers gained (28) and finished third in the conference in rush defense. Barnett also is regarded for his work in developing defensive backs and on the recruiting trail.
7. Walt Bell, Offensive Coordinator, Florida State
Bell is one of college football’s top assistant coaches on the rise. He joins Willie Taggart’s staff in Tallahassee after spending two years as the offensive coordinator at Maryland. Bell’s offenses were hit hard by injuries, but the 2016 unit finished fifth in the Big Ten by averaging 5.6 yards a play. Prior to the two-season stint with the Terrapins, Bell called the plays at Arkansas State from 2014-15. Under Bell’s direction, the Red Wolves finished second in the Sun Belt in scoring offense in 2014 and ranked first in ’15. He also worked under Larry Fedora at Southern Miss (2011) and North Carolina (2012-13) before joining Arkansas State’s staff.
6. Pete Golding, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
Golding arrives in Tuscaloosa after two successful years as UTSA’s defensive coordinator. The Roadrunners finished third in Conference USA in scoring defense in 2016 and led the league in '17 by holding opponents to just 17 points a game. UTSA also limited offenses to 4.98 yards a play last season. Before he joined UTSA’s staff, Golding worked at Southern Miss from 2014-15 as a defensive backs coach and also has stints at Southeastern Louisiana (2012-13), Delta State (2010-11) and Tusculum College (2007-09). Golding is considered one of college football’s top defensive coaches on the rise.
5. Tim Cramsey, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Marshall
Cramsey was the architect behind the FCS’ top offense last season. In his only year at Sam Houston State, Cramsey guided the offense to an average of 43.3 points and more than 500 yards a game. The Bearkats also led the FCS in passing attempts (594) and passing offense (362.7 ypg) in 2017. Cramsey played his college ball at New Hampshire from 1994-97 under an assistant that’s familiar with high-powered offenses -- Chip Kelly. After Cramsey’s playing career ended, he eventually landed with New Hampshire as an assistant from 2003-11, including the final three years as the program’s offensive coordinator. He also held that title in stops at FIU (2012), Montana State (2013-15) and Nevada (2016).
4. Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Mississippi State
Mississippi State is Shoop’s third stop in the SEC as a defensive coordinator. The Pennsylvania native arrives in Starkville after spending the last two years at Tennessee. While the Volunteers struggled on defense during Shoop’s tenure, he has a strong track record of success from previous stints at Vanderbilt and Penn State. The Commodores never allowed more than 25 points a game on average over Shoop’s three seasons at the helm. Additionally, Vanderbilt finished second in the SEC in yards per play allowed (5.1) in 2013. Shoop’s 2014 group at Penn State led the Big Ten in scoring defense (18.6 ppg) and allowed only 21.8 points a contest in ’15. He also has stops in his career as an assistant at William & Mary, UMass, Boston College, Army, Villanova and Yale. Shoop was Columbia’s head coach from 2003-05.
3. Todd Grantham, Defensive Coordinator, Florida
Grantham is on his third stop in the SEC after following Dan Mullen from Starkville to Florida. During his only year at Mississippi State, Grantham’s defense held opponents to 5.2 yards a play and 20.9 points a game. The Bulldogs also generated 36 sacks and forced 21 takeaways last season. Prior to coordinating Mississippi State’s defense, Grantham called the plays at Louisville (2014-16) and Georgia (2010-13). He also has stops in the NFL from stints with the Colts, Texans, Browns and Cowboys.
2. Alex Grinch, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Grinch joins Greg Schiano as a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State following a three-year run at Washington State. The Ohio native wasn’t well-known on the national level prior to his arrival in Pullman, as his only experience at the FBS level came with Missouri as a safeties coach (2012-14) and at Wyoming (2009-11) coaching the secondary. However, Grinch made a big impact in his three seasons with the Cougars. Washington State’s defense allowed 38.6 points a game in 2014 but cut that total to 27.7 in ’15 in Grinch’s first year. The scoring defense averaged dropped to 25.8 points a contest in 2017, while the Cougars ranked second in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to 5.3 yards a play in Pac-12 contests.
1. Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Texas A&M
New Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher hit a home run with his first staff by hiring Elko away from Notre Dame. Elko arrives in College Station after a successful year in South Bend, helping the Fighting Irish cut their scoring average from 27.8 in 2016 to 21.5 in ’17. This unit also held opponents to just 5.1 yards a play, down from 5.4 in 2016. Before taking over at Notre Dame, Elko worked for three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest (2014-16). During his three-year run with the Demon Deacons, the defense never allowed more than 27 points a game on average and finished No. 3 in the ACC in scoring defense in 2016. He called the plays at Bowling Green from 2009-13, with the Falcons leading the MAC in scoring defense over his last two years calling plays. Elko also has stops in his career as an assistant at Hofstra, Richmond, Fordham and Penn.
(Mike Elko photo courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics; Ricky Rahne photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics)