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Monday Thoughts: Searching for a Defensive Coordinator

Wherein we pretend to have a clue what a defensive coordinator candidate pool would look like.

Utah v California
Cal’s defense, in happier times
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The news that was assumed to be coming since . . . probably the USC game, is now official. For the third time in four years Cal is in the market for a new defensive coordinator.

And it’s going to be a tough, tough hire.

What does Cal have going in their favor? Well, it’s a Power 5 coordinator position and Cal paid Art Kaufman just short of $600,000, so the eventual winner be well compensated.

What’s working against Cal? There’s the obvious—the Bears are coming off a season in which their defense ranked near the bottom in every single meaningful defensive category. You’ve got to be a pretty confident fellow to think you have what it takes to turn Cal’s defense around in less than a year.

Then there’s the background perception issue—if Sonny Dykes is on the hot seat next season, who would want to take the risk of accepting a job if an entirely new coaching staff might be brought in for 2018?

When Cal hired Kaufman three years ago, I actually thought it was a pretty solid grab relative to what Cal could reasonably attract after the disastrous 2013 campaign. Now, after three more years of defenses that have ranged from bad to “only Texas Tech was worse”, making a good hire is probably even more challenging.

Unlike head coaching searches, when the field of candidates is relatively well-known and media members are sniffing around for rumors, a coordinator search can be much harder to handicap. I solicited Twitter for suggestions to look out for, so here’s an ill-informed rundown of possible candidates. Let it be known that there’s probably a 90% chance that Cal will go with somebody off my/our radar, which is probably just as well.

When referenced, salaries taken from the USA today

Tosh Lupoi

Why does he get mentioned as a candidate? Because he’s a Cal grad and former Cal coach who has been successful enough as a coach and recruiter to get hired by Nick Saban.

Pros: Cal desperately needs better recruiting on the defensive side of the ball and Tosh has already proven that he can convince high-end talent to come to Berkeley. Actually has a pretty great track record for developing/coaching D-line talent. Has been gone for five years—surely that’s enough water under the bridge for all involved?

Cons: If the rumors are true, there may not be a bridge for water to be under because he burned that sucker down. NCAA violation rumors have plagued him twice. Has never been a sole coordinator—is he ready to handle Xs and Os? Would presumably have to pay him a ton since he’s already getting coordinator money at Bama.

Ill-conceived conclusion: The Cal twittersphere lit up about a week ago with rumors that Lupoi turned down Cal’s overtures in favor of staying at Alabama, so if that’s true, this is all moot. Many (most?) Cal fans think he’s Judas with a crew cut, although I’m still not very comfortable rendering judgment since the entire 2012 fiasco was reported via a series of questionably sourced message board rumors. If I could be convinced that his exit was reasonably ethical, I’d probably be on board. I’m glad I’m not the decision maker.

Tim DeRuyter

Why does he get mentioned as a candidate? Because he’s a longtime defensive coordinator who was recently fired at Fresno State, making him very available.

Pros: A ton of experience—25 years in the business, about half of it as a defensive coordinator. Built a couple of really excellent defenses at Air Force and a couple of solid defenses at Texas A&M. Engineered one of the greatest single-season defensive turnarounds in his first year in charge at Fresno St.

Cons: After that amazing first year in 2012, Fresno State’s defense immediately regressed to mediocre in 2013, then awful in 2014, and has stayed awful since, ultimately resulting in DeRuyter’s dismissal.

Ill-conceived conclusion: You could perhaps charitably suggest that DeRuyter was a defensive coordinator who Peter Principled himself to head coach and would be successful taking a step back to being a coordinator. But I’m incredibly wary of taking on somebody who couldn’t succeed at his specialty. Retread City.

Ron English

Why does he get mentioned as a candidate? He’s a Cal grad with four years of DC experience around the nation plus time as a head coach and he’s currently at San Jose State, so you’d think we could get him.

Pros: Was the coordinator for a couple of excellent Michigan defenses and actually had a couple of not-awful units at Eastern Michigan, which pretty much never happens.

Cons: Hasn’t had an above-average defense since he left Michigan in 2007 and was idle for two years after a verbally abusive tirade towards his players at Eastern Michigan was released on tape.

Ill-conceived conclusion: He has excelled when put in stable situations and struggled when put in bad situations, which would indicate to me that he’ll go as far as the talent on the field will take him—and no further. Would not be an exciting hire even if you ignored the reason he was fired at Eastern Michigan. Pass.

Angus McClure

Why does he get mentioned as a candidate? He’s a native of Sacramento currently working as UCLA’s defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.

Pros: Say what you will about UCLA’s misuse of talent—they’re certainly recruiting well each year. And the one unit on the team that has generally delivered on that talent? Defensive line.

Cons: Oddly, the majority of his career has been spent on the offensive side of the ball, so scheme may be a concern. Also, he probably won’t come cheap because he’s already making a hair over 400k in Westwood.

Ill-conceived conclusion: If we think he can handle the step up, we’re talking about a legit top-25 recruiter who has turned the talent he directly works with into NFL players with impressive consistency.

Chris Partridge

Why does he get mentioned as a candidate? Well, this one was by request of atomsareenough, so I have no clue if anybody else has thought about him. But he’s a linebackers coach at Michigan, is young, and is a high-end recruiter.

Pros: See aforementioned recruiting. Doesn’t hurt that Michigan is fielding the best defense in the country thanks in part to absurd talent at every level of their defense.

Cons: Is already getting paid very well for an assistant at Michigan and is probably in line for a raise on top of that, so who knows if he’d be willing to come. Also, his recruiting area of expertise is the mid-Atlantic, which might not translate super well to Cal. Was a high school HC before getting hired as a recruiting coordinator, so college-level scheming is unknown.

Ill-conceived conclusion: This is basically a stand-in example for “young, up-and-coming, hot-shot recruiter.” Is there a ton of risks hiring somebody with this type of a profile? Damn straight. But there’s reward as well.

Ilaisa Tuiaki

Why does he get mentioned as a candidate? Because I decided to scour non–Power 5 schools that play good defense for a DC to steal and he seemed to do OK work at BYU last year. The “successful non–Power 5 coordinator” archtype, even if BYU fans are annoyed that I’m not considering their program Power 5 right now.

Pros: Spent time at OSU and Utah and his entire young career on the west coast. BYU’s defense was solid in his first year in charge, particularly against the run. Was up for various coaching awards while a D-line position coach at Utah. Didn’t graduate from BYU, so probably not married to staying there?

Cons: BYU is a private school and as a result, I have no idea how much they are willing to compensate and whether or not Cal can beat them in a bidding war. Only one year of DC experience.

Ill0conceived conclusion: Dude helped build some awesome lines at Utah and must have impressed the right people to get hired to be DC at BYU so quickly. I’m on board!

There you go, six vaguely plausible defensive coordinator candidates. You’ve got all the typical choices: guy-who-only-gets-mentioned-because-of-Cal-ties, random-successful-dude-at-Pac-12-rival, random-up-an-comer, random-successful-DC-at-small-school, and random-retread. There’s probably a 60% chance that, when Cal’s hire is announced, it’ll be some dude most of us have never heard of. But for now, the choices are only limited by our imaginations . . . and the fact that most of us can name like 10 total coordinators across the entire country at best. What’s your preference, Cal fans, for either specific names or a certain type of hire?