College football seasons often are labeled ‘Year of the’ insert a trending topical element.

So 2020 could be ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic Season.’

The ‘Year of the Quarterback,’ thanks largely to the superlative efforts of Alabama’s Mac Jones, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, among others.

This coaching cycle? Consider it the ‘Year of the Defensive Coordinator.’

It’s the ongoing, most in-demand post anywhere right now in college football. It’s a group of coaches with headliners including Arkansas’ Barry Odom and Cincinnati’s Marcus Freeman, most notably, but also a group of candidates with good depth and plenty of vacancies from which to choose.

Yes, Alabama needs to replace Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. So does Ed Orgeron at LSU, though Coach O’s making public proclamations about his preferred choice(s) to attempt to recoup the Joe Brady magic of 2019.

Still, Orgeron needs a defensive coordinator for the Tigers after dismissing Bo Pelini, less than a year after hiring him, from the top defensive spot. Barry Odom’s in the mix at LSU, as is Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard and Marcus Freeman of Cincinnati, sources confirm to FootballScoop. Orgeron’s already conducting some interviews for that spot and also acknowledging plans to bring in “my top guy on defense on Thursday,” on ESPN radio in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this morning.

Sarkisian’s quickly assembling a staunch Texas staff, including a key addition Tuesday morning, and he’s got multiple high-profile defensive coordinator candidates in the mix — including Odom, Tosh Lupoi and others. Highly regarded Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zachary Arnett is a potential name to watch at Texas, as well as in some of the following high-level openings.

Per a source with direct knowledge, Sarkisian would prefer to make his defensive coordinator hire after Alabama faces Ohio State Monday night in the College Football Playoffs championship; however, he might need to pull the trigger soon to secure his target.

Auburn’s Bryan Harsin has a handful of spots open for his first staff on the Plains, including defensive coordinator. Kevin Steele is under contract with the Tigers through two more seasons, but Steele’s also fresh off a short-lived stint as Auburn’s interim head coach after seeking to gain the top spot in a permanent capacity. Harsin is expected to bring Spencer Danielson with him from Boise in a senior role; but is expected to make an outside hire for the coordinator role.

Steele also is eliciting varying degrees of interests from multiple Power-5 programs, including Michigan, South Carolina and Tennessee, among others, sources tell FootballScoop. Tennessee particularly has interest in trying to lure both Steele and Rodney Garner away from Auburn, but Jeremy Pruitt’s future on Rocky Top is murky, at best, amidst an ongoing internal and external investigation into the football program.

“Pruitt would already hire both if he could,” said a source, echoing that of other sources with direct knowledge.

Notre Dame needs to replace Broyles Award finalist Clark Lea, with Lea accepting the head coaching job at his alma mater, Vanderbilt, last month. Freeman’s a major factor in that vacancy, interviewing via Zoom with the Irish on Monday, according to sources. Other candidates for Brian Kelly’s Irish program include North Carolina’s Jay Bateman and Kentucky’s Brad White. In-house candidates Mike Elston, the current associate head coach and defensive line coach, and defensive backs coach/pass game coordinator Terry Joseph also are under consideration to run the Notre Dame defense. Joseph, with deep ties to his native state of Louisiana and having his cousin, Mickey Joseph, on the LSU staff, remains a potential candidate to watch at LSU, if that search drags on beyond Orgeron’s desired timeline.

Illinois’ Bret Bielema likewise needs a defensive coordinator for his initial Illini staff, though it appears Bielema’s down to a trio of finalists unless something falls apart or a last-second unknown candidate emerges.

Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh needs to replace Don Brown after firing Brown, among the nation’s top-paid defensive coordinators, late last month and with Brown still being owed seven figures. It’s just one of multiple staff changes impending at Michigan, which has six assistant coaches on expiring contracts and defensive assistant Bob Shoop, midway through a two-year deal, currently away from the program for the past several months for unknown reasons.

Indiana’s in the market as well for a new defensive coordinator, after rising coaching star Kane Wommack’s accepting the South Alabama head coaching job last month. It’s believed that Chris Kiffin could be a target there for Tom Allen, a source tells FootballScoop.

At Purdue, after a disappointing 2-4 season, Jeff Brohm needs a defensive coordinator following his dismissal last month of Bob Diaco after just one season of Diaco running the Boilermakers’ defense.

New Arizona coach Jedd Fisch is close to completing his staff, after the hiring Monday night of a key defensive assistant. Fisch’s been waiting on Don Brown for a while now. The belief is Brown is likely to land there; but with all these jobs open….well, anything could happen.

Oregon, after seeing head coach Mario Cristobal clearly emerge as Auburn’s top target last month before rewarding Cristobal with a raise and extension, might find itself in need of a defensive coordinator in the coming days. Andy Avalos, the Ducks’ current defensive play-caller, is a finalist for the head job at his alma mater, Boise State.

New South Carolina coach Shane Beamer is almost finished compiling his initial staff, but his biggest missing piece remains defensive coordinator. Former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, previously the defensive coordinator at Stanford, is in the mix for the Gamecocks, but Mason also is being linked to other potential opportunities.

In many ways, a considerable element to all of these searches is arguably the top two names in this cycle: Marcus Freeman and Barry Odom.

Odom, the former Missouri defensive coordinator and head coach, is beloved by Arkansas’ Sam Pittman, who very much wants to keep Odom — especially after losing key recruiter and wideouts coach Justin Stepp to South Carolina within the past week. Sources also confirm to FootballScoop that Jamil Walker, the Hogs’ strength and conditioning coach, is in the running for the same position at South Carolina, mirroring news first shared by GamecockCentral.com.

Odom definitely remains at or near the top of the wish-lists for both Orgeron and Sarkisian, per sources with knowledge of those searches.

Freeman is perhaps ‘America’s Defensive Coordinator.’ The former Ohio State Buckeyes player owns four years’ experience in the Big Ten as a coach, all with Purdue, including a year as the Boilermakers’ co-defensive coordinator in 2016.

Since that time, Freeman’s been a key cog on Luke Fickell’s dynamic Cincinnati staff that’s been transforming that program into arguably college football’s top Group of Five team on an annual basis.

Freeman’s coming off a season that includes his being honored as a Broyles Award finalist for the nation’s top college football assistant coach after guiding the Bearcats to the No. 8 scoring defense and No. 13 total defense. Freeman’s defensive units own three consecutive American Athletic Conference scoring defense titles.

For a complete list of the open FBS defensive coordinator jobs (and believe it or not there are a lot more than we wrote about here), go here.

As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest news.

 

SHARE
John Brice has covered college football, mostly in the SEC as well as covering Notre Dame and Ohio State, for more than 20 years. He's a former Tennessee Vols football sideline reporter and believes life should be spent traveling or planning the next trip.