Who: DJ Durkin, Texas A&M
Title: Defensive coordinator
Previous stop: Ole Miss co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach (2020-21)
Why he's important: As long as the coaches don't screw it up, Texas A&M should be in contention to win the national championship each season for the foreseeable future. The No. 1-ranked class that ignited the fireworks between Fisher and Nick Saban this summer included four of the nation's top five defensive linemen. The Aggies inked 11 defenders ranked among the top 100 players in the nation, and it's not as if the upperclassmen on the 2022 squad are scrubs, either. Each of Fisher's full classes have ranked in the top 10 nationally.
According to 247Sports research, 11 of the last 19 No. 1 classes later won a national championship, and another two played for a title.
To replace new Duke head coach Mike Elko, Jimbo Fisher could have, in theory, hired Charles Kelly. Kelly replaced Mark Stoops at Florida State and, while his defenses were up and down in his four seasons on the job, he managed to field a nationally elite unit (11th in yards per play) as the FSU program infrastructure was falling apart around him in 2017. Kelly is now the assistant defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Alabama, so he was, in theory, available for a promotion to work for his old boss. (Kelly makes $825,000 at Bama; Elko made $2.1 million.) Hiring Kelly would've provided Jimbo Fisher the double-whammy effect of weakening the "narcissist" in Tuscaloosa while bringing in someone familiar with him.
Instead, Fisher chose an outsider. Fisher chose DJ Durkin.
Durkin, as we know, was fired at Maryland after an investigation into the program following Jordan McNair's death in a team-run workout. Durkin spent 2019 mostly out of football, save for a training camp guest-coaching gig with the Atlanta Falcons that elicited lots of backlash, considering his extremely minor role in the organization. In 2020, he returned to college football by taking the co-defensive coordinator job at Ole Miss. There was more backlash when Durkin took that job -- it's generally a red flag when an AD uses the words "thorough background check" to defend a hire -- but hardly any this time around.
Jimbo likes to hire defensive coordinators who give him trouble -- it was Elko's work at Wake Forest that got him the A&M job, not Notre Dame -- and Durkin generally fit that bill. He held the juggernaut 2013 Florida State offense two touchdowns below its season average, despite Florida's offense achieving eight first downs in a 37-7 loss. In 2014, a thoroughly average Florida team played No. 1 Florida State to a 24-19 final; the 'Noles finished that game 30 percent off their season yardage and scoring averages.
"Their scheme was very hard to go against, it was very sound, multiple, did different things. As their players' talents changed, they changed what we did. He was very difficult to go against at different times," Fisher said this summer.
At Ole Miss in 2021 (Fisher and Durkin did not face each other in 2020), Durkin's defense limited Texas A&M to 19 points in a 29-19 Rebels win.
PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: No. 15 Tim DeRutyer (Texas Tech); No. 14 Rob Sale (Florida); No. 13 Joe Gillespie (TCU); No. 12: Brennan Marion (Texas); No. 11: Derek Mason (Oklahoma State); No. 10: Eric Kiesau (Auburn); No. 9: Mike Denbrock (LSU); Jesse Minter (Michigan); No. 7: Mark Whipple (Nebraska); No. 6: Josh Henson (USC); No. 5: Jeff Lebby (Oklahoma); No. 4: Josh Gattis (Miami); No. 3: Wes Goodwin (Clemson).
Fisher praised Durkin for playing a 3-down front at Ole Miss, despite running even fronts to that point in his career. "Which shows you how good a coach he is, what he does, being able adapt to his personnel," he said.
Durkin is expected to adapt to Elko's scheme while adding a few touches of his own, but the most important asset Elko left behind was not the playbook, but the roster itself.
A unit that finished sixth nationally in yards per play added the best defensive line haul in college football history.
"This program and Coach Fisher's vision and track record ... everything lines up here for us to be able to do something special," Durkin said last week. "We've acquired great talent, great players and now that we've gotten to meet everyone, I think we have great people here.
"This is a good place to be."
With the pieces in place, Durkin's job is to assemble a defense worthy of winning a national championship, sooner than later. Anything less of that is below A&M's potential.