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Update as Tennessee, Josh Heupel search for defensive coordinator

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Tennessee's search for a defensive coordinator continues in the spin cycle.

It's day 16 of the Josh Heupel era on Rocky Top, and the former UCF head coach and one-time Oklahoma Sooner national champion quarterback has not yet matched on his top defensive assistant.

Multiple sources tell FootballScoop that Ohio State assistant coach Al Washington is leaning towards remaining with the Buckeyes. But as of late Wednesday night, per sources with direct knowledge, Washington had not signed any kind of modified, two-year contract proposal with the Buckeyes and head coach Ryan Day.

Sources reiterated Thursday morning that though Washington was expected to remain with the OSU program, he had not yet inked any new deal.

Sources told FootballScoop that OSU staff, including Day, have recruited Washington to remain in his native Columbus, Ohio, with a sizable salary increase but also one that leaves hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table, annually, compared to the offer that sources confirmed Washington has received from Tennessee.

Washington also reached out to current high-level coaches around college football to gauge the ability to have success at Tennessee, coaches told FootballScoop.

Later Thursday morning, Washington formally declined the Tennessee opportunity and cemented his decision to stay in Columbus, Ohio.

Multiple sources told FootballScoop beginning Tuesday night that the Vols' new regime had reached out to Kacy Rodgers. UT staffers held a Zoom session, in addition to phone calls, earlier this week with Rodgers, sources told FootballScoop.

A former standout player at Tennessee and native of the Volunteer State, Rodgers has defensive coordinator experience in the NFL; he was the New York Jets' defensive play-caller for four seasons from 2015-18. Rodgers began his coaching career with nine years in the college ranks, including at UT-Martin and MTSU. Rodgers also had a year at Arkansas as the Razorbacks' defensive line coach.

He has spent the past 18 years as an NFL assistant for the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and just won a Super Bowl as the Tampa Bay Bucs' defensive line coach.

Making $515,000 this past season for the College Football Playoffs runners-up after earning $500,000 the previous year in his first season at OSU, Washington is positioned to vault beyond a $600,000 annually salary and add additional responsibilities, likely along the lines of defensive run-game coordinator, if he remains on Day's staff, according to sources.

The Buckeyes already pay a pair of defensive assistants – coordinator Kerry Coombs and defensive line coach/associate head coach Larry Johnson – seven-figure salaries.

Washington is not in line to give OSU a third seven-figure coach on the defensive side of the ball and keep the program with four millionaire assistants; Kevin Wilson also earns $1.2 million. Greg Mattison had earned a million-plus on staff before the veteran defensive assistant retired last month.

After Washington's name first was linked to Tennessee late last week, the former Boston College player and assistant coach emerged over the weekend as Tennessee's top choice to be new coach Josh Heupel's first defensive signal-caller.

The Vols had extended a multi-year, multi-million dollar offer to Washington, per sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

Tennessee made previous runs at both Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown and University of Southern Cal defensive coordinator Todd Orlando in the previous 10 days.

The Vols, per sources, had discussed three-year, seven-figure contracts with their top choices after last month handing Heupel a six-year deal worth $4 million.

Sources in both the SEC and the Big Ten told FootballScoop that Tennessee has floated a three-year, $4.5 million total contract for the right defensive coordinator.

Sources told FootballScoop that both coaches – Brown and Orlando – preferred to remain in their current situations. Brown was expected to also potentially earn a raise to remain with the Cardinals while Orlando was a head coaching candidate during this cycle and could emerge again in a similarly favorable position after the 2021 season.

The Volunteers football program is mired in an ongoing NCAA investigation in the school's admitted recruiting violations and also has seen the most players in the nation among Power 5 conferences entering the NCAA Transfer Portal. Heupel has made multiple offensive hires and largely filled out the crucial roles of a retooled University of Tennessee recruiting department.

Tennessee has an athletics director in Danny White and a head football coach in Heupel who both have been in their respective roles on Rocky Top for less than a month. White has been splitting his time between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Orlando, Florida, since he was hired by UT last month as Phillip Fulmer's replacement atop the athletics department.

UT fired Pruitt with cause in mid-January, a move that, for now, alleviated Tennessee's burden of Pruitt's more than $12 million buyout. Per sources, Pruitt is expected to contest the with-cause dismissal and seek to recoup buyout funds.

Additionally, UT also has a relatively new chancellor in Donde Plowman, who's been in charge of the school's flagship campus for less than two years.

The upheaval and turmoil on Rocky Top are directly impacting Heupel's staff assembly, college coaches told FootballScoop.

“That's a tough job for a lot of reasons,” said one coach with direct ties to the program, “but that's a really tough job with everything that's going on there. You have to really be sure you can succeed or definitely be willing to take a risk.”

Still, sources confirmed to FootballScoop that the Tennessee defensive coordinator vacancy has elicited strong interest from the college ranks, including coaches with Power-5 coordinator experience as well as head coaching experience, and multiple NFL assistant coaches.