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College Football Analysis: Who Needs a Defensive Coordinator?

By Michael Felder

This past Friday I got the chance to put my thoughts on Larry Fedora out to the people in long form as opposed to the bagillion tweets about the hire. Aside from not being a huge fan of the offensive system, which is purely a preference thing, the biggest issue is the defense. What will become of the defensive line, linebackers and my Rude Boyz as UNC moves forward with Fedora. Will talent continue to be pumped into the defense? Will Fedora have the stones to hire a defensive coordinator who will tell him to get back up to the offensive field?

The defense. What happens with the defense? Will my team get defense? How can we fix the defense? These are the questions at places like Arkansas, who just hired Ohio State's Paul Haynes in an effort to fix the Hogs defense. At places like North Carolina and Texas A&M who just hired offensive minded head coaches but are in conferences were defense matters. At a place like Auburn where defense has struggled for the last few seasons since the departure of Tommy Tuberville.

So if you're UNC or Texas A&M what do you need on staff? How do you not become wholly invested in the Oklahoma State approach of "I'll just score a lot" football? If you're Arkansas or an Auburn type how do you stop the bleeding and get the defense to a consistent level of excellence before the unit becomes totally inept?

You can't allow your defense to languish folks, these hires are every bit as important as who is captaining the ship. Auburn's just a year removed from a title and while the defense was not spectacular for the entirety of 2010 they played the nation's best 10 quarters of defensive football to close out the season. Defense is what separates your pretty and really good teams from your great teams. It is what has been the common thread in the last decade plus of champions. As teams go a huntin' here is a view into what is critical when you're making that hire that can put your team over the top.

Oh, and be sure to check out my guest writings over at College Football News that falls in line with this getting defensive meme. Thanks to Matt Zemek for the opportunity to scribble my thoughts over there!

For starters defense is an attitude. It is an approach that you bring to the field. It starts in practice and shows through in the fiber of your team as the game goes forward. You want a unit that is itching to get back on the field. A gang of guys that is looking to punish opponents, put the fear of God into them. Dare them to try and pick up yards. You need men out there who are burning to put bodies on the ground, create chaos and then bask in the aftermath of it all.

Great defense is a culture. It is not just a good scheme or some talented guys on that side of the ball. There's a reason places like Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Virginia Tech and other schools around the nation get just as charged for their defense to hit the field as some folks get for offense. It is a pride that they have in knowing that a full blown football brawl is about to take place and more often than not their guys are going to walk away the victors.

You see defense is not about hoping you get a stop. It's about a unit of men doing their job and each one of them so hungry to deliver the killshot to the opposition that you end up with eleven monsters out there playing as one. 

But where does that come from? How do you make defense a non-negotiable? If you're Texas A&M how do you bring back "The Wrecking Crew" mentality as you move to a league where defense is the defining point? If you're Arkansas how do you make defense a focal point when Bobby Petrino's high powered attack is the big sell?

It starts with your hire at the coordinator spot folks, he is the man that will set your tone for the defensive side of the football. However, there is so much that goes into making a hire work it is about getting the right tone-setter for your atmosphere. Every guy doesn't have to be a screamer or a major public persona to be successful. John Chavis, as the long time gold standard of excellent defensive identity, is a guy most college football fans have never heard utter a word yet is every bit the personality as the more recent, highly visible screaming coordinators like Todd Grantham.

Ultimately what you want is a guy that can establish an identity through evaluation and development of talent, fitting your personnel and flexibility in utilizing the defensive schemes he has in his mental library.

Notice I said evaluation and talent development and not recruiting. There are several approaches to recruiting and every one of them starts with the targeting of evaluated recruits who can contribute on the defensive side of the ball. Making those kids a priority in recruiting is the first step. Fighting to keep the 6'2" 195 wide receiver/safety for his defense instead of losing him to offense is the coordinators job. He needs his own toys to play with, not a group of "ok, you can have him" players put on defense.

Evaluation also means not just elite talent but guys here and there that can help your team win. The vision to see that the "one-step too slow" safety could carry a few more pounds and be a revelation at the weak side linebacker spot. The ability to know that the running back who would be buried on the depth chart would make a hell of a speed rush end for his unit.

Once the kids are in look at what the coordinator and his position coaches do with the young men. Does that five star guy live up to the expectations? Does that random two star that he, for some odd reason, had to have show up in year three as a contributor? Do the players get better, bigger, faster and stronger every year? Is there a legitimate drive for defensive success on the individual level and as a unit?

Because from a development standpoint that's what you want, that's what you need and that's what a good coordinator gets out of the guys he picks to run his schemes. They don't all go to the NFL but he gets guys prepared to get a shot through supplementing their natural tools with sound defensive principles like tackling, technique and awareness.

Now you've got guys in school, both before and after the hire, so on to the next step. What is the coordinators long standing defensive philosophy? Has he been successful at stopping the spread attack if you're a school in a predominantly spread conference? Does he place a premium on defensive line play if you're a school in a big boy run heavy league? Forcing a 3-3-5 into a conference that is as big body-centric as the Big 10 is not doing anyone any favors. Neither is playing a 50 in a spread focused league.

Equally as important in the grand scheme of things is how the defense fits the personnel at the school and personnel available to the university. Playing a 3-4 when finding a plug 300 lbs+ nose tackle is damn near impossible is a fool's errand. Opting for a 3-3-5 when the roster has a gaggle of defensive linemen and linebacker types but only a handful of quality defensive backs is equally senseless.

Is the possible hire a blitzing, attacking coordinator who loves man coverage? You better have defensive backs capable of playing on the island. Is he a zone coverage disciple? The roster better have a front four that's able to get to the quarterback.

The good thing is this is not static. Many teams, like Michigan or Florida, go through an offensive transition phase as they go from spread to pro styled schemes, so too do defenses. Adaptability during the transition is the key to maximizing the defensive production on a yearly basis. A coordinator that has his heart set on playing zone pressures and mixing man schemes in must adapt for the time being while he recruits better defensive back athletes. That means more zone coverages, less blitzing and getting the most out of his front four.

There are growing pains with defense but the construction of the identity must start from the moment the new guy meets with this new charges. Fast. Together. That's what must come with your new hire. Making it an honor to wear the defensive jersey. Making guys who get run on defense feel the same pride their exciting offense feels when they step on the field.

Defense is an attitude. When you're looking at coordinators start there when you're making your list. As you weed them out look at how their philosophy fits your current personnel and the types of players who your school can get. Look at how their approach fits your team's persona and most importantly how their approach lines up with what it takes to win in your conference.

Get more great college football analysis over at In The Bleachers.


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