Who Will Be FSU's Next Defensive Coordinator?

Jeremy Pruitt's sudden departure to Georgia caught Florida State by surprise, and the Seminoles are now in the market for a defensive coordinator. We offer a few names that might be on Jimbo Fisher's list.

Not long after reassuring head coach Jimbo Fisher that he would be staying for the 2014 season, 2013 FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt suddenly—and without warning—accepted the same position at Georgia, leaving Florida State scrambling to find a replacement. To say that Pruitt has burned his bridges at Florida State would be something of an understatement at this point.

Fortunately, Fisher has a fairly extensive coaching network and a reputation of being someone assistant coaches want to coach under. Last season demonstrated that in spades, as Fisher somehow managed to replace six assistant coaches in one offseason and improve, winning the final crystal football of the BCS era.

Still, there is no obvious hire to replace Pruitt, especially since the 2013 FSU defensive staff was remarkably unified and came from similar backgrounds. The difficulty here for Fisher is not finding a good replacement, as lots of them have already inquired about the position. The difficulty is hiring someone who will not disrupt the synergy on the defensive side of the ball and can help the defense move forward in the direction it was already headed.

Who It Won't Be

Knee-jerk speculation has as usual immediately jumped to several big names regardless of their fit or connection to Fisher. FSU's next defensive coordinator will not be Ed Orgeron, whose temperament would not fit well on FSU's staff, is too much of a line specialist, and has a different defensive background from what Fisher will be looking for.

Likewise, it will not be former Miami head coach and current Arkansas staffer Randy Shannon, as Shannon does not run a multiple defensive scheme and Fisher's offenses have regularly carved up Shannon's defenses.

I also don't think we'll see the return of current Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Elliott, despite his connections to the program as ends coach under former coordinator Mark Stoops.

What Fisher Will Look For

Working Back To Front

None of these names fit what Fisher will be looking for in this hire, namely a coach familiar with an aggressive, multiple-front, pattern-matching scheme similar to that run by Nick Saban at Alabama. Fisher's affinity with this approach has been no secret, with the 2014 defense representing the first step towards a full-blown Saban-style system after Stoops' departure.

Secondly, Fisher has also made it clear that, thanks to the popularity of spread offenses, he prefers his defensive coordinator to work "back to front." That is, Fisher prefers the coordinator to start his thinking with coverages in the secondary and working forward rather than starting with the front and working back.

Fisher explained this shortly after hiring Pruitt, "You have to be able to match your secondary coverages to your fronts. Who's going to fit, how they're going to fit, how you're going to handle certain play actions, how you're going to handle certain coverages. And I think it is much easier to go back to front than it is front to back. I think that knowledge is [critical], especially the way the game is being played today, with such a spread dynamic to it."

This doesn't mean the next coordinator must be a secondary coach, but it does mean he'll need strong expertise in understanding coverages and probably some experience working with defensive backs.

A Background Teaching Pattern-Matching

Capacity to work back to front isn't everything, however. Fisher wants his secondary and linebackers to be thoroughly trained in pattern-matching (pattern-reading) skills. As we discussed after Pruitt's hire last spring, this emphasis was one of the biggest differences between the 2014 defense and the prior defenses under Stoops.

Pattern-matching essentially involves a set of rules that allow the defense to play zone defense with man principles somewhat analogous to a matchup zone in basketball. Coverage defenders are taught to read the releases of receivers and anticipate based on common route combinations, allowing them to react more quickly than if they were simply responding to the route after it happens.

I talked to Fisher about pattern-matching on defense earlier this year, and he made two main points, starting with the observation that it's really difficult to teach and get players to execute well, because it's complex and involves processing a lot. But his second comment was that "it can really make your life miserable on offense" if the defense does it well. The latter is why I expect Fisher's first priority in this hire will be to ensure that he winds up with someone coaching his secondary who has proven he can teach pattern-matching.

Florida State applied pattern-matching principles throughout the season but had only partially installed the full Saban repertoire of pattern-matching principles and defenses, and Fisher wants to get further along on that track.

Defensive Coordinator Possibilities

Before we continue, it's worth recalling that Jeremy Pruitt was on nobody's hot lists before Fisher hired him last year. It's entirely possible Fisher goes outside the box again as long as he's convinced that guy can teach and recruit. But these seem the most likely scenario to us.

Geoff Collins, Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers at Mississippi State

Experience:

Recruiting Coordinator at Georgia Tech
Director of Operations at Alabama
Linebackers coach at Central Florida
Defensive Coordinator at Florida International
Defensive Coordinator at Mississippi State
Why it makes sense:

Collins has worked under Saban and has managed to craft formidable defenses out of lesser talent than his peers in the SEC West. Collins is also an excellent recruiter who has worked in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.

Why it doesn't make sense:

Collins has run a 4-3 defense at MSU and would have to adapt to Fisher's desire to be more multiple at Florida State. Collins has also never coached defensive backs, so his hire would likely involve some shuffling on the staff, likely moving Charles Kelly from linebackers to secondary, since he has previously coached defensive backs.

Bob Shoop, Penn State Defensive Coordinator

Experience

2011-2013 - Vanderbilt (defensive coordinator/safeties)
2007-10 - William & Mary (defensive coordinator, secondary)
2006 - University of Massachusetts (defensive backs)
2003-05 - Columbia (head coach)
1999-2002 - Boston College (defensive secondary)
1998 - Army (defensive secondary)
1997 - Villanova (defensive coordinator)
1994-96 - Yale (defensive coordinator)
1991-93 - Northeastern (defensive backs)
1990 - Virginia (graduate assistant)
1989 - Yale (graduate assistant)

Why it makes sense

Fisher was interested in Shoop last year. He'd probably think about giving him a call again. Shoop has run very aggressive and successful defenses with lesser personnel at Vanderbilt and would presumably do even better with FSU's personnel. He has a good reputation for working with defensive backs. Why it doesn't make sense

Shoop is more of an east-coast guy and is moving to Penn State with James Franklin. The FSU job is an attractive one, but I doubt Fisher could pull Shoop away from Penn State at this point.

Lorenzo Ward, South Carolina Defensive Coordinator

Experience

2009–2013 Defensive Coordinator, South Carolina
2008 Secondary Coach, Arkansas
2007 Assistant Coach, Oakland Raiders
1999–2006 Defensive Backs Coach, Virginia Tech
Why it makes sense

Ward has run a multiple 4-2-5 scheme at South Carolina and has ties to Bud Foster and Ellis Johnson, each of whom are very good working from back to front. South Carolina is also losing a lot on defense for next year, and Ward has coached and recruited in the ACC at Virginia Tech.

Why it doesn't make sense

Ward is unlikely to leave a pretty good situation in Columbia coaching for the guy who gave him his big break as a coordinator. FSU is a better overall position, but it's unlikely the Noles would be willing to break the bank to convince Ward to make a lateral move.

Charles Kelly, FSU Linebackers Coach

Experience

1994 Running Backs, Jacksonville State
1995 Secondary, Jacksonville State
1996 Offensive Coordinator, Jacksonville State
1997–99 Defensive Coordinator, Jacksonville State
2000–2001 Defensive Coordinator, Eufala (AL) HS
2002–2003 Secondary, Nichols State
2004–2005 Defensive Coordinator, Nichols State
2006–2007 Special Teams Coordinator, Georgia Tech
2008–2009 Cornerbacks, Georgia Tech
2010–2012 Secondary, Georgia Tech
2012 Interim Defensive Coordinator, Georgia Tech
2013–Present Linebackers, Florida State

Why it makes sense

Kelly has been very impressive behind the scenes and would probably be represent a fairly seamless replacement. Most of his coaching career has also been spent working with defensive backs, and he comes from the Bill Belichick defensive tree through Al Groh at Georgia Tech. He can therefore presumably coordinate back to front even if he's coaching linebackers himself.

He did a great job simplifying the Georgia Tech defense after Groh was fired in 2012, transforming that defense in half a season. Promoting Kelly would also allow Fisher flexibility in terms of the position hire, perhaps keeping Kelly at linebackers and hiring a secondary coach or hiring a linebackers coach and moving Kelly to the secondary. Why it doesn't make sense

To be honest, there's not much against this move. The question is whether bringing someone else from the outside might represent an overall improvement.

Sal Sunseri, FSU Defensive Ends Coach

Experience:

Lots, mostly at LBs or DL, but coordinator at Tennessee (2012), Alabama A&M (1998–99), and Illinois State (1994).

Why it makes sense

Sunseri is from the Saban tree and has coordinator experience in the SEC. He's a terrific recruiter and has been a huge asset on the FSU defensive staff since his arrival.

Why it doesn't make sense

He's not really a back-end guy, which Fisher prefers. He also got too complicated too quickly at Tennessee and flamed out in his one year as a coordinator there. While a repeat of that is unlikely in Tallahassee, Kelly is probably the more likely internal promotion.

Travaris Robinson, Defensive Backs Coach at Florida

Experience:

Grad Assistant at Auburn

Defensive Backs coach at Western Kentucky
Defensive Backs coach at Southern Miss
Defensive Backs coach at Texas Tech
Defensive Backs coach at UF

Why it makes sense:

Robinson comes from the Saban/Muschamp tree and can coach in the style defense Fisher wants. He is an ace recruiter in the same state that Florida State recruits. It would also hurt FSU's rival. Why it doesn't make sense:

I'm not sure Raymond makes sense as a coordinator hire over Kelly or Sunseri given that he has no prior coordinator experience, and I doubt he'd leave Muschamp and UF for a lateral move to their arch-rival. But if Fisher decides it could work and offered the coordinator role (or a co-coordinator role), it could happen.

Potential Position Coaches

If elevating Sunseri or Kelly, FSU would then hire a defensive backs coach or a linebackers coach.

Derrick Ansley, Kentucky Cornerbacks Coach

Experience

2013 Cornerbacks, Kentucky
2012 Cornerbacks, Tennessee
2010-11 Defensive Graduate Assistant, Alabama
2005–09 Defensive Backs, Huntingdon College (AL)

Why it Makes Sense

Ansley has experience teaching defensive backs in the Saban system and worked under Sal Sunseri in his one year as defensive coordinator at Tennessee. He has also spent one year working under former FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops and D.J. Elliot. He's a young, energetic guy who would be a hit on the recruiting trail at FSU.

Why it doesn't make sense

This is another one I don't see a whole lot of negatives to. Going from Kentucky to Florida State isn't really a lateral move, and his ties to Sunseri from Tennessee would be a major plus here. Ansley is surely near the top of Fisher's list of potential position coaches if he chooses to elevate Kelly and/or Sunseri.

Corey Raymond, LSU Defensive Backs Coach

Experience:

Strength and Conditioning at LSU
Cornerbacks coach at Utah State
Defensive Backs coach at Indiana
Defensive Backs coach at Nebraska
Defensive Backs coach at LSU

Why it makes sense:

Raymond spent a decade as an NFL corner and has a reputation as an excellent secondary coach and has coached on outstanding defenses at LSU. He is also an excellent recruiter who was on staff at LSU during Fisher's last year with the Tigers.

Why it doesn't make sense:

In spite of his ties to LSU and Fisher, he's not really a Saban guy but seems more tied to the Pelini tree, much like Mark Stoops was. Given his lack of coordinator experience, it is unlikely that Raymond would be hired for that role with Kelly and Sunseri already on the staff. Getting him to make a lateral move away from his alma mater seems far-fetched.

Terrell Buckley, Akron Secondary Coach

Experience:

2009 Graduate Assistant, Florida State
2010–11 Strength & Conditioning Assistant, FSU
2012–13 Cornerbacks Coach, Akron
2014 Secondary, Louisville
Why it makes sense

Buckley is obviously connected with Fisher and knows pattern-reading from his days as a player with the Miami Dolphins under Tom Olivadotti and successors. Fisher has worked with him previously, and Buckley would likely jump at the chance to take the job at his alma mater.

Why it doesn't make sense

Buckley doesn't come from the Saban or Belichick tree, though he likely could fit into that system pretty quickly. He also just took a position at Louisville, so this would be a pretty quick departure. He also doesn't have a great deal of experience as a position coach at this point.

Other (less likely) Possibilities: Manny Diaz (as a secondary coach; unlikely he'd be hired as DC over Kelly or Sunseri at this point), Doug Mallory (unlikely as he's more from the Pelini tree), Bradley Dale Peveto (ditto), Greg Brown (if Fisher determines Bama's secondary struggles in 2014 weren't his fault), Chris Demarest.

If I had to guess, I'd put my money on Kelly to be elevated to coordinator and Fisher to hire either a new secondary coach (most likely Ansley) or a new linebackers coach while Kelly coordinates the defense with Sunseri, maintaining continuity with 2014. The question then is how Fisher decides to make that position hire, as he has shown the willingness to shoot for younger, less proven talent if he thinks the guy can teach.

But if the last coordinator search taught us anything, it's that Fisher is quite capable of going outside the box and hiring a surprise—and that he has a good feel for hiring quality assistant coaches.


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