Michael McCammon

Long-Time Defensive Director Takes Over for 2017 Season

It's another winter. Meaning, another round of assistant staff and coordinator changes for Bulldog defense. Only this latest shuffle looks like Dan Mullen's best 'get' in years.

Mississippi State confirmed Wednesday morning Todd Grantham from Louisville as defensive coordinator for 2017. Grantham would replace Peter Sirmon, who has not actually been announced as leaving MSU yet. However, reports seem to confirm that the one-year Dog coordinator will be going to...Louisville.

“When the opportunity to be part of Dan Mullen’s staff presented itself, it was something my family and I became every excited about,” said Grantham in a provided statement. “Coach Mullen has built a winning program in the most challenging conference in the country. Along with our staff I look forward to re-establishing the Bulldog defense as one of the top defenses in the country, along with making the fans of Mississippi State proud.”

Mullen has been at the annual AFCA convention this week, serving on the national board this year. He was due back in the state late Wednesday. Grantham will become the sixth defensive coordinator as Mullen begins his ninth year at Mississippi State, the fourth in as many years.

“Todd has proven to be one of the best defensive coordinators in the country this decade,” Mullen said in a provided statement. “He understands what it takes to build a physical and aggressive defense at the highest of levels. We are excited to welcome he and his family to Starkville.”

Grantham, 50, hasn’t worked outside the Eastern or Central time zones in his 27 seasons of college or professional coaching. A native Virginian, he played at Virginia Tech in 198--- and got his coaching start at the alma mater in 1990 with defensive backs, then inside linebackers. He moved to the defensive line for four seasons before moving period, to Michigan State as defensive line coach two years and then associate head coach to Mark Dantonio in 1998.

From there Grantham jumped to the big leagues. He coached defensive line at four NFL franchises over eleven seasons, and in 2005-07 was coordinator for Cleveland. After two years at Dallas he was lured back into the college ranks by Mark Richt and spent four seasons.

Grantham installed a 3-4 base defense in Athens and it worked well for a couple of campaigns. Georgia was 23rd in NCAA total defense the first year, and an even more impressive 3rd in 2011. The Bulldogs slipped back to 27th statistically but the defense did its part to win the Eastern Division title and play eventual national champions Alabama down to the last play in the league championship game. The 2013 defense ranked 45th in yardage.

He still was targeted and hired by Louisville in January 2014 with a guaranteed five-year contract at $1 million per year base. That salary increased to a reported $1.3 this year. The Cardinals went 26-12 in his three seasons with a 17-6 ACC record. They lost to Georgia in the 2014 Belk Bowl; beat Texas A&M in the ’15 Music City Bowl; and this season ended with a loss to Louisiana State in the Citrus Bowl.

This season Louisville was 6th in ACC scoring defense at 23.8 points; 3rd in total yardage defense at 322.2, only eleven yards behind leader Clemson; and 3rd in rushing defense at 115.2 yards with just seven touchdowns allowed. Though, the Cardinals did give up a ACC-most 29 passing touchdowns. They were fifth-best in takeaways with 15 interceptions and ten fumbles recovered, and 4th in third-down defense. Grantham's job became difficult down the '16 stretch due to injuries which left his side of the roster drastically short-handed.

Senior linebacker Devonte Fields was a first-team All-ACC selection of league media, while tackle DeAngelo Brown, linebacker Keith Kelsey, and cornerback Jaire Alexander all made second-team defense.

It was at the 2016 convention where Mullen met, interviewed, and hired Sirmon as coordinator and linebackers coach. This was a promotion for Sirmon—who turns 40 in February—after two years at Southern California, and his first chance to run an entire defense.The results were problematic.

Mississippi State gave up an average of almost 32 points and 460 yards per game and struggled particularly in second and fourth quarters with triple-digit points allowed in each period for the season. Five of the last six regular-season opponents produced over 500, and two of them over 600 total yards; though the Bulldog offense was able to win three times down the stretch. There was no indication Mullen forced a change at coordinator. Instead the Washington native, Oregon alumnus, and Southern Cal coach seemed ready to move. He has coached at three Pac 12 programs since retiring from the NFL in 2006. His family resides in the Nashville area, where Sirmon played for Tennessee's Titans.

Meanwhile, these sudden goings-and-comings at defensive coordinator have obscured the existing opening on Mullen’s offensive staff. Following the Bulldogs’ St. Petersburg Bowl victory, third-year quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson accepted Houston’s offer to become offensive coordinator.

Johnson takes a glossy resume back to his native territory. Great career timing brought him to Mississippi State just as Dak Prescott was taking over as full-time starter and reaching his prime, which resulted in consecutive first team All-SEC recognition and being drafted by Dallas last April. Where, he now boasts of how Mullen’s program prepared him for instant success in the NFL.

The bigger challenge for Johnson began with Prescott’s final game, or even before as he had four underclassman quarterbacks to develop in 2016. When all was done, third-year sophomore Nick Fitzgerald became the every-game starter and by the end of the campaign a record-setter in his own right.

This attracted the new Houston staff to offer the Baytown native, recruited by Mullen to Utah now just over a decade ago.

Few names have emerged in the ensuing weeks. Though now that the convention has concluded, Mullen is freed to focus again on his own program. The urgency to replacing Johnson is not just continuing development of rising junior Fitzgerald; but the spring enrollment of Louisiana prep player of the year Keytaon Thompson. With only fall walk-on junior Wyatt Roberts on the roster—Fitzgerald’s three competitors are all transferred—getting a brand-new freshman comfortable with his position coach before spring practices seems essential.

The exact schedule has not been released but spring camp will open middle of the first March week.


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