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POAPS Defensive Coordinator

Let’s take a look at some potential candidates to lead the Wolfpack defense in 2020

East Carolina v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

(keys rustling... car engine starts)

Get in, losers. We’re going to find ourselves a new Defensive Coordinator!

Listen, I know, this ol’ POAPS machine didn’t exactly run like a champ last year in the two times we took her out of the garage, but this time... this time we got her runnin’ right! So buckle up, sweet cheeks, and let’s go find us our next DC!

In Part I of this series, we’ll take a look at five potential candidates.

Ryan Walters

Current Gig: Missouri DC/Safeties Coach (2018-2019)

Current Salary: $800k

Other Experience: Co-DC/Safeties at Missouri (2016-2017), Defensive Backs Coach at Arizona (2011), North Texas (2013), and Memphis (2014). Graduate Assistant at Arizona (2010) and Oklahoma (2012).

Stats as a DC (SP+ Defense Ranking): 2019 (18), 2018 (25), 2017 (61*), 2016 (85*)

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, Missouri’s DC? Didn’t they just fire their head coach?” And, yep, you’d be right. After four years and a 25-25 overall record, the Tigers fired head coach Barry Odom and staff and are looking to start over. But why are we looking at Walters? Because he was definitely not the reason for Odom getting canned.

Walters was the Co-DC in title only in 2016 and 2017 and didn’t begin calling plays until the 2018 season, the year after DeMontie Cross (the former other Co-DC with Walters) was fired. Since then, Missouri’s defense has posted back-to-back Top 25 SP+ seasons.

This year, the Tigers rank 20th in Scoring Defense, 14th in Yards/Game Allowed, and 22nd in Yards/Play Allowed. If there’s a knock against Walters’ 2019 Missouri defense, it’s that the team doesn’t generate a ton of sacks (T-104th), but they still held opponents to the 11th lowest Pass Efficiency Rating in the country and ranked 22nd in 3rd Down Conversion Defense.

So the downside here? Take a look at that salary number. NC State was paying Dave Huxtable in the $600k, so the pocketbook would need to be opened significantly to bring Walters on board. It’s also been rumored that Virginia Tech is pursuing Walters, so a bidding war could happen.

You’d also be hiring a coach who grew up in California, played at Colorado, and has never coached east of Memphis. Maybe he hits the ground running as a recruiter in the area, but he’d have an uphill battle to build relationships here with high school coaches. Then again, at just 33 years old, maybe he would better connect with recruits than some of his older peers.

The other item that may complicate things is that a financially tight Missouri Athletics Department may well give the reigns of the program over to Walters to save some money and try to catch lightning in a bottle with a young coach in his first head coaching gig (a la Ryan Day, Lincoln Riley).

Marcus Freeman

Current Gig: Cincinnati DC/Linebackers Coach (2017-2019)

Current Salary: $425k

Other Experience: Co-DC/Linebackers Coach at Purdue (2016), Linebackers Coach at Purdue (2013-2015), Linebackers Coach at Kent State (2011-2012), Defensive Quality Control Graduate Assistant at Ohio State (2010).

Stats as a DC (SP+ Defense Ranking): 2019 (34), 2018 (36), 2017 (68), 2016 (103)

Like Walters, Freeman is a 33-year-old fast-riser in the coaching ranks. The Ohio State alum has been a key part of turning around a Cincinnati program that is 21-4 over the last two seasons and will play for the AAC conference title this upcoming Saturday.

This year, the Bearcats rank 26th in Scoring Defense, 50th in Yards/Game Allowed, and 33rd in Yards/Play Allowed. Freeman’s 2019 Cincinnati defense is just ho-hum at generating Sacks (T-57th) and 3rd Down Conversion Defense (79th). They have, however, held opponents to the 26th lowest Pass Efficiency Rating in the country.

There is a legitimate concern, however, that the success as a DC for Freeman at Cincinnati can be contributed to Head Coach Luke Fickell, himself an accomplished DC previously at Ohio State. Freeman’s first year as DC at Cincinnati was nothing to write home about, and his lone other year as a DC (2016 at Purdue) was a disaster.

There’s another issue here that Freeman may be waiting out for a bigger gig. He was reportedly offered the Linebacker Coach job at Ohio State during the offseason in the staff transition of the Buckeyes from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day, but he declined it (a job that the eventual guy is getting paid $500k for) to stay as a coordinator with the Bearcats.

Freeman is apparently fiercely loyal to Fickell, which likely means even more money to pry him away. Another similarity to Walters - and in this case, a negative one - is that he has no ties to the region and would be an unknown in recruiting.

Jeff Knowles

Current Gig: Temple DC/Linebackers (2019)

Current Salary: Unknown

Other Experience: DC/Linebackers Coach at Northern Illinois (2018), Linebackers Coach at Northern Illinois (2017), Defensive Quality Control Coach at NC State (2014-2016).

Stats as a DC (SP+ Defense Ranking): 2019 (23), 2018 (23)

Successful, young coach with ties to NC State? Well, come on down then, big guy!

Knowles began his coaching career at his alma mater, Saint Francis, where he spent six seasons as an assistant, including the last two as Defensive Coordinator and the last three as Recruiting Coordinator. He left Saint Francis to join Dave Doeren’s staff in Raleigh as a Defensive Quality Control Coach. His three seasons working with the Wolfpack mark three of the top four SP+ Defense performances for NC State during the Dave Doeren era.

After leaving Raleigh, Knowles went back to his home state of Illinois to coach at Doeren’s previous stop, Northern Illinois, working for the man (Rod Carey) who was on Doeren’s staff at NIU (OL/OC) and took over when Doeren took the State job. He coached the Huskies’ linebackers for one year before becoming the DC, and then followed Carey to Temple in 2019 where the Owls have rode on the backs of Knowles’ defense to an 8-4 record.

This year, the Owls rank 41st in Scoring Defense, 47th in Yards/Game Allowed, and 17th in Yards/Play Allowed. Knowles’ defense is also tied for 10th in Sacks and is 36th in 3rd Down Conversion Defense, while holding opponents to the 12th lowest Pass Efficiency Rating in the country. They’ve been very good, and the numbers would be better if not for the awful offense the Owls have.

Temple is a private institution and therefore does not have to release the salaries of their coaches, but Knowles made just $147k at Northern Illinois in 2018, and it shouldn’t be hard to top whatever he’s being paid at Temple now.

The same as with Ryan Walters, NC State would be taking a bit of a gamble that the last two years weren’t flashes in the pan, but Knowles has now taken over defenses at two different schools over the last two years with instant improvement for those units over the previous season. That’s as good of an indicator for a successful transition to a new school as you’re going to find. Plus he’s a known quantity having previously worked for Doeren and NC State, and obviously Doeren likes the guy having helped him land at Northern Illinois previously.

Clayton White

Current Gig: Western Kentucky DC/Cornerbacks Coach (2017-2019)

Current Salary: $290k

Other Experience: Co-Special Teams Coordinator/Safeties Coach at NC State (2013-2016), Special Teams Coordinator/Running Backs Coach at UConn (2011-2012), Co-Special Team Coordinator/Defensive Backs Coach at WKU (2010), Defensive Backs Coach at Stanford (2007-2009), Defensive Backs Coach at Western Michigan (2006).

Stats as a DC (SP+ Defense Ranking): 2019 (39), 2018 (93), 2017 (83)

Like Knowles, White has ties to NC State... only White’s ties run much deeper. A former standout linebacker for the Wolfpack under former coaches Mike O’Cain and Chuck Amato, White was also on Dave Doeren’s initial staff in Raleigh and stayed on until leaving to take his current DC job with the Hilltoppers, an upward move in his coaching career.

This year, the Hilltoppers rank 23rd in Scoring Defense, T-30th in Yards/Game Allowed, and T-39th in Yards/Play Allowed. White’s defense has also been phenomenal at getting opposing teams off the field, ranking 8th in 3rd Down Conversion Defense. His unit hasn’t been the greatest at getting to the QB, though (T-69th in Sacks), but they are plenty good at limiting the effectiveness of opposing QBs, ranking 42nd in Pass Efficiency Rating Defense.

A homecoming to Raleigh for White, a native of Dunn, would be a smart move for both White and Doeren. For White, it would mean coming home to take a position that will pay him more money and allow him to coach in a much more prestigious conference. For Doeren, bringing back a beloved son of the university would be a wise move when many in the fan base are starting to question the long-term viability of the coach at the school. It would help soothe tensions and would be an absolute win in the press conference. White is also a known quantity for Doeren, so there’s no guessing about how he’ll acclimate to the current staff.

There, of course, would be concerns here, chiefly around the 2019 season being the outlier of his three seasons as a defensive coordinator. Has this been the year when White finally got his sea legs as a DC? Or are his 2017 and 2018 performances more in line with his true abilities in the role?

The above is stated from a statistical standpoint, but White was a Frank Broyles Award (top assistant coach nationally) nominee in 2017, so obviously the numbers don’t tell the full story. They don’t just hand that thing out to bad coaches, you know.

The other matter here is that the current opening on State’s staff is for a DC/Linebackers coach. White has only ever coached defensive backs, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be a hard transition for the former linebacker to make the positional move.

Tony Gibson

Current Gig: NC State Co-DC/Safeties (2019)

Current Salary: $200k (goes up to $500k in 2020)

Other Experience: DC/Linebackers Coach at West Virginia (2014-2018), Safeties Coach at WVU (2013), Safeties Coach at Arizona (2012), Defensive Backs Coach at Pittsburgh (2011), Defensive Backs Coach at Michigan (2008-2010), Defensive Backs Coach at WVU (2001-2007).

Stats as a DC (SP+ Defense Ranking): 2019 (74), 2018 (76), 2017 (65), 2016 (30), 2015 (20), 2014 (49)

If Vegas has betting odds on the next NC State DC, Gibson would have to be the favorite. First and foremost, he has the experience with modest to sometimes-great results, and secondly, he’s already on the coaching staff and under contract for next year.

By the way, if you’re wondering about that $200k salary figure above and wondering why the huge jump next season, there’s more to that story. Gibson was making $901k in his last season at West Virginia and was still under contract for the 2019 season at $950k when new WVU coach Neal Brown decided not to retain him as the DC (well, Gibson also wanted the head coaching job and didn’t get it, so there was probably something there, too). Gibson settled on a $750k buyout from WVU for 2019, so he took the job in Raleigh on the cheap knowing he was getting paid elsewhere to get that full $950k from his original WVU contract. His pay at State bumps up significantly in 2020 already, but probably even more so if he takes over the title of sole DC for the team. Then again, maybe not and this is the cheapest and easiest option for State.

I don’t really need to go into the particulars of State’s defensive numbers this year, but suffice it to say that outside of Sacks (T-18th), the numbers weren’t very good. However, despite holding the title of Co-DC, Gibson wasn’t the one calling the plays on gameday, and if we’re not going to hold that against Walters for Missouri’s results during his first two years there under similar circumstances, it’s not very fair to hold State’s 2019 defense against Gibson, either.

Here’s the rub, though. Despite a few very good seasons calling the defense for WVU, the overall SP+ Defense ranking average for Gibson during his five years in that role with the Mountaineers is just 48th. Compare that to the outgoing Dave Huxtable’s 51st average ranking over his seven years in Raleigh, and the DC you’re getting might not be that much different than the one you’re getting rid of. Gibson’s SP+ numbers at WVU really are remarkably similar to Huxtable’s at State.

Still, there’s the thought that with Gibson having sole control of the defense in all facets, the group may take a marked leap in performance under him without Huxtable around. Whether or not that’s true, who knows - and time will tell if, indeed, Gibson gets the full gig for himself.

There is one other thing working against Gibson here: Doeren already tried the promote-from-within thing last year with the open Offensive Coordinator position and that blew up horribly, so he might be a little shy to try it again. It also might not give him the “win” with that fan base that he’s looking for, given that Gibson is connected to the 2019 season.