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  • Ohio State's hiring of Kevin Wilson and Oregon's addition of Jim Leavitt were some of the top coordinator hires this off-season.
By Colin Becht
February 28, 2017

We spend a lot of time in the off-season analyzing the head coaching hires, and with good reason. Nothing can change a program’s fortunes quicker or more sharply than hiring the right (or wrong) head coach.

But that tunnel vision of the top man ignores the essential work of finding the right coordinators. Consider the impact Tom Herman had as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator before landing a head coaching job at Houston. Or Kirby Smart’s legacy of staunch defenses that helped created Alabama’s dynasty. Or Brent Venables’s consistently elite work at Clemson that finally paved the way to the Tigers’ national title this season.

Even for the very best coaches in the country, like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, finding the right coordinators is a critical step to winning championships. Here are the 10 best coordinator hires of the 2016–17 off-season.

Will this be an effective move? Possibly. Will it be exciting? Absolutely. Spavital, who spent last season at Cal, reunites with head coach Dana Holgorsen after working him at Houston, Oklahoma State and an earlier stint at West Virginia. Holgorsen’s Air Raid offenses have already been fun to watch, as have Spavital’s attacks at Texas A&M and Cal. And, as FOX Sports’s Bruce Feldman noted, the combination of them with offensive line coach Joe Wickline has been pretty prodigious in the past.

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After five seasons as a head coach at Fresno State, DeRuyter returns to defensive coordinator, a role in which he excelled at Texas A&M. The Aggies ranked 18th in the country and third in the Big 12 in yards allowed per play in 2010 and improved the next year to 14th in the nation and second in the conference. DeRuyter also helped develop Von Miller into the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Lowering the bar momentarily, this is also a good move because Cal’s defense simply can’t get much worse. The Bears allowed 6.71 yards per play last season, seventh worst in the country, and gave up 42.6 points per game, second worst.

 

After helping snap a bowl drought at Wake Forest (four years), Elko will now try to use his defensive prowess to end Notre Dame’s (one year). He brings an aggressive style that helped the Demon Deacons rank 11th in sacks per game (3.15) and tied for 10th in takeaways (27) last season. His multiple packages should allow him to adapt to the Fighting Irish and help them make quick progress after a season in which defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired following just four games.

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It wasn’t enough to save Charlie Strong’s job at Texas, but Gilbert’s hire was still a positive move for the Longhorns in 2016. With Gilbert and star running back D’Onta Foreman, Texas put together a solid offense for most of the season until the bottom fell out in losses to Kansas and TCU to close the year. Gilbert now gets the much simpler task of maintaining an already potent offense at South Florida, where he’ll get to work with star quarterback Quinton Flowers and several other key pieces from an attack that averaged 7.17 yards per play in 2016.

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Bringing in Diaco and his 3–4 defense was a fantastic move to jumpstart a Nebraska defense that has yet to put together a dominant season since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. Diaco won the Broyles Award in 2012 for his work at Notre Dame, where he guided one of the top defenses in country as the Fighting Irish made a run to the BCS championship game. Although his three-season tenure as UConn’s head coach was lackluster, the Huskies’ defense was hardly the main issue.

Once Orlando didn’t get the Houston head coaching job (the Cougars promoted offensive coordinator Major Applewhite instead), he was a natural fit to follow Tom Herman to Texas. Herman garnered plenty of acclaim for his work with Greg Ward Jr. and the Cougars’ offense, but Orlando’s work with the defense was equally praiseworthy. He stymied Oklahoma and Louisville for Houston’s two marquee wins last season, including a dominant 11-sack performance against the Cardinals and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Texas’s defense regressed under Charlie Strong, so while the quarterback position will draw plenty of attention this spring, Orlando’s unit may be more pivotal one to a quick turnaround.

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What a whirlwind of a year it’s been for Canada, who went from getting fired as NC State’s offensive coordinator to taking over Pittsburgh’s attack to joining Ed Orgeron’s staff. Canada earned his rapid raise by improving Pitt from 56th in yards per play to 13th and setting a school record for points in a season (532). Although he wasn’t the Tigers first choice (Lane Kiffin), Canada is a solid fit because he can adapt his versatile attack to fit LSU’s strengths.

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Leavitt deserves a big percentage of the credit for Colorado’s stunning rise from the Pac-12 cellar to the conference title game. In his two seasons with the Buffaloes, he took them from 5.72 yards allowed per play (83rd in the country) to 4.87 (16th in the country and third in the Pac-12), an effort that made Leavitt a finalist for the Broyles Award. It’ll take a similar effort fix Oregon’s defense, which plummeted to 115th in the country this season under Brady Hoke.

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Among the most surprising moves of the off-season, Meacham’s hiring at Kansas was a major coup for the Jayhawks and coach David Beaty. Meacham was a Broyles Award finalist in 2014 at TCU, and while the Horned Frogs to a step back this season without quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson, they still averaged 6.08 yards per play. That’d be a massive improvement over Kansas’s 4.96. Meacham will have to adjust to lower talent level, but it’s worth remembering that Boykin was a part-time wide receiver the year before Meacham arrived in Fort Worth.

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Wilson’s departure from Indiana was unexpected and raised questions about his treatment of his players. However, his credentials as an offensive mind are indisputable. Wilson’s offenses at Indiana consistently put up big numbers, including 6.58 yards per play in 2013 and 6.23 in 2015. He built his reputation guiding potent attacks at Oklahoma, where he won a Broyles Award in 2008. The Buckeyes have struggled to replicate the production they had under Tom Herman. We’ll see if Wilson is the man to get them back on track.

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