As we all know by now, Todd Grantham was righteously fired from his post as Florida’s defensive coordinator. This was a decision that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, happened two years later than it probably should have. But, what’s done is done, and now it’s time to move toward the future.
And that means fairly soon, Florida head coach Dan Mullen will need to find a new defensive coordinator to take over for Todd Grantham and take the reins of the defense in 2022.
So: who should that be?
Here’s my list of the top ten candidates to do so.
1: Kevin Steele (unemployed- most recently Auburn DC)
For starters, Steele- who boasts a long history of working with linebackers, a position that Florida has been very weak at this season- is unemployed. That means no buyout, and no wrangling with a school that currently employs him to lure him away (although that could mean competition with other schools that have the same idea). Steele spent five years at Auburn; his final year (2020) wasn’t great, but before that his Tiger defense was pretty strong on a yearly basis, finishing 20th nationally in total defense in 2019 (323.9), 45th in 2018 (363.1), 14th in 2017 (312.3) and 20th in 2016 (348.4). Auburn also enjoyed strong rankings in the points per game category with Steele, never finishing worse than 17th nationally until his final season. He’s the safe pick with a high floor.
2: Dan Lanning (Georgia co-DC)
Whereas Steele was the safe pick with a high floor, Dan Lanning is the big gamble. He could be the greatest defensive coordinator in the game, or he could simply be taking more credit than he deserves for work that Kirby Smart does. We simply don’t know. He’s 35. If Lanning wants to make a real name for himself rather than be buried beneath Kirby Smart’s footprint, though, this is precisely the kind of job that would allow him to do so. Known as a great recruiter and a player’s coach, he’d be a huge asset to the Gators at a spot that was previously occupied by an anthropomorphic tumor. The problem will be luring him away from Athens to his current employer’s archrival. The solution to that problem? Throwing a lot of money his way. Even still, with all the money Georgia invests in recruiting, they can easily tack a few thousand dollars onto Lanning’s salary to solve for that. But that doesn’t mean you don’t make the call if you’re Florida.
3: Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame DC)
Why is Marcus Freeman, considered one of the top assistants and THE top defensive coordinator in college football, sitting at number three in my list of potential replacements for Todd Grantham? Well, it’s simple: because it’s likely a pipe dream. If he does accept the Florida DC job, he won’t be here for long. He’s on the Dave Aranda trajectory, and he’ll be a head coach before we know it. Which would put Florida right back in the same spot next year, looking for a new DC. Still- Freeman is tremendously respected in the industry, can recruit with the best of them, and has done nothing but churn out top 50 defenses at a school that seldom signs top defensive talent in Cincinnati. Which is why Notre Dame grabbed him. So even if Florida only gets one year out of Freeman, he’s such a proven commodity that it’s probably going to be worth it. Like with Lanning, though, Florida would probably have to offer a hefty sum of money to make it worth his while.
4: Doug Belk (Houston DC)
Belk is the dark horse option who, if he succeeds, could be in Gainesville for a long, long time. At just 33 years old, he’s already got the keys to the Houston Cougars’ defense- which as of this publication, currently sits at eighth in the nation in yards per game. Like the actual animals, his Cougars play fast, hungry, and aggressive, all of which must sound like music to Gator fans’ ears after the last four years. Belk also has the personal stamp of approval from Nick Saban, having worked for him for three years from 2014-16, and has proven to be successful away from Saban at both West Virginia as the DBs coach and now at Houston. Oh, and by the way, his players all love him. It certainly can’t hurt to give him a shot; at worst, he’ll recruit well and load the defense with talent that underwhelms, and at best, he’ll be a shining star. With lots of realistic room for his tenure to fall somewhere in between.
5: Travaris Robinson (Miami DBs coach)
Known affectionately as T-Rob, the Gators have a real backstory with Robinson. Once upon a time, Will Muschamp employed him as his DBs coach, where players and fans alike loved him. Rumor has it that he actually interviewed with Florida to be the DBs coach last year, but then he met Todd Grantham and that was the end of that. His DBs are known for playing fundamentally sound ball and he’s a hell of a recruiter, two things Florida has sorely missed other than the game tape from Jason Marshall and Kaiir Elam when he’s been healthy. And although yes, a half decade has elapsed since his departure, he’s still just 40 and still very good at relating to players. Don’t necessarily call him a grand slam hire into the upper deck because of the step up this would be, but he’s a clean line drive five rows into the left field bleachers.
6: Gene Chizik (unemployed; most recently North Carolina DC)
Chizik is probably best known for being a one-hit wonder at Auburn with Cam Newton in 2010, but what people may not know is that he’s a Gator. That’s right- he played linebacker at Florida for one lone season, in 1981. He currently has a nice cushy job talking football on the SEC Network, but has hinted that he would come back to coaching if the right opportunity presented itself. And what opportunity could feel more right than one at his alma mater? Thing is, he was one of the hottest commodities in football back in 2004 when he won the Broyles Award at Auburn, but it’s nearly twenty years later now and he hasn’t coached at all since 2016. So there’s the question of how much ooomph he can put into this job. But if he’ll throw his heart into any school, it’s Florida.
7: Mike Tressel (Cincinnati DC)
It’s hard to know for sure how much of Cincinnati’s success defensively is due to Tressel, or his predecessor- the aforementioned Marcus Freeman, who’s now at Notre Dame. But Tressel- yes, the son of now disgraced ex-Ohio State coach Jim Tressell- is nobody’s idiot. He spent over a decade and a half cutting his teeth in the defense-first Big Ten, first as a GA for Ohio State in 2002 and 2003 and then for fourteen years as an assistant with various roles and titles at Michigan State. Now he’s stepped in for Freeman and his Bearcats haven’t missed a beat. There are plenty of safer and higher-ceiling hires available, and there’s an obvious question mark that comes with trying to transplant a Big Ten guy into the SEC- hence why he’s number seven on this list- but Tressel could probably slide into the Florida DC role, take advantage of how easy it is to recruit talent there, and do fine.
8: Charlie Strong (Jacksonville Jaguars AHC/LBs coach)
Come on, it’s Charlie. He spent nearly a decade building the Gator defense into an absolute dynasty, and helped Urban Meyer win two national championships. The flame-outs at Texas and South Florida do raise red flags- until you remember that he doesn’t have to be a head coach here. He just has to tag-team it with Dan Mullen a little bit, do some recruiting and coach the X’s and O’s. Yes, there are NCAA sanctions to deal with, but they’re minimal. And yes, quite some time has elapsed since he’s produced to a degree that’s acceptable by Florida’s standards, but then again he did it every year at Florida from 2003-09. Getting the old band back together from those 2006 and 2008 national title teams alone is an excellent recruiting pitch. “Hey, you remember watching those two national championships Florida won in its heyday? Well, guess what. Both coordinators from that team are sitting right here in your living room.”
9: Chris Ash (Jacksonville Jaguars safeties coach)
Ash is a weird candidate to figure out. His stock was sky-high as the Ohio State DC in 2014 and 2015, but then he went to the coaching graveyard in Piscataway known as Rutgers and torpedoed that. Now he’s trying to rebrand himself as a guy with NFL experience who just happens to know how to recruit and coach defenses at the college level. It could work, especially if he seizes the opportunity to mine all the treasure troves of high school talent in the state of Florida, but for a guy with just one lone year of experience in the SEC (Arkansas DC in 2013), the Gators should go after other options first. If all else fails, though, he’s still an appreciable upgrade from Todd Grantham.
10: Christian Robinson (Florida LBs coach)
The initial reaction most Florida fans probably have to promoting C-Rob to the role of defensive coordinator upon the departure of Todd Grantham is probably a resounding HELL NO. Yes, I know, the linebacker play this year has been horrid. But before you discard him out of hand, consider this: the players love him. That goes a long way toward wringing production out of a defensive unit that has openly not cared for its previous czar. And he used to be known as a good recruiter. Can he regain that label from those who follow the sport, now that he’s finally free from the shackles of Todd Grantham for the first time? Maybe. There’s a reason why nine guys sit ahead of him on this list- it’s a huge risk. But there’s also a reason why he appears on this list at all- and it’s the same reason why Florida promoted him to interim DC for the duration of the season. If Florida’s defense looks just as helpless these last three games with him at the controls, I reserve the right to strike him off the list completely. But if this defense takes steps forward in the “they look like they know what they’re doing” department and play with a renewed fire, I could see this being the move- and not a bad one at all.