Around The SEC

SEC defenses rush for new blood

John Chavis left LSU to resurrect Texas A&M’s defense, which surrendered a league-worst 450.8 yards per game last year.
John Chavis left LSU to resurrect Texas A&M’s defense, which surrendered a league-worst 450.8 yards per game last year. USA TODAY Sports

Offensive statistics have escalated across the country. It’s become an arms race of who can stockpile more skill-position players and who can put up the biggest numbers.

It was still unacceptable for SEC defenses.

Eight of the league’s 14 teams changed defensive coordinators since 2014 concluded, some because the former coordinators went to new places – others because performances demanded it. Five of the bottom six teams in total defense brought in new DCs, while the SEC’s top defense, LSU, had to replace its guru after Texas A&M poached him.

John “Chief” Chavis left the Tigers to resurrect the Aggies’ defense, which surrendered a league-worst 450.8 yards per game last year. Mississippi State’s Geoff Collins, whose unit finished 12th with 424.4 yards per game given up, went to Florida under new coach Jim McElwain. McElwain’s predecessor, Will Muschamp, headed to Auburn after Ellis Johnson was pink-slipped and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, a defensive mind as a Stanford assistant, decided to take over the Commodores’ D in addition to his head coaching duties.

“We just kind of passed them around,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said at SEC Media Days. “A lot of them just have new shirts and new hats.”

Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M finished as the bottom three defenses in the league and made changes – A&M the most aggressive by luring Chavis. The Dillon native had been at LSU for six seasons, but his tenure ended with an ongoing divorce.

Coach Les Miles said what he was supposed to at Media Days, crediting Chavis’ work (the Tigers allowed a mere 316.8 yards and 17.5 points per game last year) but assuring his fans that LSU’s defense would continue to shine. Kevin Steele, a defensive coordinator at Clemson before resurfacing as Alabama’s linebackers coach, was hired to Tigers’ defense.

“What I’m saying is that we would expect that that talent would continue and that we would have great defense, period,” Miles said.

The Gamecocks brought in a Steve Spurrier colleague, Jon Hoke, to rebuild a unit that had been very strong until 2014. USC sunk to 13th in total defense last year with 432.7 yards per game, three times frittering away two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter.

Muschamp was a hot commodity after his coaching gig at Florida imploded. There was never any question he could coach defense – the Gators were fifth last year – and the Tigers won the sweepstakes.

“I went and visited with him one night late in Gainesville, and just kind of tried to sell him on the standpoint of putting our offense together with his defense,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s been a breath of fresh air for our program.”

Linebacker Kris Frost mimicked his coach. “We feel like we have a new breath of life in us,” he said. “Everything is so positive. I’ve never seen anything so positive before.”

MSU replaced Collins with Manny Diaz, who also worked at MSU in 2010. Considered one of the game’s brightest minds, Diaz had a bad experience at Texas before re-discovering himself at Louisiana Tech.

“Manny did an excellent job for us,” Dan Mullen said. “Obviously, he came back to a much different program now. We both understand each other’s expectations.”

Missouri hired Barry Odom after Dave Steckel left for a head coaching position at Missouri State. Tennessee and Kentucky were the only teams that finished in the league’s bottom seven in total defense to not make a change.

It might take a while for each new defensive coordinator to make his mark, with every SEC offense other than Vanderbilt averaging at least 367 yards and 27.6 points per game last year. But none of the eight teams that made a change could watch their defenses be thrashed any longer.

“I didn’t kind of. That’s exactly what I did,” Sumlin quipped after being asked if he kind of thought, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” after Chavis’ defense had squashed his offense for three straight years. “He was ready for a new challenge, and we were in the market.”

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Eight SEC teams made changes in their defensive coordinators since last season.


Auburn Ellis JohnsonWill Muschamp

Florida D.J. DurkinGeoff Collins

LSU John ChavisKevin Steele

Mississippi State Geoff CollinsManny Diaz

Missouri Dave SteckelBarry Odom

South Carolina Lorenzo WardJon Hoke

Texas A&M Mark SnyderJohn Chavis

Vanderbilt David KotulskiDerek Mason

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