Just before kickoff of the Egg Bowl on Saturday, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack announced that he was retiring at the conclusion of the 2016 season. The end of the season came a few hours later after Wommack’s defense gave up 48 points and 566 yards of offense, ending the Rebels’ hopes at a bowl berth.
Wommack has been with Hugh Freeze since his arrival in Oxford and enjoyed big-time success in the early years, but oversaw a unit that slipped in 2015 and cratered in 2016. Crippled by key injuries, years of recruiting negligence at the linebacker position and the inability to fix schematic problems, the Ole Miss defense finished this season ranked 77th in defensive S&P+, 63rd in efficiency and 107th in explosiveness.
Freeze is now tasked with hiring a replacement that can right the ship. Will he make the bland, familiar hires that he used to stock his staff in 2012? Will he be aggressive in pursing a big money, proven commodity? Or will the looming NCAA investigation force him to take a risk on a young, unproven assistant hungry for a shot in the SEC?
Here’s a list of potential candidates, listed in no particular order.
Indiana defensive coordinator
Allen was named the Hoosiers’ head coach Thursday afternoon after IU abruptly fired Kevin Wilson. A longtime assistant to Freeze who coached alongside him at Lambuth, Arkansas State and Ole Miss, Allen went on to rebuild defenses at USF and Indiana. He may well have been Freeze’s top target, and his surprise promotion throws a wrench into the Rebels’ plans.
Former head coach at Fresno State
DeRuyter’s time as a head coach in Fresno was inconsistent—he won two Mountain West titles but went a combined 30-30 overall. His track record as a defensive coordinator, however, is impressive. Before taking over Fresno State in 2012, he was the defensive coordinator at Ohio, Nevada, Air Force and Texas A&M, showing the ability to turn a defense around quickly at all of those stops.
When DeRuyter took over at Ohio in 2002, he jumped them from 99th in total defense to 22nd. He then moved to Nevada, where he orchestrated a jump from 78th in total defense to 48th in just two years. He then took Air Force from 78th to 10th in scoring defense and from 78th to 11th in total defense. In 2010, he jumped A&M from 104th in scoring defense to 21st in one year.
Would Freeze roll the dice and try and bring him back to the SEC to revamp the Landsharks?
West Virginia defensive coordinator
Speaking of rolling the dice, Gibson is another under-the-radar candidate. He’s been Dana Holgersen’s DC since 2013 and also coaches linebackers, which we all know is desperately needed in Oxford. He’s particularly intriguing because he comes from the pass-happy Big 12. The SEC offensive landscape appears to be heading gradually in that direction.
In 2015, Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense was second nationally in interceptions, fifth in turnovers gained, eighth in opponent three and outs, 11th in opponent third down defense and 15th in turnover margin. He had four defensive players drafted in the 2016 NFL Draft and helped guide middle linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski to a First Team All-American selection.
It would probably take a lucrative deal to pry Gibson out of Morgantown.
Wake Forest defensive coordinator
Elko is regarded as one of the most talented young coaches in the ACC. He’s spent time as an assistant at Fordham, Richmond, Hofstra, Bowling Green and now Wake Forest. He is similar to Gibson in that he’s enjoyed success in a conference that runs a lot of spread concepts on offense.
Elko spent five seasons at Bowling Green and had some impressive units, including a 2012 bunch that finished sixth in the country in total defense and 10th in scoring. He showed up at Wake in 2014 and coached a group that finished 12th in pass defense and was a top 40 unit in total defense. And did I mention he coaches safeties? Yeah, that unit that struggled mightily this season In Oxford.
Auburn co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach
McGriff is another former Freeze staffer who is in the running for the gig. He coached defensive backs for Ole Miss in 2012, helping Trae Elston become an SEC All-Freshman selection. He was even more impressive on the recruiting trail, playing an instrumental role in the signings of Tony Conner, Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell.
After leaving Ole Miss, McGriff spent time as an NFL defensive backs coach with the Saints. In 2009 with Miami, he coached All-America defensive back Brandon Harris and future NFL players Kenny Phillips and Sam Shields. He coached current San Diego Charger Casey Hayward at Vanderbilt in 2011, a year the Commodores’ secondary snagged 12 interceptions.
The obvious drawback is that McGriff has never served as a defensive coordinator. Would Freeze roll the dice in order to bring in an ace recruiter?
Former head coach at Texas
The recently fired Strong is a long shot, but Freeze has to at least make the call. It would be an absolute homerun of a hire. The man knows defense and everyone knows he knows defense. He’s an absolute monster on the recruiting trail and kids want to play for him. It might serve Charlie well to take a break from head coaching and coordinate again for a few years in order to build his rep back up.
Question is, would he want to do it in Oxford?
Before he was struggling to win games in the Big 12, Strong was destroying the SEC with his defenses at Florida. In 2006, the Gators were sixth in both total defense and scoring defense and won the national title. His ninth-ranked defense in 2008 led the Gators to another national title.
After leaving Florida, Strong became the head coach at Louisville, where he immediately jumped the Cardinals from 65th to 14th in total defense. His 2013 team went 12-1 record and led the nation in total defense and—this should be intriguing for Rebel fans—rush defense.
North Carolina defensive coordinator
Chizik is a household name with a hell of resume and has been at the controls for several top flight defenses throughout his career, including Auburn, Central Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
His rise started in Orlando as a defensive coordinator at UCF, where he was often a visitor at Tampa Bay Bucs practices and learned a ton from Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin and Lovie Smith. That helped him take the Golden Knights from 81st to 16th in total defense in 2001 and eventually make the move to Texas, where he oversaw a defense that helped win the 2005 national title. After taking the head job at Auburn, his 2010 championship defense was first in scoring defense and fifth in total defense.
After tasting the success as a head coach and spending the last year as second in command at UNC, however, its doubtful that Chizik would be interested in a lateral move back to the SEC. Head coach Larry Fedora’s name has been floating around during this year’s coaching carousel and many think that Chizik could be the heir apparent in Chapel Hill.
Alabama co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach
It’s no secret that Alabama’s linebackers are very good, so bringing in someone who has been hands on with that position is not the worst idea. Last year’s team recorded more sacks than any other Crimson Tide team in the Nick Saban era, and Lupoi’s outside linebackers notched 22.5 by themselves. That group included 2016 All-American candidate Tim Williams.
The main reason Lupoi’s name has popped up on the list, however, is his recruiting chops. While at Cal, Lupoi was named Rivals Recruiter of the Year in 2010 and helped the Bears sign the No. 11 class in 2011 and No. 14 in 2010. He also coached NFL first-round picks Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu.
The biggest hurdle for Freeze and Ole Miss to overcome is Saban and Bama. Would Lupoi leave Tuscaloosa for Oxford when he could very well be the guy who replaces Jeremy Pruitt at defensive coordinator?