Notre Dame defensive coordinator candidates: 7 names to know as Marcus Freeman pursues a key hire

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Notre Dame defensive coordinator candidates: 7 names to know as Marcus Freeman pursues a key hire

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman spent last Friday in Florida because there are no coincidences in major college football recruiting. Notre Dame’s head coach visited Columbus High School to see running back commitment Sedrick Irvin Jr. And while Freeman maneuvered around South Florida, recruiting assistant Chad Bowden worked in Tampa, checking on defensive end Keon Keeley at Berkeley Prep.

The stops were an acknowledgement of what had just happened to Notre Dame’s coaching staff and a preview of what was to come. On Thursday, defensive line coach Mike Elston bolted for Michigan, a move that had been in the works for more than a week. Then on Sunday morning, running backs coach Lance Taylor left Notre Dame for the offensive coordinator post at Louisville, which was in the water late last week.

Freeman was covering his recruiting bases on Friday. Then on Sunday, just as the Irish were losing one coach, Notre Dame added another when Al Washington joined the staff as the defensive line coach after being let go by Ohio State last week. Notre Dame still needs a running backs coach to replace Taylor, with plenty of Big Ten candidates in play. But the remaining hire that matters most to Notre Dame is defensive coordinator, a move where Freeman has been meticulous in his research.

Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock interviewed for the position last week, but he wanted to teach defense differently than Freeman wanted it taught. The two shared a philosophy in scheme, but Heacock doesn’t coach a singular position with the Cyclones, instead floating around the defense. Freeman wanted his coordinator locked into one position, not that it needed to be linebackers.

With Heacock off the board, there are at least seven candidates for the defensive coordinator post at Notre Dame, according to sources, with various levels of interest. Don’t look for Notre Dame to rush the defensive coordinator hire, and expect Freeman to value experience in the post. Here are the names to know (in alphabetical order) as Notre Dame moves forward with its defensive coordinator search, which may need more time to resolve itself.

Doug Belk, Houston defensive coordinator

Belk has just one season of full defensive coordinator experience on his resume, but it was a strong debut at Houston after a couple of seasons as co-defensive coordinator following his arrival from West Virginia, where Belk coached cornerbacks. Houston led the nation in third down conversion defense (25.7 percent). For the sake of comparison, Notre Dame finished No. 10 in third down defense (32.2 percent). Houston also finished No. 6 in sacks, No. 14 in yards per play allowed, No. 19 in scoring defense and No. 25 in turnovers forced. Belk coached safeties at Houston, and his hire would likely send Chris O’Leary back to the linebackers after his first season as safeties coach. O’Leary helped with the Rover position in 2020. Belk is a Georgia native, and his best resume line might be three seasons as a graduate assistant at Alabama (2014-16). He is a riser in college coaching, but with a young defensive staff already assembled, that might not be the route Notre Dame wants to go.

Tony Gibson, NC State defensive coordinator

Gibson has eight seasons of defensive coordinator experience, spread between West Virginia (2013-18) and NC State (2019-21). He also spent three seasons at Michigan (2008-10) coaching defensive backs and special teams. He has coached both linebackers and safeties during his career, which would create some flexibility in South Bend. NC State’s defense was outstanding last season, finishing third in third down defense, 14th in scoring defense, 16th in yards per play allowed and 42nd in sacks. The Wolfpack were torched by Wake Forest in a 45-42 loss despite allowing a reasonable 406 yards in that game and forcing three turnovers. Gibson’s experience navigating the ACC for the past three seasons would be a fringe benefit for Notre Dame moving forward. He might not be a high-profile hire, but he’s had a strong decade at the Power 5 level and experience in different formations.

Al Golden, Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach

The 52-year old Golden has been around the coaching block as both a head coach and an assistant, coaching both offense and defense, working in college and the NFL. He has spent the past two seasons as the linebackers coach for the Bengals, preceded by a stop with the Detroit Lions. Although position coaches don’t get much credit (or blame) for an NFL organization’s record, of Golden’s six seasons in the NFL since being fired as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, he’s been part of just one winning season. Golden’s head coaching tenures at Miami and Temple are more indicative of what he’d bring to Notre Dame. His five seasons with the Hurricanes were mediocre at 32-25 overall without a bowl win. At Temple, he went from 1-11 in his first season to 9-4 and 8-4 in his final two years. Golden’s last stint as a defensive coordinator was at Virginia (2001-05), which predates modern college offenses by a generation.

Tem Lukabu, Boston College defensive coordinator

With just two seasons of defensive coordinator experience working for a defensive-minded head coach, Lukabu may be more of a longshot than other names on this list. But the linebackers coach by trade is well-regarded in college coaching circles and may be in line for an elevation in the coming seasons. Would Notre Dame be that spot today? Maybe not, but the 40-year-old Colgate graduate who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a name worth remembering. Boston College was solid in most defensive categories last season and played almost the entire year without injured starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec. The Eagles finished 27th in third down conversion defense and 31st in scoring defense. Lukabu (pronounced LUKE-uh-boo) is scheduled to be in South Bend next November when Boston College arrives for the Irish home finale.

Derek Mason, Auburn defensive coordinator

The 52-year-old Mason has an impeccable resume, holding his first defensive coordinator post at Stanford in 2012 and ’13 after two years coaching Cardinal defensive backs. His seven-year run as Vanderbilt’s head coach wasn’t a total failure ­— it included a near-win at Notre Dame in 2018 — although his firing led to Clark Lea’s arrival as head coach. Mason spent last season as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, fielding a respectable defense during a tumultuous campaign in which head coach Bryan Harsin appeared potentially out of his depth as the Tigers collapsed to finish 6-7 on a five-game losing streak. Auburn’s defense was solid in third down conversions, yards per play allowed, scoring defense and sacks but wasn’t spectacular in anything, finishing in the top half of the FBS in everything but in the top 25 in nothing. The Tigers were also very poor when it came to turnovers, forcing just 12 all season. In terms of a body of work that could complement the youth of Marcus Freeman and the defensive staff, Mason stands out.

Phil Parker, Iowa defensive coordinator

Parker just finished his 22nd season at Iowa, all spent coaching defensive backs. He has been the defensive coordinator for Kirk Ferentz for the past nine seasons, with Iowa producing some of college football’s better defenses when it comes to producing takeaways and playing above their talent level. The Hawkeyes finished third nationally in takeaways forced last season with 31. In the past five seasons, they have forced 123 turnovers, which sits among the most in college football. Notre Dame isn’t far off that lead pack, with 111 turnovers forced in that same span. If the Irish got Parker to leave Iowa City, it would likely lead to Chris O’Leary shifting to linebackers and Parker taking over the safety spot. If Freeman is focused on getting both the best candidate and someone who elevates his defense above its talent level, Parker would be an excellent choice.

Joe Rossi, Minnesota defensive coordinator

The 42-year-old Rossi is on the younger side among the candidates on this list and has just three seasons of experience as defensive coordinator, all under P.J. Fleck at Minnesota. Last year the Gophers finished No. 12 nationally in yards per play allowed, No. 6 in scoring defense and No. 28 in third down conversions allowed. Rossi is a graduate of Pittsburgh Central Catholic, which produced former Irish defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and his younger brother Donovan, an incoming freshman. Rossi coaches linebackers, meaning his hire wouldn’t prompt a reshuffling of duties for the rest of the defensive staff. Minnesota’s defense allowed more than three touchdowns in a game just one last season, when it allowed four in a season-opening loss to Ohio State (the Buckeyes also scored a defensive touchdown in the 45-31 win). Experience isn’t a strong suit for Rossi, but he has quickly developed a track record of defenses that play above their talent level.

(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)