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Get To Know Your New Coaching Staff: Charlie Harbison

The Tiger defensive secondary was a massive strength in 2019 (minus aggressive penalties) but will be breaking in some new faces and getting coached by two guys with similar titles. Let’s meet the newest one of that duo.

Meet Charlie. He’s a pretty cool guy! He graduated from Gardner-Webb in 1982 and immediately became a football coach. In fact, he has 37 years of coaching experience, from the high school ranks, through FCS, to the G5 level, and then the P5, with almost every school at those stops being in the southeast. I’ll prove it! Here you go:

Coach Harbison’s Coaching History

Harbison’s official title is Defensive Backs Coach while David Gibbs’ official title is Secondary Coach. You might think to yourself that a defensive backs coach and a secondary coach sound like the same damn thing and...I would completely agree with you. However, in the 4-2-5 schematic there are two corners and three safeties in the base set so I suppose it could mean that each coach is in charge of one of those positions. Why wouldn’t you call one a cornerbacks coach and the other a safeties coach? Good question! I have no idea.

Charlie Harbison’s Link to the rest of the staff

  • Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties Coach at Auburn with Erik Link and Casey Woods at Auburn in 2013-2014
  • Defensive Backs coach with Eli Drinkwitz, Erik Link, and D.J. Smith at Appalachian State

Is he good at what he does?

Harbison has been a coach for a long time. SP+ has been around since 2005 and since that’s the best measure for evaluating football teams (and my personal fave) I’m limiting the analysis of Harbison’s history to 2005 forward. Again, going back that far means that all the quality metrics that have been created aren’t always available so I’ll do my best to give enough info on each year so you can see how Harbison’s guys have performed. Since Harbison didn’t move back to the defensive side of the ball until he was hired at Mississippi State in ‘07, we’ll start there, at the chaos year of 2007!

Mississippi State Defense 2007 - 23rd - Safeties Coach

  • Passes Defensed: 29
  • Interceptions: 18
  • Keith Fitzhugh (JR): 58 tackles/5.5 TFLs/1 sack/2 INTs
  • Derek Pegues (JR): 50 tackles/2 TFLs/5 INTs

Mississippi State Defense 2008 - 51st - Defensive Coordinator/Safeties

  • Passes Defensed: 36
  • Interceptions: 8
  • Keith Fitzhugh (SR): 50 tackles/2.5 TFLs/1 sack/2 INTs
  • Derek Pegues (SR): 50 tackles/0.5 TFLs/2 INTs

Two years at Starkville yielded mixed results. His starting safeties in both years were excellent but the defense regressed in ‘08 when he took over. Granted, the Bulldogs were starting over on the defensive line that year so that might have played part of it, as well as the fact that it was the last year of the Sylvester Croom regime that had clearly started fading before Harbison took over.

Clemson Defense 2009 - 13th - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs

  • Passes Defensed: 33
  • Interceptions: 20
  • DeAndre McDaniel (JR): 98 tackles/6.5 TFLs/2 sacks/8 (!) INTs
  • Marcus Gilchrist (JR): 96 tackles/3 TFLs/1 sack

Clemson Defense 2010 - 3rd - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs

  • Rushing Defense: 3rd
  • Passing Defense: 49th
  • Standard Downs Defense: 15th
  • Passing Downs Defense: 34th
  • DeAndre McDaniel (SR): 76 tackles/5.5 TFLs/4 INTs
  • Rashard Hall (SO): 62 tackles/1 TFL/2 INTs/2 PDs

Clemson Defense 2011 - 69th - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs

  • Rushing Defense: 82nd
  • Passing Defense: 65th
  • Standard Downs Defense: 80th
  • Passing Downs Defense: 31st
  • Rashard Hall (JR): 73.5 tackles/3 TFLs/1 sack/2 INTs/1 PD/1 FF
  • Jonathan Meeks (JR): 53 tackles/1 TFL/3 INTs/5 PDs/1 FF

Clemson Defense 2012 - 47th - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs

  • Rushing Defense: 55th
  • Passing Defense: 95th
  • Standard Downs Defense: 80th
  • Passing Downs Defense: 86th
  • Rashard Hall (SR): 72.5 tackles/3.5 TFLs/4 INTs/4 PDs/1 FF
  • Jonathan Meeks (SR): 54.5 tackles/1 TFL/2 INTs/5 PDs

Harbison was co-coordinator with current Auburn DC Kevin Steele from ‘09-’11, Dabo Swinney’s first years in charge of the Clemson program. The first two years were great in overall SP+ rating but 2012 was a mess and the passing defense was never a strength. Much like Missouri, Clemson preferred to field an elite defensive line that could rush the passer and leave the defensive backs with rushed passes that were easier to pick off. When it worked, it was awesome, and when it didn’t...well, go on YouTube and watch the 2011 West Virginia Mountaineers plant 70 point on the hapless Tiger defense.

Auburn Defense 2013 - 45th - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties

  • Rushing Defense: 36th
  • Passing Defense: 19th
  • Standard Downs Defense: 49th
  • Passing Downs Defense: 3rd
  • Ryan Smith (SR): 56 tackles/0.5 TFLs/3 INTs/4 PDs/1 FF
  • Jermaine Whitehead (JR): 54.5 tackles/2.5 TFLs/2 INTs/6 PDs

Auburn Defense 2014 - 34th - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties

  • Rushing Defense: 23rd
  • Passing Defense: 59th
  • Standard Downs Defense: 43rd
  • Passing Downs Defense: 29th
  • Johnathan Ford (SO): 77.5 tackles/2.5 TFLs/0.5 sacks/3 INTs/1 PD/1 FF
  • Joshua Holsey (JR): 38.5 tackles/2 PDs

Two years at Auburn featured Coach Harbison improving the Tiger defense in both years while fielding an excellent passing defense in ‘13 and a more mediocre version in ‘14. That was, in part, to Auburn’s defensive line starting over (notice a trend, here?) and a brand new secondary littered with JUCO transfers. That he improved overall is good but from the “he’s coaching our secondary” standpoint it’s not the best to see here, especially with the lofty recruiting rankings Auburn gets to play with every year.

Louisiana-Lafayette Defense 2015 - 92nd - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Outside Linebackers

  • Rushing Defense: 91st
  • Passing Defense: 93rd
  • Standard Downs Defense: 71st
  • Passing Downs Defense: 113th
  • Dominique Tovell (SR): 65.5 tackles/14.5 TFLs/7 sacks/3 PDs/2 FFs
  • Trey Granier (JR): 23.5 tackles/4 TFLs

Louisiana-Lafayette Defense 2016 - 76th - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs

  • Rushing Defense: 34th
  • Passing Defense: 105th
  • Standard Downs Defense: 65th
  • Passing Downs Defense: 103rd
  • Travis Crawford (JR): 57 tackles/1 TFL/1 INT/2 PDs
  • Tracy Walker (JR): 45.5 tackles/2.5 TFLs/3 INTs/3 PDs

Louisiana-Lafayette Defense 2017 - 129th - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs

  • Rushing Defense: 129th
  • Passing Defense: 125th
  • Standard Downs Defense: 130th
  • Passing Downs Defense: 116th
  • Tracy Walker (SR): 79.5 tackles/3.5 TFLs/0.5 sacks/2 INTs/6 PDs
  • Corey Turner (JR): 55.5 tackles/6 TFLs/1 sack/1 INT/3 PDs

And then we get to the worse part. Harbison joined head coach Mark Hudspeth’s Ragin’ Cajuns after they had hit their high point. Hud was courted by a lot of programs after the booming success of 2014 and could never get that same magic back. ULL tends to recruit near the bottom nationally but middle of the pack from a Sun Belt standpoint and...well, the Cajun defense was just never that great. When you have equal (or better) talent than your conference peers you’d like to see a little better performance than, ya know, bottom five in the country. And while Harbison did have a tiny overall improvement in his second year (in charge of the defense (thanks to an excellent defensive line) the Cajuns were still awful at defending the pass. Once Hud was fired at the end of the 2017 season Harbison jumped to the NFL and coached defensive backs for the Arizona Cardinals for a year.

Appalachian State Defense 2019 - 37th - Cornerbacks

  • Passing Defense: 72nd
  • Passing Success Rate Defense: 38th
  • Passing Efficiency Defense: 53rd
  • Passing Explosiveness Defense: 70th
  • Passing Downs Defense: 32nd
  • Shemar Jean-Charles (JR): 37.5 tackles/1 INT/9 PDs/1 FF
  • Shaun Jolly (SO): 36.5 tackles/3.5 TFLs/5 INTs/8 PDs/1 FF

And now we get to last year. As mentioned multiple times over in this series, App State is a Top 3 Group of 5 program and far-and-away the best team in the Sun Belt. Because of that, they are expected to contend for, and win, the conference every year and field units that are equivalent to a mid-tier Power 5 program. And they did! The passing defense wasn’t super great, especially given the fact that nearly the entire defensive secondary were seniors. They were, at least, excellent at stopping offense in passing downs situations but were wholly mediocre in most passing stats.

Once again, your TL;DR version:

Pros

  • LOTS of experience
  • Worked with Drinkwitz before
  • Incredibly familiar with the programs and recruits in the southeast

Cons

  • Has only field a few good secondaries, never elite
  • Believes that you can coach turnovers :(
  • Has yet to demonstrate an ability to coach his players above their recruiting rankings

Conclusion

Can it work? Absolutely. Is there anything in his past that provides evidence to him making the secondary better? Not necessarily. With elite recruits at Clemson and Auburn he did alright but at Mississippi State (a Missouri peer, mind you) and Louisiana-Lafayette the secondaries were merely fine. Ryan Walters has coached the safeties in previous years, so as long as Harbison can take that same track/approach I’ll feel good about his impact over the next few years.