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A closer look at the candidates to become Missouri’s next defensive coordinator

FootballScoop reported four candidates who could be Mizzou’s next defensive coordinator. Let’s take a closer look at this pool of candidates.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, some real information on who Missouri’s next defensive coordinator could be. FootballScoop reported Thursday morning that it knows of at least four candidates who are currently under consideration to become Eli Drinkwitz’s next defensive coordinator.

A handful of names have emerged among the candidates for the job on Drinkwitz’s staff, sources have told FootballScoop.

Among them: Alabama’s Charles Kelly, Cleveland Browns assistant Chris Kiffin, in-house candidate David Gibbs, and veteran coach Mike Stoops, who’s served as an analyst the past two seasons for Nick Saban at Alabama.

We already know David Gibbs would be an internal candidate, so the real news here is the consideration of Charles Kelly, Chris Kiffin and Mike Stoops. On first glance, there’s no obvious connection between any of those three external candidates and Drinkwitz. They didn’t cross paths on a coaching staff.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t know each other. Stoops and Kiffin are members of two of the more prominent college football coaching families; Mike is Bob’s brother and Chris is Lane’s brother. Kelly has spent the better part of the last 15 years coaching the defensive side of the ball in the southeast. Kelly and Stoops are both currently members of the Alabama coaching staff, along with roughly 57 other coaches.

There’s no clear through line for these candidates. Gibbs has employed a 3-3-5 base defense in his past. Kelly and Kiffin run a 4-2-5. Stoops employs a base 4-3 defense. How much does that matter? Probably not much, honestly. Teams have five defensive backs on the field the vast majority of the time nowadays.

If scheme isn’t the differentiating factor, then what is? Let’s take a deeper look into the candidates.

The internal candidate: David Gibbs

NCAA Football: Kansas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

One thing this list of candidates has is experience, and Gibbs is no exception. He was the defensive coordinator at Minnesota from 1997-2000, served the same role at Auburn in 2005, at Houston from 2013-2014 and at Texas Tech from 2015-2018. He was hired as Mizzou’s cornerbacks coach by Barry Odom in 2019 and has served in that capacity since. He did fill in for Ryan Walters as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator in Missouri’s 17-10 victory against South Carolina.

David Gibbs’ Defense at Houston

Defensive Category: 2012 (Pre-Gibbs) 2013 2014 2015 (Post-Gibbs)
Defensive Category: 2012 (Pre-Gibbs) 2013 2014 2015 (Post-Gibbs)
Points Per Game Allowed: 36 21.8 20.6 20.7
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 4.4 3.6 3.7 3.2
Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6.8 7 6.3 7.7
Yards Per Play: 5.6 5.2 4.9 5.5
Sacks Per Game: 3 2.4 2.1 2.6
TFL Per Game: 7 6 5.1 6.1
Takeaways: 31 43 30 35
3rd Down Conversion Percentage Allowed: 45.90% 34.70% 38.70% 37.40%
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: 60% 51% 66% 71%

What is Gibbs’ philosophy? Turnovers, baby! If you’ve heard Gibbs speak for any amount of time, he probably referenced takeaways. he believes in making things difficult for opposing quarterbacks and forcing them into bad throws leading to takeaways. Does it work? Eh, it’s hit-and-miss. Leaning on turnovers is tough. It’s not a particularly “sticky” stat year-to-year.

That being said, it’s really difficult to judge Gibbs’ ability as a defensive coordinator because the vast majority of his recent history on the job was at Texas Tech under Kliff Kingsbury. That was an impossible job for a million different reasons we don’t have to get into here. I think Gibbs would be a fine hire. It’s not particularly inspired, but the Tigers could do worse.

David Gibbs DC Stats at Texas Tech

Defensive Category: 2014 (Pre-Gibbs) 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 (Post-Gibbs)
Defensive Category: 2014 (Pre-Gibbs) 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 (Post-Gibbs)
Points Per Game Allowed: 41.3 43.6 43.5 32.2 31.1 30.3
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 5.2 6.2 5.7 4.3 4.1 4.4
Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 7.9 7.9 8.6 7.2 8 9.2
Yards Per Play: 6.2 6.9 7.1 5.8 5.9 6.6
Sacks Per Game: 2 1.5 1.2 1.4 2.3 2
TFL Per Game: 5.3 5.3 3.9 4.2 5.8 6.7
Takeaways: 15 25 13 29 18 19
3rd Down Conversion Percentage Allowed: 47% 49% 43% 42% 38% 42%
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: 77% 78% 65% 64% 56% 54%

The ‘he might be underrated’ hire: Charles Kelly

NCAA Football: Louisville at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

I think Kelly is probably the safest hire of the candidates listed. He has plenty of experience as a 4-year defensive coordinator at Florida State. He’s recruited at a high level at FSU, Tennessee and Alabama. He’s certainly no stranger to southeast, having spent his entire career in this region after playing football at Auburn in the last ‘80s.

If you ask Florida State fans about Kelly, you’re likely to get a wide range of answers. He joined the Seminoles the year after Jeremy Pruitt led the FSU defense all the way to a national championship. That unit was stacked with talent, and there was no way Kelly’s defense was going to be able to follow it up with anything similar.

And... He didn’t. The defense took a step back. It certainly wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good enough to reach Florida State fans’ (unreasonably) high standards. The defense went from one of the best in the country to merely one of the better defenses in the ACC. Kelly was out of his job when Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M. He’s spent the last two seasons as the assistant defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Alabama.

 Charles Kelly DC Stats at Florida State

Defensive Category: 2013 (Pre-Kelly) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 (Post-Kelly)
Defensive Category: 2013 (Pre-Kelly) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 (Post-Kelly)
Points Per Game Allowed: 12.1 25.6 17.5 25 21.2 31.5
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.3 4.2 3.8 3.6 3.8 3.5
Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 5.1 7.3 5.6 7.1 5.8 7.1
Yards Per Play: 4.1 5.5 4.7 5.3 4.8 5.2
Sacks Per Game: 2.5 1.2 2.5 3.9 2.2 2.3
TFL Per Game: 7 5.4 5.8 7.3 7.1 5.8
Takeaways: 35 26 15 23 15 15
3rd Down Conversion Percentage Allowed: 32% 44% 39% 34% 36% 37%
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: 53% 54% 49% 58% 59% 57%

Kelly is known as a good teacher and seems to be incredibly well liked by his players. He’s also incredibly active on the sidelines.

He has the recruiting chops, he’s been a successful defensive coordinator in the past, and he’s known as a quality teacher who specializes in the secondary. That sounds like a pretty solid candidate to me.

The ‘that’s the wrong brother’ hire: Mike Stoops

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

As much as I can get behind the Kelly hire, I just can’t get there with Stoops. If his last name was Smith, I’m not sure he would keep falling up. This is not to say Stoops is a bad person or a bad coach. But he has very little history of success as a defensive coordinator.

Much of Stoops’ resume comes as the defensive coordinator for his brother, Bob, at Oklahoma. It didn’t go particularly well. Oklahoma was ranked outside the top 50 in scoring defense in each of his final five seasons as the Sooners’ defensive coordinator. We’re talking about Oklahoma here. This isn’t some directional school.

Mike Stoops DC Stats at Oklahoma

Defensive Category: 2011 (Pre-Stoops) 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 (Post-Stoops)
Defensive Category: 2011 (Pre-Stoops) 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 (Post-Stoops)
Points Per Game Allowed: 22.1 25.5 22.1 25.9 22 28.8 27.1 33.3 27.3
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.7 5.2 4.1 3 3.8 4.5 4.4 4.1 4.1
Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6.6 6.4 6.8 7 6 7.1 7.5 8.4 7.3
Yards Per Play: 5.2 5.7 5.4 5.1 4.8 5.8 5.8 6.1 5.6
Sacks Per Game: 3.1 1.8 2.5 2.5 3 1.9 1.9 2.1 2.6
TFL Per Game: 7.5 4.1 5.6 6.2 6.9 5.2 5.4 5.6 7.4
Takeaways: 27 16 25 19 26 17 18 11 11
3rd Down Conversion Percentage Allowed: 31% 42% 33% 38% 40% 43% 38% 46% 32%
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: 74% 64% 57% 51% 54% 48% 61% 83% 67%

I would imagine Stoops is a pretty solid recruiter. I’m sure he’s a solid coach, honestly. But he doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. If you can’t put together a high level defense at Oklahoma with the talent at your disposal there, will you be able to do it in the SEC with Missouri’s talent? It’s hard to see that going well. He has experience, and that’s nice, but experience is only so useful if it doesn’t coinside with tangible results.

The most intriguing hire: Chris Kiffin

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The last name probably sounds familiar. Chris Kiffin is Monte’s son and Lane’s brother. He broke into the college ranks as a defensive line coach under Hugh Freeze. He started with Freeze at Arkansas State in 2011, followed him to Ole Miss in 2012 and remained the Rebels’ defensive line coach through the 2016 season. He spent 2017 as the defensive coordinator at FAU, under head coach (and his brother) Lane Kiffin.

And then things went sideways. The NCAA slapped a two-year “show cause” penalty on Kiffin as part of the Ole Miss sanctions for a variety of NCAA rules violations. I’ll let you make your own judgment on the seriousness of the allegations, but it’s not like he was accused of calling escort services. For me, those violations wouldn’t be anything disqualifying. But that’s my own personal opinion on the matter.

Chris Kiffin DC Stats at FAU

Defensive Category: 2016 (Pre-Kiffin) 2017 2018 (Post-Kiffin)
Defensive Category: 2016 (Pre-Kiffin) 2017 2018 (Post-Kiffin)
Points Per Game Allowed: 39.8 22.7 31.8
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 5.5 4 4.6
Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 9.1 6.5 7.5
Yards Per Play: 6.9 5.2 5.9
Sacks Per Game: 1.9 2.7 1.9
TFL Per Game: 5.4 6.1 5.8
Takeaways: 15 26 14
3rd Down Conversion Percentage Allowed: 47% 39% 41%
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: 75% 56% 75%

Kiffin’s history is incredibly intriguing. He’s a defensive line pass rush specialist who worked with some very talented players at Ole Miss. He also coordinated a defense with a lot of different looks in his lone season at FAU, and he’s spent the last three seasons working with the 49ers defensive line (2018-2019) and the Browns defensive line (2020). Those are some pretty talented units to work with.

I’m all for a pass rush specialist with proven recruiting chops who has a year of (successful) experience coordinating a defense at FAU. Kiffin is young at just 38 years old, but this feels like hiring Drinkwitz on the defensive side of the ball. He’s a bright defensive mind who has a lot to offer. I’m all for it.

The bonus candidate: Tommy Thigpen

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 North Carolina at ECU Photo by Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You get five candidates for the price of four! I know, I know. Thigpen wasn’t listed among the candidates Drinkwitz is currently known to be considering. And maybe he won’t give Thigpen any consideration or he’s already heard Thigpen isn’t interested. Both are very possible. But I think he should be on the short list, if he is interested.

Thigpen is currently the co-defensive coordinator at North Carolina. He’s spent the last two seasons in that capacity. The UNC grad had a brief NFL career as a linebacker before returning to Chapel Hill as a grad assistant in the late ‘90s. His first power five job was at Illinois (2003-2004), he has SEC experience as a position coach at Auburn (2009-2012) and Tennessee (2013-2017) and he’s reportedly making just $500,000 as the Tar Heels’ co-DC. For context, Ryan Walters reportedly made $900,000 as Mizzou’s DC last year. That’s a pretty significant bump.

Alright, why Thigpen at Mizzou? Well, for one, he has a history with Drink. Thigpen and Drinkwitz were both on Auburn’s coaching staff in 2010 and 2011.

He’s also considered to be a spectacular recruiter. He was named National Recruiter of the Year by Rivals in 2013 after helping to sign the No. 5 recruiting class in the nation at Tennessee. Thigpen was also honored by Rivals as one of the nation’s top-25 recruiters in 2007 while at UNC. If you want to take a look at the list of recruits he was a primary or secondary recruiter for, you can do so here.

He’s also done a pretty nice job with North Carolina’s defense. The Tar Heels haven’t been perfect on that side of the ball, but they certainly seem to be trending in the right direction.

Tommy Thigpen DC Stats at UNC

Defensive Category: 2018 (Pre-Thigpen) 2019 2020
Defensive Category: 2018 (Pre-Thigpen) 2019 2020
Points Per Game Allowed: 34.5 23.7 29.4
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 5.1 4 4.3
Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 7.3 7.1 7.5
Yards Per Play: 6 5.4 5.8
Sacks Per Game: 2.9 2.4 3
TFL Per Game: 7.2 6.3 5.8
Takeaways: 17 20 11
3rd Down Conversion Percentage Allowed: 44% 37% 38%
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: 63% 57% 63%

Again, I’m not sure if Thigpen is or will be a legitimate option for Mizzou. He very well may be happy to be back at his alma mater as the co-defensive coordinator. But the previous connection with Drinkwitz and his recruiting prowess is enough to at least give him a look.