4 Minnesota Gophers Defensive Coordinator Candidates to Replace Joe Rossi

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The Minnesota Golden Gophers are searching for a new defensive coordinator after coach Joe Rossi left the team for the same position at Michigan State. P.J. Fleck is focused on the Quick Lane Bowl, for now, but plans to have the DC search wrapped up in the next couple weeks. So, let’s take a look at four Gophers defensive coordinator candidates that could make sense.

Rossi’s departure is a significant departure for Minnesota even in terms of continuity. He joined the Golden Gophers staff as a quality control coach in 2017, later being promoted to defensive line coach in 2018 and later interim defensive coordinator. From 2019-’23, Rossi was the architect of Minnesota’s defense. Now, a new era is coming next season. Fleck has already provided some insight into what he’s looking for.

Related: The Rise of Minnesota’s Defensive Guru, Joe Rossi

  • Minnesota Golden Gophers defense 2023: 373.8 total ypg allowed (55th in FBS), 5.8 yards per play allowed (88th), 26.9 points per game allowed (67th), 47.31% third-down conversion rate allowed (124th)

“I owe it to our team to do the due diligence necessary to find them the best leader of the defense, and our [coaching] staff has been incredibly supportive of that. This isn’t about wholesale change or a philosophical belief system. We’re not going to necessarily do that. We’re going to find somebody that’s very similar to us, but also can add a lot of value that can make our defense better.”

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck on the search for a new defensive coordinator

Related: UCLA Bruins defensive coordinator candidates

With all of that in mind and a clear vision of what Fleck wants, let’s examine some Minnesota defensive coordinator candidates for 2024.

Top Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive coordinator candidates

Joe Klanderman, Kansas State defensive coordinator

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Oklahoma
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Recruiting means ties to a region matter. Fleck doesn’t just have to look for a defensive coordinator who can be a respected voice in the locker room, mentor young athletes and orchestrate a good defense, he’d also like someone who knows the region. Look no further than Joe Klanderman.

Related: Minnesota Golden Gophers recruiting class 2024

While the Kansas State Wildcats defensive coordinator was born in Wisconsin, he played defensive line at Minnesota State (1997-2001). After finishing his playing career, Klanderman’s leadership and defensive intellect was so well-respected that Minnesota State immediately made him its defensive line coach after his playing days were over. He was later promoted to defensive backs coach, before coaching linebackers and serving as the Mavericks’ defensive coordinator (2007-’13).

  • Kansas State Wildcats defense 2023: 55.91% completion rate allowed, 28.67% third-down conversion rate allowed, 2.0 takeaways per game, 121.0 QB rating allowed

While Klanderman’s defense ranked outside the top 80 in total yardage allowed, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Kansas State had one of the best pass defenses in college football and this unit was phenomenal on third downs. Klanderman’s ties to Minnesota could entice him to take the Gophers’ job, if Fleck decides that he’s a good fit.

Related: Minnesota Golden Gophers transfer portal tracker

Corey Hetherman, Rutgers linebackers coach

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Wisconsin
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With Joe Harasymiak staying at Rutgers. If that happens, Fleck could pursue an alternative that would have a huge endorsement from Harasymiak. Scarlet Knights linebackers coach Corey Hetherman joined the program in 2022, hand-picked by Harasymiak to develop Rutgers’ linebackers. Before that, Hetherman was the defensive play-caller at James Madison (2019-’21).

  • Rutgers Scarlet Knights defense 2023: 332.5 total ypg allowed (28th), 5.0 yards per play allowed (30th), 22.6 points per game allowed (32nd), 40.54% third-down conversion rate allowed (82nd)

James Madison finished all three seasons with Hetherman as a top-10 scoring defense in the nation. Not only did the Dukes lead the country in turnovers (31) in 2021, but they also held opponents under 90 rushing yards per game with a third-down defense (27.2% conversion rate) that was one of the best marks in college football. Heterman enjoyed similar success as Maine’s defensive coordinator.

Leadership is obviously another factor Fleck is considering during his search. Hetherman offers that trait, serving as associate head coach at James Madison where he worked under Curt Cignetti, one of the most well-respected head coaches in the Group of Five. Minnesota would be the next step up in Hetherman’s career and he could also help the Golden Gophers’ defense take a step forward in 2024.

Geoff Collins, former Georgia Tech head coach

NCAA Football: Boston College at Georgia Tech
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When searching for a defensive coordinator, one of the best avenues for a program to take is pursuing former head coaches. Zach Arnett was one of the options we considered for Gophers defensive coordinator candidates, but he might take a year off after being fired by Mississippi State. Instead, our focus shifts to Geoff Collins.

Related: Grading college football coaching hires

There’s no getting around the fact that Collins wasn’t cut out to be a head coach. He had two opportunities at Temple and Georgia Tech, but finished with a 25-38 record. However, Collins’ track record as a defensive coordinator, including outstanding stints in the SEC, speaks volumes about his mind for the game.

PPG AllowedYards per Play3rd Down rateRZ Attempts per Game
Mississippi State defense (2013)24.3 (32nd in FBS)5.5 (60th in FBS)37.2% (38th in FBS)3.3 (25th in FBS)
Mississippi State defense (2014)22.2 (21st)5.5 (70th)34.22% (13th)3.1 (28th)
Florida Gators defense (2015)18.3 (10th)4.5 (7th)33.49% (16th)2.6 (11th)
Florida Gators defense (2016)16.8 (6th)4.5 (4th)34.81% (19th)3.0 (27th)

Collins, fired in 2022, is likely ready to get back on the sideline. While he doesn’t have direct ties to Fleck, Collins is part of Nick Saban’s coaching tree. A year away from the game can often also make a coach better, providing them time to study offenses and conceptualize new schemes, blitzes and coverages to be more effective. Collins might be expensive, but he would make Minnesota’s defense better than it was in 2023.

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Greg Gasparato, Troy Trojans defensive coordinator

NCAA Football: Troy at Mississippi
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When Jon Sumrall left the Troy Trojans to become Tulane’s head coach, defensive coordinator Greg Gasparato was named interim coach for the bowl game. A program turning to its defensive coordinator during a time of uncertainty speaks to Gasparato’s leadership. Now, let’s focus on the football side of things.

  • Troy Trojans defense 2023: 312.2 total ypg allowed (14th), 4.6 yards per play allowed (11th), 16.1 points per game allowed (6th), 32.53% third-down conversion rate (21st)

Name the statistic, Troy’s defense was one of the best in college football this fall under Gasparato. It didn’t rely on takeaways to slow down opponents and consistently keep them off the field. Troy ranked seventh in punts per offensive score (1.8), better than the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas Longhorns. It had the 12th-best scoring defense in the second half of games and had a top-25 defense in the red zone.

With Troy already naming its head coach for 2024, Gasparato will be looking for another opportunity to prove himself as a defensive play-caller. He’s also experienced, working with safeties and linebackers at Louisville (2021-’22) and serving as Army’s co-defensive coordinator in 2020. If the Rutgers connections don’t pan out for Fleck, Gasparato would be a sneaky option for Minnesota.

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