College Football: 5 candidates Lincoln Riley should be targeting for USC’s next defensive coordinator

2T02HXT Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker walks on the field before an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

• Five potential defensive coordinators for USC this offseason: After firing Alex Grinch, Lincoln Riley has more than a couple candidates worth considering.

• Iowa’s Phil Parker: It’s extremely unlikely that Parker will leave the Hawkeyes, but Lincoln Riley should still make the call to the nation’s best defensive coordinator.

• UCLA’s D’Anton Lynn: Riley could steal from his cross-town rival as Lynn has completely transformed the Bruins defense.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

USC head coach Lincoln Riley fired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch on Sunday following a 52-42 loss to fifth-ranked Washington. 

It was a move that Trojans fans had been clamoring for, as Grinch’s defense is just 108th in the nation in expected points allowed per play, the best metric to use for how efficient a team’s offense and defense are. In fact, Grinch’s defenses failed to even crack the top 75 in EPA (expected points added) per play in four of the five seasons he spent with Lincoln Riley at USC and Oklahoma. 

Riley must nail his next hire this offseason as an even competent defense has proven to be the difference between USC being a national title contender and a team that goes 8-4. To help him out, here are five names he should be heavily considering.

Phil Parker, Iowa Hawkeyes

This one is admittedly a long shot. Parker has been at Iowa since 1999 and likely wouldn’t want to leave after laying down his roots in Iowa City.

However, it’s a call Riley has to make at least. Parker’s defenses have finished top 15 in the nation in expected points allowed per play in each of the last six seasons and rank eighth this year. Riley and Parker also have something in common in that they win in spite of the other side of the ball. Iowa’s offense is the worst in the country in EPA per play and has been bottom 10 in that metric in each of the last three seasons. Yet, the Hawkeyes are 25-11 in that span, showing how much Parker’s defenses have carried them. 

The highest-paid coordinators make around $2 million a year. Parker’s salary is $1.4 million in 2023 plus bonuses. Riley should offer him at least $3 million in an effort to combine one of the nation’s top offensive minds with one of the best defensive ones.

D’Anton Lynn, UCLA Bruins

Riley could also try to steal from his cross-town rival. What Lynn’s done in his first season as a defensive coordinator is nothing short of spectacular. UCLA is currently fifth in the nation in EPA per play. Last year, the Bruins placed 111th. They’re also third in defensive grading while ranking just 54th in 2022. 

UCLA is seventh in the nation with just 3.49 yards allowed per rushing attempt and leads the country in total pressures (216).

Jim Leonhard, Illinois Fighting Illini 

Leonhard is the only one on this list who isn’t actively a defensive coordinator as he’s currently serving as Illinois’ senior defensive analyst. However, he’s on this list for what he did as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator from 2017-2022.

Leonhard’s defenses finished top six in expected points allowed per play in four of his six seasons as defensive coordinator and led the country in three of those years. One of the years the Badgers didn’t finish top six was in 2022 when Leonhard had to divert his attention to the entire team as the interim head coach, going 4-3 in that role after Wisconsin started the year 2-3.

Tony Gibson, NC State Wolfpack

Gibson’s defenses have been rock-solid recently, placing top 20 in expected points allowed per play in the last three seasons. The Wolfpack have been especially stingy in run defense during that span, ranking top 10 in run-defense grade both this year and last year. That’s an area where USC has especially struggled, ranking outside the top 70 in both years of Lincoln Riley’s tenure.

Tony White, Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska’s defense has improved dramatically in White’s first year at the helm. The Cornhuskers are currently 17th in expected points allowed per play this season after placing 96th the year before. White also has ties to the Los Angeles area as he once played for UCLA. 

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