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Ten candidates to replace Jim O’Neil as Northwestern’s defensive coordinator

From wunderkinds to former head coaches, 10 names who could make their way to this mantle.

VIrginia v Brigham Young Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon, Northwestern football announced it had parted ways with three coaches, the most notable of them defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. The struggles of O’Neil’s defense, which gave up at least 17 points in 21 of 24 games under the DC, were well-documented during his tenure in Evanston.

With O’Neil out of the picture, Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats must conduct a search — a broad one at that — to determine their next defensive whiz. When a new defensive coordinator will be hired is anyone’s guess, but recent history suggests it may occur in early-to-mid December. For context, Fitzgerald unofficially named Mike Bajakian Mick McCall’s successor five days following news of the longtime OC’s departure, and the head coach zeroed in on O’Neil 18 days after the 2021 Citrus Bowl and the retirement of Mike Hankwitz.

Certain criterion can also be gleaned from NU’s last three defensive coordinators: O’Neil (2021-22), Hankwitz (2008-20) and Greg Colby (2002-07). First, all had prior experience as defensive coordinators at the collegiate level. Also, each had at least 20 years of coaching experience.

From recently fired stars to up-and-comers with Wildcat ties, there is no shortage of options for Fitzgerald to pore over. Below is a compilation of 10 names to keep an eye on based on the aforementioned qualifications, fits, overall success and more.

Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin interim head coach

You just knew this was coming.

Leonhard, who had been defensive coordinator at Wisconsin since 2017, was named interim head coach following the shocking firing of Paul Chryst. The former First Team All-American made his head coaching debut against none other than Northwestern, as the Badgers rolled 42-7 in Evanston.

As HC, Leonhard finished with a 4-3 record, leading UW to bowl eligibility. Despite a solid first impression at the helm of the Badgers’ program, Wisconsin eschewed Leonhard for Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell.

During his introductory press conference this week, Fickell noted that he has had conversations with Leonhard about possible roles on his staff. However, with Fickell slated to have UC defensive coordinator Mike Tressel and co-DC Colin Hitschler join him in the Big Ten, a role for Leonhard would not necessarily be as all-encompassing as he would like.

Of course, Leonhard could throw his hat into several program openings, such as at Stanford, Georgia Tech, Colorado or even Cincinnati. Yet if Leonhard wants to remain a DC, Northwestern would have to be an intriguing option.

The former 10-year NFL veteran would, by no means, be a cheap addition to the Wildcats’ staff. It is worth noting, though, that he has familiarity with Northwestern and Fitzgerald having opposed the ‘Cats each of the last seven seasons.

Maybe those fond memories of Ryan Field will spark an epiphany; maybe this is all a pipe dream. Regardless, Leonhard should (obviously) be at the forefront of Wildcat fans’ minds.

Bronco Mendenhall, former Virginia head coach

Mendenhall served as Virginia’s head coach from 2016-21, going 36-38 with a 1-2 bowl record. Further, the Cavaliers made the ACC Championship Game for the first time in program history in 2019. After the 2021 season, Mendenhall stepped down from UVA but claimed he was not retiring altogether.

After 11 seasons at BYU and six in Charlottesville, it’s easy to see why Mendenhall needed a “step back.” Following a year away, though, the former Oregon State, New Mexico and BYU defensive coordinator could mesh perfectly into Northwestern’s plans.

For one, Mendenhall has emphasized academics and imbuing strong character into players, sentiments that resonate heavily with what Fitzgerald has prioritized at Northwestern. Beyond that, Mendenhall and Fitzgerald worked together on the 2021 American Football Coaches Association Board of Trustees, in which Fitzgerald served as president.

The seedlings are there for planting. Speculation exists that Mendenhall could return to Provo and his native Utah, but if not, Evanston could be on the horizon.

Randy Bates, Pitt defensive coordinator

Bates currently serves as Pitt’s defensive coordinator under Pat Narduzzi, a position he has held for the prior five seasons. The Panthers have produced defensive NFL talent in Dane Jackson, Damarri Mathis, Rashad Weaver and more. In 2022, Pitt ranks eighth in expected points added per play, per, and has stars in ACC Defensive Player of the Year Calijah Kancey and SirVocea Dennis.

Before he headed to the Steel City, though, Bates spent 12 years on the shores of Lake Michigan as Northwestern’s linebackers coach. Under Bates’ tutelage, NU produced standouts like Anthony Walker Jr., Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher.

Given the recent success of the Panthers — 2021 ACC Champions and an 8-4 mark in 2022 — it may be fairly unlikely that Bates leaves. If there were a job to sway the Ohio native, it may very well be returning to his former stomping grounds in an elevated position. After all, half of Northwestern’s 2022 coordinators had previously been on staff with the ‘Cats, and Bates fits that bill.

Aaron Henry, Illinois defensive backs coach

This hire would be an absolute splash, even if there aren’t explicit connections.

Henry, the DBs coach at Illinois, has led one of the fiercest secondaries in the nation with Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, Jartavius Martin and Kendall Smith. Further, safety Kerby Joseph was a First Team All-Big Ten selection last season before being drafted by the Lions in the third round of last April’s draft.

The impact Henry has made in two seasons at U of I cannot be overstated. The Illini ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ Defense Fremeau Efficiency Index (DFEI) last season and catapulted to third in 2022 with one of the best-coached units in the country.

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has already seen growing interest in head coaching positions, which could establish Henry as Walters’ successor. Regardless, Henry is soon to be a hot commodity as a DC in the very near future — adding him to Fitzgerald’s staff would make waves around the conference. He did just coach in Evanston this past Saturday, after all.

Ryan Smith, Northwestern cornerbacks coach

Promoting an internal coordinator is not traditionally up Pat Fitzgerald’s sleeve, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely out of the equation.

Some have noted that linebackers coach Tim McGarigle could replace O’Neil, which makes sense given the coach’s success as both a player and leader at Northwestern. But, I actually think Smith may have slightly better odds.

Sure, Smith has only been in Evanston since January, but his impact has already been profound. The former Virginia Tech cornerbacks coach took over the identical position this season, helping lead a Wildcat secondary that showed improvement in 2022. Cam Mitchell was named an All-Big Ten Team Honorable Mention, while Rod Heard II blossomed as more of a slot/nickel player. NU permitted only 183.4 passing yards per game, its fewest since 1988.

Moreover, Smith has lived up to the billing as a prolific recruiter. The William & Mary alum has already helped land 2023 three-star defensive backs Damon Walters, Joshua Fussell, Cole Shivers and Jacob Lewis.

Smith, named to 247 Sports’ 30Under30 list in 2020, is certainly ascending the coaching division. While potentially premature for a gig of this nature given his lack of time at Northwestern, it would not be totally astounding if he were promoted.

Tray Scott, Georgia defensive line coach

Besides Leonhard, this might be my favorite pick of the bunch.

Scott has been the Bulldogs’ defensive line coach since February 2017 and has consistently churned out one of the top position groups in recent college football memory. From 2022 No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker to likely top-five selection Jalen Carter to Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, UGA has been a repository of DL stardom.

Only 38, Scott was North Carolina’s D-line coach from 2015-16 and held the same role with Tennessee-Martin from 2013-14. Although Scott has never been a defensive coordinator, his ability to refine talent is wholeheartedly evident.

Georgia’s defensive has led the country in DFEI the past two seasons, and it’s not a coincidence. If Northwestern can add Scott — as a replacement to both O’Neil and Marty Long — it should absolutely pursue the opportunity.

Kevin Koch, Bears coaching assistant

I know what you’re thinking: the Bears’ defense has been far from stout in 2022. However, the connection between Koch and Northwestern cannot be ignored.

Koch joined the Bears’ coaching staff as a coaching assistant under Matt Eberflus. But, before that, the Elmhurst, Ill. native spent six seasons under Fitzgerald at Northwestern. From 2017-18, Koch was a graduate assistant, and he became a defensive quality control coach in 2019.

Not only did Koch learn under Fitzgerald, but he also absorbed wisdom from Hankwitz, meaning he theoretically has a firm grasp of the Wildcats’ traditional defense — one which worked in spades in 2020.

Hiring Koch, who has not been more than a special teams coordinator at Benedictine University, would be a significant jump. Yet given his ties to defensive-oriented leaders in Fitzgerald, Hankwitz and Eberflus and familiarity in the building, he may be an appealing option.

Lance Guidry, Marshall defensive coordinator

If there’s an existing defensive coordinator looking to make a Power Five jump, Guidry would be an ideal candidate.

Guidry has served as Marshall’s DC and safeties coach for each of the past two seasons. In 2022, the Thundering Herd had the fourth-best defensive EPA per play in the country, behind only Iowa, Georgia and Michigan. Eight Marshall defenders ended this year with a Pro Football Focus grade over an 80, including Steven Gilmore, the younger brother of Colts corner Stephon Gilmore.

Guidry also has experience as defensive coordinator and head coach at other locations, including at McNeese State, Western Kentucky and Southeastern Louisiana. He could be a contender for Florida Atlantic’s vacancy given that he coached the Owls’ safeties in 2020, but he brings the requisite coordinating experience Fitzgerald has tended to covet.

Steve Clinkscale, Michigan co-defensive coordinator

Michigan’s defense has been littered with stars in the last two seasons, with the likes of Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Dax Hill, Josh Ross, Mike Morris, D.J. Turner and Mazi Smith. In his two years in Ann Arbor, Clinkscale has contributed significantly to that success.

Clinkscale was Kentucky’s defensive passing game coordinator in 2021, then pivoted to UM for the identical position later that year. After the transition from Mike Macdonald to Jesse Minter, Clinkscale was named a co-defensive coordinator ahead of 2022.

At the same time, it seems like Minter has more say in the defense; after all, he is nominated for the 2022 Broyles Award instead of Clinkscale. Could Clinkscale, fresh off two Big Ten East Championships with the Wolverines, crave the chance to fully coordinate a defense of his own?

Northwestern would assuredly provide that opportunity. Plus, Fitzgerald already has a knack for Michigan coaches, where OL coach Kurt Anderson studied. On top of that, Clinkscale could attract recruits from the state of Michigan, which has been a hotbed for the Wildcats.

Al Holcomb, Panthers interim defensive coordinator

Given that O’Neil had spent 11 years in the NFL before arriving in Evanston, there is precedent with Fitzgerald nabbing former professional defensive coaches.

The greatest odds of finding potential defensive coordinator candidates likely come from regimes that are undergoing changes; the Panthers fit that to a T after the firing of Matt Rhule. While some believe Steve Wilks could remain the head coach in Carolina, uncertainty abounds, including with the Panthers’ staffers.

Current defensive coordinator Al Holcomb was elevated to his interim role on Oct. 11 after the exit of Phil Snow, but Holcomb has vast experience. Like O’Neil, Holcomb has worked in a bevy of organizations, including the Browns, Cardinals and Giants. Further, Holcomb spent 2013-17 and 2020-22 with Carolina, spearheading its Super Bowl run and the development of Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson as linebackers coach.

Holcomb began at the collegiate level as a GA at Temple and also made stops at Colby College, Bloomsburg University, Kutztown University and Lafayette College. The Queens, N.Y. native’s resume sounds eerily like O’Neil’s — based on what transpires with Wilks in the offseason, Holcomb could find his way to Northwestern if other NFL opportunities aren’t satisfactory.