Brian Kelly hinted in his postgame comments that he had made a decision on his next defensive coordinator. Multiple reports this evening point to New York Jets assistant coach Brian VanGorder as that man.
VanGorder is a veteran assistant at both the college and pro levels that worked with Kelly back at Grand Valley from 1989-91, serving as his first defensive coordinator before leaving to take the head coaching job at Wayne State, his alma mater.
The 54-year-old VanGorder has spent 24 years coaching at either the collegiate or professional levels, including a one-year head coaching stint at Georgia Southern. He’s best known for his four-year run as Mark Richt’s first defensive coordinator from 2001-04, where he led the defense of three AP top ten teams, units that also spent three seasons ranked in the top ten in scoring defense. VanGorder won the Broyles Award in 2003, an award Diaco won in 2012.
VanGorder jumped for the NFL after Georgia, heading to Jacksonville before his one-year stint at Georgia Southern, known mostly for his attempt to abandon the triple-option offense that Paul Johnson installed. He returned to the NFL to work at Jacksonville under head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith. When Smith got the Falcons job, he tabbed VanGorder, already in Atlanta as Bobby Petrino’s linebackers coach, to be his defensive coordinator.
The Falcons posted a four consecutive winning seasons with VanGorder coordinating the defense, a franchise-best 43 regular season games over that period. He returned to the college game to join Gene Chizik’s final staff at Auburn, and latched on to Rex Ryan’s staff this season with the New York Jets.
In addition to his pedigree and Kelly’s familiarity with VanGorder, the year in New York might be a key to Kelly’s interest in bringing him to South Bend. Known for an aggressive, attacking 4-3 base defense, VanGorder’s season under Rex Ryan had to be eye-opening, with the Jets utilizing a 3-4 base.
If VanGorder is the guy, one thing seems certain. Unlike Diaco, VanGorder’s initial instinct appears to be attack, with penetrating defensive linemen less about eating space and more about disrupting the backfield. That’s quite a sales pitch to a guy like Stephon Tuitt, and could also be an adaptation to a defense that won’t have a true nose guard like Louis Nix around anymore.
With the Irish celebrating tonight in New York, there’s no true timeline for things to be made official. But CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman is calling it a done deal. Kelly said after the game that the hiring is imminent, but he “can’t make it public right now because we’re still in the process of finalizing contracts and things of that nature.”
VanGorder seems like the type of hire that Kelly would make. A personal relationship that goes back over 20 years. A coach that’s built elite defenses at both the college and NFL level. And while he’s got the looks of a character actor as opposed to the Don Draper-leading man style that Diaco brought to the Irish coaching staff, it appears that Kelly has done a great job filling an opening that had to be coveted around football.