Potential Candidates for Virginia Tech's Defensive Coordinator Search

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomas1996 | Dec 03, 2019

Virginia Tech's regular season is over with the Hokies now awaiting their bowl destination after losing 39-30 to Virginia. With the bowl game wrapped up, it's safe to expect that the Hokies will look to have a replacement for Bud Foster in place sometime over the next two weeks in time for the Early Signing Day window.

With that said, here's a look at my list of potential candidates and names to watch for the Hokies.

Former Missouri HC Barry Odom

There's no doubt that Barry Odom, in my mind, is the best candidate for that job (more on my personal reasons for that coming soon). Regardless, Odom is clearly expected to be a top candidate given how many of the boxes he checks.

It starts with the fact that Odom has the connections having been Justin Fuente's defensive coordinator at Memphis from 2012-2014. Fuente wants to have a defensive coordinator that he can fully trust to run the show on the defensive side, and there is no coach, outside of Bud Foster, that he likely would trust more than Barry Odom. That trust is critical to this hire and it won't be a question with Odom.

More importantly, Odom is a proven defensive mind with his reason for dismissal at Missouri being mostly due to an offense that fell off after the departure of Josh Heupel. Over this four years in Columbia, Odom (and next candidate Ryan Walters') defenses went from allowing over 30 points in his first 2 seasons as head coach to under 20 this past season.

His work at Memphis may be even more impressive as he took a defense that finished 117th in total defense the season before his arrival (2011) and had them ranked in the top 30 by 2014. Additionally, the defense went from allowing 35.1 points per game the year before his arrival to ranking 11th in his final season in Memphis allowing only 19.5 points per game with steady 5+ point improvements every season.

There's no doubt that Odom looks like the perfect fit for the job, but the one question is whether he would be quick to take it or if he would wait for a head coaching job in the Group of 5. Odom could be a top candidate at Memphis should Mike Norvell leave for one of the various schools that he has been linked with being a candidate for (Florida State, Arkansas, Missouri, Ole Miss) so patience may also be required as well depending on Odom's wants for his next job.

For now though, Barry Odom should be the top target and seems likely to be such given the relationship that has succeeded before with Justin Fuente.

Missouri DC Ryan Walters

If Odom ends up at a Group of 5 head coaching job, the next name that fits the Fuente connection wheel house while also having strong credentials of his own is former Missouri DC Ryan Walters.

As mentioned above, the reason why Odom was let go was more due to an offense that fell off after Josh Heupel left Missouri for the UCF head coaching job. Walters and Odom's defense also improved during Walters' two years as the sole defensive coordinator at Missouri with the Tigers giving up 19.4 points per game this past season. Additionally, over his four years as either co-defensive coordinator or outright defensive coordinator, Missouri's defense went from ranked allowing 31.5 points per game in 2016 to only 19.4 this past season.

If it isn't clear already, Missouri's defense was not the reason why the Tigers are going in a different direction.

Walters also has worked with Justin Fuente before having been the cornerbacks coach for Memphis during the 2014 season before following Odom to Missouri to be the safeties coach in 2015.

Walters is one of the bright young defensive minds and seems not too far away from getting an FBS head coaching shot. Given the talent returning in Blacksburg, the Virginia Tech job makes lots of sense as a next step while he also has experience working with Justin Fuente that should provide an immediate trust that will be valuable.

Ryan Walters is a top young defensive mind

Florida CBs coach Torrian Gray

Four years ago, Torrian Gray seemed certain to be the eventual replacement for Bud Foster, but a lot has changed since then. Despite that, Gray still looks like a top candidate for the job.

Gray has a proven track record as one of the best defensive backs coaches in the country and seems poised to eventually to get his shot as a defensive coordinator. The fact that Gray hasn't received a defensive coordinator job somewhere yet is definitely surprising, but seems likely to come soon.

Gray built his reputation by helping build the foundation of DBU coaching many great defensive backs for the Hokies from Brandon Flowers to Kyle Fuller. Gray also would be extremely popular among former players and the Tech fan base as a whole, and might be the one coach on this list who wouldn't face the same microscope as Bud Foster's replacement given the natural trust that fans and alum have given Gray's reputation.

Gray has also gained plenty of different experiences that could prove valuable in a first shot as a defensive coordinator from working in the NFL to spending the past two years at Florida under another well-respected defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham.

However, there are two concerns that could keep Gray from being the guy. First is the fact that he's the only guy on his list without coordinator experience. Given the prestige and pressure of replacing Bud Foster, the Hokies will likely want someone with that experience, but if there's one guy who could take the job without it, it's Gray.

More importantly though, there's questions about the relationship between Gray and Justin Fuente stemming from when Fuente was first hired. During that time, Gray was retained, but took a pay cut to do so before leaving for Florida weeks later with rumors being that their relationship isn't great. This is the big thing that may keep Gray from being the next guy.

Torrian Gray may not be the favorite to replace Bud Foster as he was four years ago, but he remains a top candidate if him and Justin Fuente can heal what is rumored to be a very fractured relationship.

Cincinnati DC Marcus Freeman

If you're looking for a rising defensive coordinator name from the Group of 5 level, Cincinnati's Marcus Freeman is the top defensive coordinator ready to take the jump to the next level.

After retiring from the NFL in 2009, Freeman has made a quick rise from being a defensive quality control assistant at Ohio State in 2010 all the way spending three seasons at the helm of the Cincinnati defense alongside Luke Fickell who coached Freeman while he was in college at Ohio State. Freeman has also spent time as a Power 5 assistant that can travel and recruit having been the linebackers coach at Purdue from 2013-2016.

Freeman's defense may have had a slight regression this season, but they were impressive in 2018 having held teams to under 18 points per game, ranking in the top 10 in the nation. His defense was still solid this season allowing only 21.1 points per game this season which ranked in the top 30.

Freeman's NFL experience also could be valuable and appealing on the recruiting trail as someone who can sell to recruits that he personally knows what it takes to get to the NFL.

The question with Freeman may be the fact that he hasn't had an opportunity to coach at the Power 5. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be able to handle this job well, but the Hokies may be looking for someone a little more proven especially given the pressure that will also come from being the guy replacing the guy, Bud Foster.

Freeman is definitely a name to watch as the top young Group of 5 defensive coordinator who seems poised for a jump to a Power 5 school whether that's at Tech or elsewhere.

Former Rutgers HC Chris Ash

Chris Ash's tenure as the head coach at Rutgers may not have gone well at all, but before his stop in New Jersey, Ash was a well-respected defensive coordinator with defensive coordinator jobs at Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Ohio State. Now, there are rumors that Ash is a name on the Hokies' radar.

There is an interesting connection here that could prove intriguing as Ash hired current Virginia Tech special assistant Jerry Kill to be his offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2017. Kill has quickly emerged as a top ally for Justin Fuente since his arrival midseason and likely will have some influence on this hiring process not only because of coaching background, but also because of the administrative background he also brings.

During his two years as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, Ash's defenses went from barely being in the top 25 in scoring defense to ranking 2nd in 2015 allowing only 15.1 points per game. In two seasons at Wisconsin (2011-2012), Ash's defenses held opponents under 20 points per game each season while his 2013 Arkansas defense struggled with Ash hopping for a bigger opportunity at Ohio State before getting to show what he could do with the Razorbacks.

If Tech does make him their top priority, the Hokies may have an uphill battle with Ash looking like a potentially perfect fit at Texas for their defensive coordinator vacancy. Ash coached together with Tom Herman when they were both assistants at Ohio State while Ash also spent time as an analyst for Texas after his dismissal from Rutgers.

Ash is definitely a name to watch for the Hokies especially given that there is rumored to be interest, but Texas appears to be his more likely destination at the moment.