6 UCLA Bruins defensive coordinator candidates to replace D’Anton Lynn

UCLA is conducting a coaching search for a new defensive coordinator for the second consecutive year after the USC Trojans hired D’Anton Lynn as their new defensive play-caller With Chip Kelly sticking around, it’s time to evaluate UCLA Bruins defensive coordinator candidates for 2024.

Lynn was arguably the best coach on UCLA’s staff this past season, overseeing one of the best defensive turnarounds in the nation. He always seemed like a perfect fit to take over as USC’s defensive coordinator and UCLA couldn’t afford to get into a bidding war, creating a critical vacancy on Kelly’s staff once more.

Related: How big of a loss D’Anton Lynn’s departure is for UCLA Bruins

Let’s examine six UCLA defensive coordinator candidates who could replace Lynn in 2024.

Identifying UCLA Bruins defensive coordinator candidates

Ken Norton Jr, UCLA Bruins inside linebackers coach

NCAA Football: Colorado at UCLA
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Continuity matters. With Kelly sticking around UCLA for another year, the next Bruins’ defensive coordinator will likely be an internal hire. Not only is it cheaper for the school than getting into a bidding war for a top defensive mind, but there’s also a quality defensive assistant already on the staff.

Ken Norton Jr. is the most obvious candidate. He coached linebackers at USC from 2004-’09, also serving as an assistant head coach in Pete Carroll’s final season. After that, the UCLA alum became the Seattle Seahawks linebackers coach (2010-’14) and then served stints as defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders (2015-’17) and Seattle Seahawks (2018-’21).

Seattle’s defense struggled in Norton’s final season as defensive coordinator, ranking near the bottom fo the league in passing defense and total yardage allowed. However, the Seahawks’ red-zone defense was outstanding. Norton Jr’s familiarity with the players already on UCLA’s roster, his connection with incoming recruits and the ability to implement a system similar to Lynn’s could make him the favorite to take over.

Tony Gibson, NC State Wolfpack defensive coordinator

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Wake Forest
William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

If UCLA wants to land one of the most underrated defensive minds in college football, NC State Wolfpack defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is an intriguing option. The former defensive back served on the Michigan Wolverines coaching staff from 2008-’10 as assistant head coach, special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach. A decade later, he became NC State’s defensive coordinator and has been the architect of a sneaky-good unit.

Related: NFL defense rankings

PPG AllowedYards per Play3rd Down rate
NC State defense (2021)20.8 PPG (18th in FBS)4.9 (17th in FBS)30.12% (5th in FBS)
NC State defense (2022)20.5 PPG (15th)5.0 (32nd)35.03% (29th)
NC State defense (2023)21.4 PPG (24th)5.2 (41st)28.97% (6th)
Statistics via TeamRankings.com

Gibson maximized the talent on NC State’s roster. Keep in mind, the Wolfpack aren’t exactly the kings of recruiting. Over the last three seasons, NC State never cracked the top-25 in recruiting rankings. Yet, Gibson’s scheme and coaching consistently outproduced the perceived talent differential compared to the best defenses in the nation. Notably, UCLA would likely have to offer Gibson more than the $1.3 million salary he reportedly makes right now.

Kurt Mattix, San Diego State defensive coordinator

NCAA Football: Air Force at San Diego State
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The college football coaching carousel also helps the search for UCLA defensive coordinator candidates. While top Power 5 programs will pursue some of the most well-regarded defensive play-callers in college football, the Bruins could pursue a Group of Five coach who recently became available.

PPG AllowedYards per Play3rd Down rate
San Diego State defense (2021)19.7 (14th in FBS)4.6 (9th in FBS)31.88% (9th in FBS)
San Diego State defense (2022)21.7 (22nd)4.8 (15th)35.76% (38th)
San Diego State defense (2023)26.6 (65th)6.2 (115th)40.88% (89th)
Statistics via TeamRankings.com

The numbers from 2023 are bad, but they require context. Despite averaging the 13th-highest average time of possession (32:29) in the FBS during the regular season, San Diego State’s offense ranked 88th in punts per scoring drive (1.2). With a more competent offense, Mattix’s defense historically performs much better. Plus, coaching at UCLA would give him the advantage of having a better talent pool to work with. Just as crucial, he is very familiar with recruiting in California and has ties to the Big Ten as a former Michigan assistant, serving as the Wolverines’ defensive quality control coach (2011-’14).

Related: Heisman Watch 2023

With San Diego State cleaning house and hiring Sean Lewis as defensive coordinator, Mattix becomes available. UCLA could offer him the perfect stepping stone, with a great season suddenly putting him in the mix for head-coaching gigs a year from now.

Zach Arnett, former Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Auburn
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

One of the beauties of college football is the fact that coaches’ buyouts can create opportunities. At a time when the UCLA Bruins are hurting financially and might need to cut some corners, Zach Arnett becomes a compelling option. Mississippi State owes Arnett $4 million with a portion of that discounted by the next gig he lands. That’s a potential bargain-bin chance for UCLA.

While he didn’t fare well as a head coach with the Bulldogs, Arnett’s track record as a defensive coordinator speaks for itself. The 37-year-old did excellent work with San Diego State and spent nearly two decades (2011-’19) in Southern California. Those ties to the region are just part of the reason he’s one of the most compelling UCLA defensive coordinator candidates.

  • Mississippi State defense 2021: 356.8 total ypg allowed (36th), 27.3 PPG allowed (67th)
  • Mississippi State defense 2022: 360.4 total ypg allowed (39th), 24.4 PPG allowed (43rd)

Once again, context matters here. One of the toughest jobs in college football is being the defensive coordinator for a team that runs the Air Raid offense. Arnett experienced that as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator, all against SEC competition. UCLA could offer him a more favorable situation to rebuild his reputation.

Shiel Wood, Tulane Green Wave defensive coordinator

NCAA Football: Troy at Appalachian State
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

We’re diving deep into the pool of defensive coordinator candidates for the UCLA Bruins, highlighting a coach who keeps delivering with each progressive step in his career. Shiel Wood served as Army’s co-defensive coordinator in 2021 before running his defense at Troy in 2022. The Trojans had one of the nation’s best defenses that season, resulting in a 12-2 record. then, Wood took his coaching talents to Tulane and turned around the Green Wave’s defense, resulting in an 11-2 record.

  • Shiel Wood salary: $225,000 in 2022
Total YPG allowedYards per PlayPPG AllowedTakeaways per Game
Army defense (2021)342.2 (18th)5.8 (88th)23.3 (34th)1.2 (86th)
Troy defense (2022)324.8 (15th)4.6 (9th)17.2 (7th)1.8 (14th)
Tulane defense (2023)327.5 (23rd)4.9 (25th)19.4 (19th)1.6 (31st)

One successful year as a defensive coordinator is a small sample size, two is evidence of a quality defensive mind. Wood has now delivered quality defenses at three separate programs over a three-year span, climbing the proverbial coaching ladder at each step of the way. UCLA would be Wood’s toughest test yet, but his resume is worth betting on and he could be an affordable option for the Bruins’ athletic department.

Geoff Collins, former Georgia Tech head coach

NCAA Football: Clemson at Georgia Tech
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After being fired as the Georgia Tech head coach in 2022, Geoff Collins took a year off from college football. A hiatus often allows a coach to recharge, study from their peers and make changes to their system and coaching style that benefit their careers. UCLA could be a beneficiary of all of that.

While Collins might not be cut out to be a head coach, his background as a defensive mastermind speaks for itself. He spent a year learning from Nick Saban before landing his first defensive coordinator gig in 2010 at FIU. By 2013, he was the Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive play-caller and then he spent two seasons (2015-’16) designing the Florida Gators defense.

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’ defenses turned out plenty of NFL talent and consistently put his teams in a position to win. The Georgia native has decades of college experience, beginning his career in 1993 as a graduate assistant at Western Carolina and the 2023 season was his first year out of coaching. If Collins wants to return as a defensive coordinator, he should be one of UCLA’s top candidates.