After going through multiple days of interviews with the Cincinnati Bengals, Todd Grantham decided to stay at the University of Florida. For now.
The Gator defense improved a lot under his watch from 2017 to 2018, though it was bound to get better anyway. The 2017 unit sustained a lot of injuries and played a number of freshmen in the secondary. It, along with the similarly young 2007 defense, are the only two UF defenses since at least 1990 to allow more than 22.5 points per game. Special circumstances led to the ’17 defense struggling, and those circumstances just don’t come around often in Gainesville as history shows.
History also shows that Grantham doesn’t stay in one place for long. His longest tenure anywhere was six years at his alma mater Virginia Tech to begin his coaching career.
After that he spent three years under Nick Saban at Michigan State in the late ’90s as a defensive line coach. He then jumped to the NFL where he was D-line coach with the Colts for three years before then-head coach Jim Mora was fired. He moved on to the expansion Houston Texans for three more years before the Cleveland Browns hired him as defensive coordinator. The Browns fired him after three seasons, at which point he went back to being a defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
Two years into that job, he returned to college at Georgia to get a coordinator job running defenses for Mark Richt. Things went well for three years but soured in his fourth, at which point he left for Louisville. It’s not 100% clear to me why Grantham decided to leave the Cardinals, but after three years he jumped over to Mississippi State to work for Dan Mullen. He’s now been with Mullen two years, or half of his longest tenure anywhere since 1995.
Not all of those changes were true job hopping. He left Michigan State to go to the NFL, he departed the Colts due to a coaching staff change, and two other moves were a case of him going from a position coach job to coordinator gig.
I also know that after four years, Georgia wasn’t sad to see him go. His third defense in 2012 was a small step down from his second in 2011, and his last unit in 2013 dropped way off the pace (albeit in a year of personnel transition thanks to a flood of NFL picks leaving). Though he stayed at Louisville for three seasons, he interviewed for an NFL job after his second there.
And, of course, he just interviewed for an NFL job after two years with Mullen. Ace NFL reporter Ian Rapaport says that Grantham “does have eyes on the NFL”, so this is going to be a thing for Florida to watch every offseason.
Shortly after he was hired, I noted that Grantham would have to do the best DC work of his career in points per game allowed terms to get the Gators annually contending for national championships. Without needing to rely on good luck, the defense will have to get to a place where it’s allowing no more than about 15 points per game.
Something I didn’t do then but did do now is take out non-offensive points allowed to come up with the true points per game that Grantham’s top college defenses gave up. His best was 16.1 points per game allowed in 2011, followed by 17.6 in 2012, 19.2 in 2017, and 19.4 in 2018. The 2012 Georgia team came five yards against Alabama away from a likely national championship win, so he has engineered a couple of title-worthy defenses. After all, his 2011 unit was third in S&P+ defense that year. That’s certainly championship caliber even if the team as a whole was better the following season.
That 2011 defense along with his 2014 Louisville unit are the only ones he’s gotten into the S&P+ top ten in nine years of coordinating defenses. His first and last Georgia defenses were in the 30s, and the rest were in a fairly narrow band between 15th and 21st. He’s had two elite defenses, two iffy ones, and the rest were good-but-not-great.
Good-but-not-great isn’t what Florida wants from its defense long term. It’s not what Florida is used to either. The Gators had a top ten S&P+ defense every year but two from 2006-16, with the exceptions being that aforementioned 2007 struggle year and 2014 when it ranked 12th. Even that relatively underperforming ’14 unit finished with a better rank than most of Grantham’s defenses. There are of course caveats to be had about Grantham changing jobs four times in his nine years as a college DC, but those job changes mean we can’t meaningfully project what he would do at a place long-term based on his track record.
The point is, I can’t say with confidence that Grantham will produce national championship-caliber defenses consistently. I also can’t say with any confidence that he’ll be in Gainesville after each successive season he stays. For both of those reasons, it’s not the end of the world if and when he does go back to the NFL.
The Florida defensive coordinator job is one that can get people to head coaching gigs, as evidenced by Charlie Strong and Geoff Collins. The defensive roster is full of talent now, much of it young. It’ll be very attractive to up-and-comers should Grantham take off, and that is a true credit to Grantham given some of his big recruiting wins from the 2019 cycle. Mullen’s well-known emphasis on special teams and less-well known focus on field position mean he protects his defense even while not running a stone age offense like Will Muschamp tried to do for three years.
Florida should be just fine with Grantham in the near-term; he has done his best work in the first couple years in a job. It will also be fine in the long-term if and when Grantham does decide to go.