September 26, 2023

Ranking the Big Ten’s best Coordinators of 2023

Ranking Big Ten's best Coordinators of 2023

Iowa Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker patrols the sidelines during a timeout in the fourth quarter of the Music City Bowl against Kentucky Saturday December 31, 2022 at Nissan Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

The conference is ruled by tenacious defenses, mammoth-sized offensive lineman and running backs with various skill sets, so it all goes down in the trenches.

Physicality is the name of the game, and all of these Coordinators are credible. Not to mention they have a track history of success. That’s why they’re in the most prestigious Power Five Conference. This upcoming season they’re all looking to build on the success they’ve generated up to this point. And that should make for some great football in the Big Ten.

14. Jay Johnson, OC, Michigan State: The Minneota native followed Mel Tucker from Colorado and has been orchestrating the Spartans’ offense since 2020. In Johnson’s first campaign with Michigan State, it finished last in the Big Ten, and 107th in the FBS in total offense. However, in year two Johnson improved the Spartans to sixth in the conference, and 42nd nationally in total yards per game. The 53-year old had a rough season again in 2022 though. Michigan State averaged 353 yards per game, which ranked 10th in the league, and 97th in the FBS. It doesn’t help Johnson that the offense lost three-year starter Payton Thorne, and stud wideout Keon Coleman to the transfer portal.

13. Walt Bell, OC, Indiana: The 39-year old was Massachusetts’ head coach for three seasons before he landed in Bloomington. The Hoosiers ranked dead last in the Big Ten, and 124th in the FBS in total offense in 2021. However, Bell took over in 2022, and Indiana improved to 12th in the league, and 110th nationally. The Hoosiers averaged 38.2 more yards per game than it did the year prior. Not to mention Indiana averaged six more points per game. So if Bell can continue that trend, the Hoosiers should win enough games to be bowl eligible for the third time under Tom Allen. The schedule is tough though, considering Indiana plays Michigan and Penn State on the road, and hosts Wisconsin.

12. David Braun, DC, Northwestern: He has spent the past four seasons as Defensive Coordinator at North Dakota State. During that span Braun helped the Bison win two FCS National Titles. Braun brings a championship mentality to the Wildcats’ defense. After all, the unit disappointed under Jim O’Neil’s leadership. Northwestern improved from 101st nationally in total defense in 2021, to 63rd last year, but it wasn’t enough. When the Wildcats made their last appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, they had a top-25 defense. Braun is Northwestern’s third Defensive Coordinator in the last four seasons, but he’s credible enough to help the program snap a two-year bowl skid.

11. Barry Lunney Jr., OC, Illinois: The Arkansas native was UTSA’s Offensive Coordinator for two seasons before he landed in Champaign. Under Lunney’s watch the Roarunners finished second in the conference in total offense in 2020, and 11th nationally in points per game in 2021. Prior to his arrival, Illinois averaged 20.2 points per game, which ranked 11th in the Big Ten, and 115th in the FBS. However, Lunney helped the Fighting Illini improve to 24.2 points per game last year, which ranked ninth in the Big Ten, and 95th nationally. The 48-year old’s biggest challenge this fall will be replacing the production of two-time, 1,000-yard rusher Chase Brown. Still, the offense should be physical again.

10. Joe Harasymiak, DC, Rutgers: The New Jersey native has a track record of improving defenses. Harasymiak has valuable Big Ten experience, considering he was Minnesota’s co-Defensive Coordinator for two seasons before he returned back to his home state. The Golden Gophers’ defense allowed 30.1 points per game in 2020. However, in 2021 Minnesota’s defense allowed 17.3 points per game, nearly two less touchdowns than the previous season. Rutgers ranked 11th in the Big Ten, and 81st in the FBS in total defense prior to Harasymiak’s arrival. Last year was his first campaign with the Scarlet Knights, and they improved to seventh in the Big Ten, and 38th nationally in total defense.

9. Graham Harrell, OC, Purdue: The former Texas Tech quarterback knows all about airing the ball out. Harrell has been an Offensive Coordinator in the Pac-12 and the Big 12. During his last season at USC, the team finished first in the Pac-12 in passing and total offense. In 2021 West Virginia averaged 371.3 total yards per game. However, with Harrell at the helms last season, the Mountaineers improved to 399 total yards per game. That’s also an improvement from 88th nationally in total offense to 57th because of Harrell’s play-calling. Now the 38-year old is in the Big Ten, where it’s less finesse and more physical. Harrell’s scheme should operate smooth with what Jeff Brohm ran last year.

8. Manny Diaz, DC, Penn State: The 49-year old has been a Defensive Coordinator in the Big 12, SEC and ACC before he landed with the Nittany Lions. Not to mention Diaz was Miami’s head coach for three seasons, where he compiled a 21-15 record. In 2021 under Brent Pry and Anthony Poindexter, Penn State ranked 38th nationally in total defense. However, Diaz arrived in Happy Valley last season, and the Nittany Lions improved to 17th in the FBS in total defense. Everything appears to be trending up for the Miami native’s second year with the program. After all, Diaz will be fielding his most talented unit yet. Penn State has an All-Big Ten caliber defender at each level of its’ defense.

7. Josh Gattis, OC, Maryland: In 2021 the he was Michigan’s Offensive Coordinator when it won a Big Ten Title and made its’ first Playoff appearance. Gattis also won the Frank Broyles Award. Although he endured a lot of success with the Wolverines, it was the total opposite in South Beach last season. Miami averaged 448.8 yards per game, and ranked 19th in the FBS in total offense when Rhett Lashlee called the plays. However, under Gattis’ watch in 2022, the Hurricanes dropped to 367.1 yards per game, which ranked 86th nationally in total offense. Now Gattis has a fresh start back in the Big Ten with the Terrapins. It helps that he’ll be operating with one of the league’s best quarterbacks.

6. Jim Knowles, DC, Ohio State: The Philadelphia native was a Defensive Coordinator in the ACC and the Big 12, prior to landing in the Big Ten. During Knowles’ last campaign with Oklahoma State, the team finished first in the Big 12 in scoring, rushing and total defense. Ohio State’s defense allowed 401.6 yards per game under Kerry Coombs in 2021, which ranked ninth in the league, and 59th nationally. However, Knowles arrived in Columbus last season, and the Buckeyes’ defense improved to 321.5 yards per game, which ranked fifth in the Big Ten, and 14th in the FBS. The 58-year old helped Ohio State’s defense finish fourth in the Big Ten in sacks per game. Year two should be even better.

5. Tony White, DC, Nebraska: The Florida native has been a Defensive Coordinator in the Pac-12, and the ACC before he landed in Lincoln. White brings a different style of defense to the Big Ten with his 3-3-5 scheme. Syracuse ranked dead last in the ACC, and 112th in the FBS in total defense during  White’s first campaign. However, he improved the Orange to second in the league, and 19th nationally in total defense in 2021. Syracuse ranked third in the conference, and 21st in the FBS in total defense last season. Now he’s trying to fix a Husker defense that finished 100th nationally in yards allowed per game in 2022. It’ll take some time to rebuild, but he’ll have the Blackshirts improved.

4. Jesse Minter, DC, Michigan: The 40-year old has been a Defensive Coordinator at the FCS level, in the Sun Belt and the SEC. Minter took over Michigan’s defense last season, and instantly made the unit better than it was under Mike Macdonald and Maurice Linguist in 2021. The Wolverines went from allowing 17.4 points per game, to 16. Not to mention Michigan’s defense improved from 330.8 yards per game under the previous regime, to 292.1 last year under Minter’s leadership. Now the Arkansas native is approaching season two, and will be fielding his best unit yet. And that’s a scary thought for opposing offenses around the league, considering Michigan’s defense has remained elite.

3. Phil Longo, OC, Wisconsin: The 55-year old has been an Offensive Coordinator in the SEC and ACC, but this will be his first year in the Big Ten. Longo has spent the past four seasons at North Carolina, where he fielded some of the nation’s best offenses. Every year during that span, the Tar Heels ranked in the top-20 nationally in total offense. Longo is also a quarterback whisperer. After all, he molded Sam Howell and Drake Maye into record-breaking signal-callers. Not to mention Maye tied for first in the ACC with 38 touchdown passes in 2022. Longo will be operating with one the best running backs in the league in Braelon Allen. Expect the Badgers to air it more than ever before this fall.

2. Joe Rossi, DC, Minnesota: The 44-year old has been leading the Golden Gophers’ defense for the past four seasons. Over the past two years Rossi has fielded one of the country’s best defenses. During that span Minnesota recorded three shutout wins, including two in 2022. The Golden Gophers finished second in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing, passing and total defense in 2021. Minnesota also ranked in the top-10 nationally in all of those categories. Last season the Golden Gophers finished fourth in the conference, and ninth in the FBS in total defense. Minnesota only allowed 13.8 points per game. With Rossi at the helms of the defense again, the team will contend in the West.

1. Phil Parker, DC, Iowa: The former Michigan State defensive back is the longest-tenured assistant in the Big Ten. Parker has spearheaded Iowa’s defense since 2012, and annually fields one of the nation’s best defenses. He also works closely with the secondary, and always have ballhawks in his arsenal. Last year the Hawkeyes’ defense finished first in the the Big Ten, and second nationally in total yards allowed per game. Iowa has already been projected to have one of the country’s best defenses again this fall, There’ll be a stud at every level of the defense, including multiple up front. And that’s a testament to Parker’s defensive prowess. Iowa has had 17 defenders drafted under Parker’s watch too.