Todd Grantham couldn’t keep himself away from the SEC for too long, and fortunately for Mississippi State, he was looking for another gig at just the right time.
The Bulldogs’ apparent swap of defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon for Grantham, who left the same position at Louisville, looks like a nice little coaching coup for Dan Mullen — even on the grounds of experience alone. The timing of the two moves is interesting, as an agreement between Sirmon and the Cardinals was reportedly in the works “for some time,” implying that Grantham was being pushed out the door.
But should that matter to Mississippi State? No. Mullen’s staff essentially traded a promising sophomore for a veteran defensive mind, and it knows exactly what it’s getting.
Most importantly, the addition of Grantham on a reported multi-year deal should bring stability to a program now on its fourth defensive coordinator in four years.
Many Mississippi State fans found themselves questioning whether Sirmon could clean up the mess of a debut season riddled with challenges and shortcomings. Sirmon turns 40 next month. He is a promising coach but struggled to find his way as a first-time coordinator. His greenhorn status, combined with the defense’s overall inexperience at few key positions, brought messy results in 2016.
The Bulldogs finished were 110th in total defense at 461 yards allowed per game; and 93rd in scoring defense at 31.8 points per game. They led the SEC in 10-plus yards allowed (213), and opposing quarterbacks passed for 3,660 yards in 13 games. Mullen himself pointed out the unit’s quarter-to-quarter, play-to-play inconsistency at times.
“I watch a guy do something one play. It might be the same exact defensive call against the same exact offensive call. I see completely different results, sometimes not even doing the right thing,” he said after MSU gave up 411 total yards in a 12-point win over UMass.
Given another year and the arrival of nine mid-year enrollees on defense, Sirmon probably could have steered the defense into better position. But that’s a moot point now, and at first glance, maybe his departure is a blessing in disguise for Mississippi State.
A long, strong resume
Enter Grantham, 50, who is about to begin his 11th season as a defensive coordinator following three-year stints with Louisville, Georgia and the Cleveland Browns. He has 17 more years as a position coach under his belt in both the NFL and at major college programs, including three overseeing Michigan State’s defensive line under Nick Saban.
“Todd has proven to be one of the best defensive coordinators in the country this decade,” Mullen said in a statement released Wednesday. “He understands what it takes to build a physical and aggressive defense at the highest of levels. We are excited to welcome he and his family to Starkville.”
After losing Geoff Collins and Manny Diaz to lateral moves to Florida and Miami (Fla.), respectively, the MSU athletic department decided to pony up money and stop that revolving door of defensive coordinators. The Cardinals paid Grantham $1.3 million in 2016, according to USA Today, which made him the fifth-highest-paid assistant in college football. He’ll reportedly see his pay drop to $1.1 million annually with the Bulldogs.
In college, Grantham’s defenses consistently performed above average. Louisville never allowed more than 24 points per game under his watch, and at Georgia he presided over three top-35 defenses. Grantham defenses are stout against the run and feature star pass rushers such as Jarvis Jones, Leonard Floyd and Devonte Fields.
What’ll be interesting is how well Grantham recruits. Georgia never hauled in a signing class ranked lower than 12th during his time in Athens, but that’s also a talent-rich state with little in-state competition. Landing top defensive prospects at Louisville proved challenging, as the Cardinals signed two 4-stars from 2014-16.
But Grantham will have major talent to work with in the short term, at least. Leo Lewis, a top inside linebacker recruit out of high school, played extensively as a redshirt freshman. Former 5-star Jeffery Simmons or 4-star junior college enrollee Chauncey Rivers could break out as his featured pass-rusher. The class ranks in the top 25 for good reason.
A couple of smaller notes:
- The allure of coaching alongside his brother Tony, Louisville’s inside linebackers coach, played a role in Grantham leaving his position at Georgia. Although it’s not a certainty, Tony following Todd to Starkville would make plenty of sense. In addition to his duties as coordinator, Grantham has typically coached outside linebackers in college.
- Grantham ran the 3-4 defense at his past two stops, and you’d have to figure that will continue with the Bulldogs. His system doesn’t use the “Viper” position, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end seen under Sirmon. But Grantham’s scheme will continue to employ the “Star” — a sort of defensive utility role filled by Josh Harvey-Clemons at both Louisville and Georgia. J.T. Gray filled this position in 2016.
At the tail-end of three consecutive departures, Mississippi State needed a steady hand at defensive coordinator. Grantham may not be a flashy innovator, but he’s just what Doc Mullen ordered.