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Minnesota Football: Who do the Gophers hire to replace Joe Rossi?

P.J. Fleck has a tall task ahead of him in replacing Joe Rossi

Minnesota v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Head coach P.J. Fleck has not had to conduct a defensive coordinator coaching search at Minnesota. He initially hired Robb Smith, then fired Smith, then promoted Joe Rossi from quality control to interim defensive coordinator, and not longer after that rewarded Rossi with the permanent position. With Rossi headed to East Lansing and the Gophers looking bounce back from a disappointing season, Fleck is looking at perhaps the most consequential hire of his tenure.

Who will he hire? If I had to guess, it’ll either be an internal promotion (a la Greg Harbaugh Jr.) or an outside hire not on anyone’s radar (a la Mike Sanford Jr.). But until a hiring is announced, why not engage in pointless speculation? Here are some potential candidates:

Joe Harasymiak

Current Position: Defensive Coordinator, Rutgers

The current Rutgers defensive coordinator is the obvious choice. Prior to calling defensive plays for the Scarlet Knights, Harasymiak spent three years at Minnesota, where he served as co-defensive coordinator alongside Rossi. This season, Rutgers ranked 19th nationally in total defense, 11th in passing defense, and tied for 27th in scoring defense.

The challenge here: Salary. If you recall, it was at this time last year that the Gophers lost offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to the Scarlet Knights, who signed him to a three-year contract worth $1.3 million annually. Harasymiak signed an extension with Rutgers in the spring that raised his annual salary to $1 million. Rossi was set to earn $1.15 million next fall, which would have made him the highest paid defensive coordinator in program history. If Minnesota offers Harasymiak the same, is an annual raise of only $150,000 going to be enough to pry the New Jersey native away from Piscataway? I’m skeptical.

Nick Monroe

Current Position: Cornerbacks Coach & Co-Defensive Coordinator, Minnesota

Monroe is wrapping up his first season at Minnesota and already bears the title of co-defensive coordinator. But his only play-calling experience came in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl, when he was coaching for Syracuse and stepped in for departed defensive coordinator Tony White.

I wouldn’t love this hire, and Matt Simon is proof that the co-coordinator title does not mean you are next in line to inherit play-calling duties when there is a vacancy.

Danny Collins

Current Position: Safeties Coach, Minnesota

We all know Fleck loves homegrown talent. We saw that last year when he promoted Greg Harbaugh Jr. to quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator despite having no prior experience in either position. Collins is only 31 years old and has never been a defensive coordinator, but he has risen through the ranks of Fleck’s coaching staff over the last seven years. He started at Minnesota as a quality control assistant before serving as a graduate assistant, a defensive analyst, and eventually safeties coach.

Promoting Collins to defensive coordinator would be the biggest gamble of Fleck’s career. But as risk-averse as Fleck is, I can absolutely see him making this move.

Tem Lukabu

Current Position: Outside Linebackers Coach, Carolina Panthers

Fleck is all about relationships, and he coached together with Lukabu at Rutgers and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prior to his current position with the Panthers, Lukabu served as defensive coordinator for three seasons with Boston College. The results weren’t great, admittedly. The Eagles ranked 66th in total defense and 99th in scoring defense in his final year with the program, but both of Fleck’s previous defensive coordinators had struggles at their previous stops and that didn’t stop him from hiring — for better and for worse.

Spence Nowinsky

Current Position: Defensive Line Coach & Defensive Coordinator, Ohio

I believe the story goes that when Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh needed a new defensive coordinator, he looked up which team ranked No. 1 in defense nationally — at the time it was Boston College — and promptly hired away their defensive coordinator, Don Brown. If Fleck took a similar approach, he might notice that Ohio is ranked fourth nationally in total defense and fifth in scoring defense. The man responsible is defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky.

Believe it or not, Nowinsky has ties to the state of Minnesota, having coached at Minnesota State for three years early in his career. His coaching career also started as a graduate assistant at Wisconsin, where he served under Barry Alvarez for four seasons.

Corey Hetherman

Current Position: Linebackers, Rutgers

If Fleck can’t lure Harasymiak back to the Twin Cities, perhaps he can entice Harasymiak’s top lieutenant. Hetherman has been the Scarlet Knights’ linebackers coach the last two seasons, but prior to that he served as defensive coordinator at James Madison and Maine. His tenure at Maine coincided with Harasymiak’s stint as head coach of the Black Bears. Hetherman has no history with Fleck, though. He is also a New Jersey native.

But we do know Fleck likes to pull coaches from the Greg Schiano coaching tree.