LSU is in the middle of finalizing a complex deal with New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen to make him the Tigers' next defensive coordinator, a development that comes just a day after the Saints were eliminated in the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs.
The news was first reported by NFL Network's Jane Slater, who reported that Nielsen met with Saints coach Sean Payton and told him of his intention to take the LSU job earlier today. Slater later reported that the Saints may not be signing off on the move over a dispute in Nielsen's contract language that may not support a move to the college level.
LSU remains in the middle of finalizing a complex deal with New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen to make him the Tigers' next …
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Monday evening in a radio with WWL radio that Nielsen is "obviously a prime candidate" for defensive coordinator, and that the athletic department is "in the process" of finding out who they're going to hire and are "very close" to a decision.
The 41-year-old Nielsen has just finished his fourth season as New Orleans' defensive line coach, a job he acquired after spending four seasons at North Carolina State as the Wolfpack's defensive line coach, recruiting coordinator and run game coordinator. Nielsen was named a candidate in 2015 for the Broyles Award, given annually to college football's top assistant coach.
Most notably, Nielsen has a strong connection to Orgeron. Nielsen played for Orgeron as a defensive tackle at Southern Cal from 1998-2001, and he later served as Orgeron's defensive line coach at Ole Miss from 2005-2007.
If the deal is finalized, the rising coaching would have his most prestigious job yet, and Nielsen would join the Tigers football program two weeks after Orgeron's top choice, Marcus Freeman, chose to leave Cincinnati for Notre Dame instead.
Nielsen's role on Orgeron's staff would perhaps be the most crucial: he would take over a major restoration project with an LSU defense that is coming off its worst statistical season in school history.
LSU's defensive issues were a fundamental flaw in LSU's disappointing 5-5 season in 2020, and those issues ultimately led to LSU parting ways with former coordinator Bo Pelini, who oversaw the program's rocky transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme during a year riddled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with the departure of safeties coach Bill Busch and the retirement of defensive line coach Bill Johnson, the only remaining defensive assistant from last season is cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond.
As things stand, Orgeron only has two spots left to fill within his defensive staff, and it's likely Nielsen will have major input on how the staff is eventually organized.
Nielsen spent 14 seasons coaching college football before eventually leaving for the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. The California native spent a training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles after his USC career, and he played for the Arena Football League's Los Angeles Avengers in 2004.
Nielsen started coaching as a volunteer assistant at USC in 2002, and, after his AFL career, he coached defensive line at Idaho in 2004. Orgeron hired his former player the following season, and, after Orgeron was fired after the 2007 season, Nielsen joined another former USC assistant, Jeff McInerney, at Central Connecticut as McInerney's defensive coordinator and also coached the line and linebackers from 2008-2009.
"I treat Ryan like he's my son," Orgeron said on an SEC teleconference in 2019. "We're very close. He calls me all the time. I'm very proud. He was a good player for us at USC. He was an All-Conference player, a nose tackle. Really liked him. A very smart young man, great character."
Recognition started to pick up for Nielsen in 2010, when he was Tennessee-Martin's defensive line and special teams coach, and the Skyhawks led the Ohio Valley Conference in total defense. Nielsen moved up to the FBS level at Northern Illinois, where he was the co-defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator for two seasons.
Orgeron expressed a desire to move toward a more multiple defense in his interview with WWL, saying "you've got to adjust with these spread offenses."
He specifically used Alabama, which just won the national championship, as an example, saying an LSU defense would have to be flexible enough to stop a star running back like the Crimson Tide's Najee Harris while also being able to stop a wide receiver like Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith through the air.
After former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left to become Baylor's head coach after the 2019 season, Orgeron hired Bo Pelini to transition LSU toward a four-man front. The scheme was more what Orgeron wanted, a defense in which he believed LSU would attack more and produce more sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers.
While Pelini's 4-3 scheme ranked sixth nationally with 22 total turnovers forced, 39th nationally in sacks (24) and 38th in tackles for loss (63), LSU's overall performance on defense worsened.
The Tigers ranked 97th nationally in scoring defense (34.9 points allowed per game), 124th in total defense (492 yards allowed per game) and ranked last in total number of plays surrendered of over 40 yards (14), over 50 yards (6) and over 90 yards (1).
There would be much for Nielsen to shore up, but LSU's defense returns the bulk of its starters, a promising group of underclassmen, plus a highly rated recruiting class that includes five-star defensive tackle Maason Smith and safety Sage Ryan.
Orgeron re-recruited LSU's entire starting defensive line. Ends Ali Gaye and Andre Anthony, the team's sack leader, and tackles Glen Logan and Neil Farrell all could have declared for the NFL draft but chose to return for another season.
Including Smith, the unit will be bolstered by freshmen defensive end BJ Ojulari and tackle Jaquelin Roy, who combined for nine tackles for loss and six sacks last season.
Safety JaCoby Stevens and linebacker Jabril Cox are the only two defensive starters who have announced they will enter the NFL draft, which means Nielsen would inherit a secondary stacked with elite talent and a linebacker corps that still needs improvement.
Derek Stingley will be a three-year starting cornerback after becoming an All-American during his freshman season, and Eli Ricks was named third-team All-America at corner as a true freshman last season after recording four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns.
Starting safeties Todd Harris, Jay Ward and Mo Hampton are all currently on track to return, but it's likely that Ryan factors into the rotation early on in 2021, along with four-star Derrick Davis and three-star Matthew Langlois.
Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville will be the most tenured linebackers on the roster. Both are entering their senior seasons and alternated as starters next to Cox in 2020. Navonteque Strong, the nation's top junior college linebacker, according to 247Sports, is also expected to push for a starting job.
“I think we can be one of the top defenses in the conference," Orgeron said last week. "At least a top 20 defense, which should be a big improvement from last year. I don’t want to put too much on ‘em. But you know, with our defensive line, these guys know that they have some positives and they have some strengths.”
Staff writer Amie Just contributed to this report.