LSU's long search for its next defensive coordinator is nearing an end.
The Tigers athletic department is expected to hire Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones as the school's next defensive coordinator, a source confirmed with The Advocate, which ends a search that included at least four interviewed coaches and two close calls that didn't work out.
The news was first reported by The Athletic's Bruce Feldman.
But in the end, LSU coach Ed Orgeron is nearing landing his top defensive assistant, a tenured coach who has served on almost every level of football, including a year each at Franklin High, Jeanerette High and Nicholls State.
The Maryland native played defensive back at Morgan State, then began his coaching career in 2001 as a graduate assistant at Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina. Jones coached safeties at Nicholls State in 2002, then was the defensive coordinator at Franklin in 2003 and Jeanerette in 2004, before returning to the college level as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Bowie State from 2005-09.
After spending the 2010 season as the cornerbacks coach at UCLA, Jones moved to the Canadian Football League and was the defensive backs coach with the Montreal Alouettes for one season.
Jones coached the secondary at Hawaii from 2012-14, then joined former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's staff in 2015 as a defensive backs coach at Wisconsin, where Aranda was the defensive coordinator.
Aranda left for LSU after that season, and Jones returned to the NFL, where he spent two seasons as an assistant defensive backs coach with the Miami Dolphins, two seasons as a secondary/cornerbacks coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, then this past year with the Vikings.
The terms of the deal are not yet known, and, once approved by the LSU Board of Supervisors, the rising coach will officially have his most prestigious job yet.
Jones joins the Tigers football program less than three weeks after Orgeron's top choice, Marcus Freeman, chose to leave Cincinnati for Notre Dame instead, and less than a week after LSU's complex deal with New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen fell through when the Saints stuck to wording in Nielsen's contract that prevented him from leaving for a college job. The Saints then gave Nielsen a new three-year deal, plus the title of assistant head coach.
Jones' role on Orgeron's staff will 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 Jones will have major input on how the staff is eventually organized.
Orgeron expressed a desire to move toward a more multiple defense in an 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 Jones 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 Jones 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.”