Major Applewhite made one of the most important hires of his young tenure as he brought in Mark D'Onofrio at Defensive Coordinator. D'Onofrio replaces the highly successful Todd Orlando who followed Tom Herman to Austin. What do we know about D'Onofrio? Good question, let's figure that out. Together.
D'Onofrio is a Jersey guy who played at Penn State with future employer Al Golden. He's been a 3-4 guy, which is a good, as his base scheme matches up with Orlando's. However, just as there are infinite "spread offenses," not all 3-4s are the same. More on that later.
D'Onofrio has coached at Georgia, Rutgers and Virginia. Most recently D'Onofrio was attached to Golden at Temple and Miami. Once Golden was ousted after the 2015 season, D'Onofrio apparently took 2016 off. There were some theories that he was coaching at a Boys and Girls Club. We don't know if that's true and even if it were, those organizations don't keep accurate statistics so it's probably a dead end. Let's look back at his Miami and Temple teams.
If you look at D'Onofrio's defenses through the eyes of ESPN's defensive efficiency ratings, a measure of the units contributions to the overall team's scoring margin on a per play basis, you'll see a Temple unit that made incremental improvements, from a 119th ranking (worst in college football at the time) up into 48th. At Miami, where the caliber of athlete obviously jumped, D'Onofrio's defenses failed to finish in the top 40 in four of his five seasons.
At Miami, focusing on Scoring Defense, D'Onofrio's first year was his best, ranking 17th. In three of the next four seasons his units would rank above 60, the exception being his 2014 defense that ranked 35th.
During his Miami tenure his team ranked 70 or worse in explosive plays allowed in three of his five seasons. When the Canes were good at limiting plays of 20 yards or more, they were very good at it, ranking 5th in 2014 and 6th in 2011. When they weren't good at it, they were bad. Case in point, 2013's defense which ranked 95th among FBS schools in explosive plays allowed.
Miami has a proud tradition and a vocal alumni base who like to see things done a certain way. Golden and D'Onofrio were always seen as outsiders to the tradition. Once success didn't come, those dissonant voices grew louder and louder and D'Onofrio was clearly in the cross hairs. The criticisms at Miami was that the 'Canes defense was too complicated and thereby mitigated Miami's ability to play aggressively. At Miami there is some attachment to the 4-3, alums of "The U" wanted a more aggressive 4-3 with man to man coverage. D'Onofrio didn't deliver that.
Some blamed D'Onofrio for Golden's failures at Miami, even saying that his friendship with D'Onofrio clouded his judgment when other coaches would have moved on to another defensive mind. Golden stuck with his college buddy and the results didn't come.
D'Onofrio's version of the 3-4 is less aggressive that Houston saw under Orlando, or at least it has been. He relies heavily on proper alignment, as all defensive coaches do, but he's run a lot more zone coverage with his linebackers having coverage and area responsibilities.
Last season Orlando's unit was one of the brightest spots in a nine win season. The Cougars were very good on third down and dominant against the run. Ed Oliver and Matthew Adams return along with some good pieces in the secondary, but Houston loses a lot of defensive production. Tyus Bowser and Steven Jenkins were disruptive from their linebacker positions. Safety Brandon Wilson was a great playmaker as well with 29 career starts. Houston shouldn't miss too many beats offensively with Kyle Allen and company running Applewhite's offense. The defense however, could take a significant hit.