Falcons tap VanGorder to run defense

ATLANTA -- Just one month after resigning his position as the Atlanta Falcons' linebackers coach to go to South Carolina as Steve Spurrier's defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder is back with the NFL team, as the first key hire of rookie coach Mike Smith's regime.

Smith announced at his introductory news conference here Thursday afternoon that the itinerant VanGorder will fill the job as his defensive coordinator.

VanGorder, 48, was the linebackers coach in Jacksonville in 2005, where he worked under Smith, who was the Jags' defensive coordinator.

Smith also announced that veteran NFL assistant Emmitt Thomas, who took over the Falcons as interim head coach after Bobby Petrino resigned with three games remaining in the 2007 season, will remain with the club as assistant head coach. Thomas, who has been with the Falcons since 2002, will be working under his fourth different head coach with the franchise, and 2008 will mark his 41st season in the NFL as a player or coach.

The highly respected Thomas, 64, is a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year for his standout 13-year career as a defensive back for the Kansas City Chiefs.

For VanGorder, the job as defensive coordinator will be his sixth different position in five seasons. He served as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at the University of Georgia 2001-2004. In 2005, he was the linebackers coach at Jacksonville, then accepted the head coach position at Georgia Southern in 2006. After one year in the college ranks, he jumped to the Falcons as part of Petrino's staff in 2007, but left to go to South Carolina last month.

When VanGorder took the job on Spurrier's staff in mid-December, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I'm a college guy."

He didn't stay a "college guy" for very long. It's believed that, in addition to the offer to come back to Atlanta as defensive coordinator, VanGorder also had an opportunity to replace Smith as defensive coordinator with the Jaguars.

Smith will continue to build his staff in coming days. It is believed his first choice for offensive coordinator is former Buffalo Bills head coach Mike Mularkey, who spent the past two seasons on the Miami Dolphins' staff. Mularkey is believed to be choosing between the offer to run Smith's offense or to join the Tampa Bay staff as a position coach.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com