Colorado needed a new leader on defense and D.J. Eliot needed a fresh start.

On Thursday, the two sides came together, as CU head football coach Mike MacIntyre announced that Eliot has been hired as the Buffaloes' defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

Eliot, who spent the past four years in the same position at Kentucky, replaces Jim Leavitt, who left CU last month to take over the defense at Oregon. Leavitt helped CU (10-4) rank in the top 20 nationally on defense this season.

"I'm excited about having D.J. Eliot as our defensive coordinator; he brings a lot of expertise and energy to our defense," CU head coach MacIntyre said in a press release. "Also he is one of the great, young defensive minds in the game of college football today."

Expected to arrive in Boulder on Friday, Eliot, 40, signed a three-year contract. His salary has not been released, and the deal must be reviewed and approved by the CU Board of Regents.

Eliot made roughly $575,000 at Kentucky last season; Leavitt, the highest-paid assistant coach in CU history, made roughly $510,000.

For Eliot, who played linebacker at Wyoming, the move offers a chance to get closer to family. His wife, Miekel, is from Westminster and graduated from Northglenn High School.

"I am very excited to work at a great program with an excellent head coach and at a place that has always been special to me and my family," Eliot said in a press release.


Coming to CU could also be a fresh start for Eliot, who had mixed results at Kentucky in his first job as a coordinator.

Kentucky's defense ranked 77th or lower nationally in scoring defense and total defense in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

Eliot's best season at Kentucky came in 2015, when the Wildcats ranked 68th in scoring defense (allowing 27.4 points per game) and 59th in total defense (394.2 yards per game).

He coached 11 players at Kentucky who earned all-SEC honors and linebacker Bud Dupree was a first-round pick of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015.

This past season was a challenge, however.

Eliot helped Kentucky (7-6) to its first bowl appearance since 2010 and its first winning season since 2009. The Wildcats lost to Georgia Tech, 33-18, in the Taxslayer Bowl.

Despite the success, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops took over defensive play-calling duties after the Wildcats gave up 1,084 yards and 89 points in a 0-2 start to the 2016 season, losing to Southern Mississippi and Florida.

"There was room for growth there (with the defense), but it went so badly so quickly that it felt like (Eliot) could be on the chopping block," said Jennifer Smith, who covers Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It's hard to pay a guy $550,000-plus a season to not call plays at all and to just sort of be a behind-the-scenes organizer."

Overall, Kentucky ranked 86th nationally in scoring defense (31.3 points per game) and 85th in total defense (434.2 yards per game). The Wildcats ranked 92nd in sacks, with 21.

Smith, who has covered the Wildcats throughout Eliot's time in Lexington, described him as a "risk-averse" play-caller.

"He's just a very measured guy, and he's kind of uncomfortable with the limelight that a defensive coordinator job gives, I think — at least he was at Kentucky in his first try at it," she said. "He's a highly organized, very methodical, very detailed guy. In the right circumstance, I think he could be a really strong play-caller and really good at his job."

Beginning his career as a graduate assistant at Wyoming in 1999, Eliot has been known as a solid recruiter and position coach.

"His players really seemed to respond well to him, especially the linebacker group," said Joe Mussatto, who covers Kentucky for "That's who he had the biggest effect on. I would say he's kind of a players' coach."

Eliot has also been closely tied to Stoops throughout his career. Stoops was an assistant coach at Wyoming when Eliot was a player. The two then coached together at Wyoming (1999), Houston (2000-01), Miami (2002), Florida State (2010-12) and Kentucky.

Smith said Eliot and Stoops "literally are like brothers." Despite Eliot's demotion this season, Smith said she never felt the relationship between the two became strained.

Eliot told the Herald-Leader on Thursday that he and Stoops remain close, even as Eliot heads to Boulder.

"He can't get rid of me as a friend," Eliot said.

While Eliot and Stoops will remain friends, Smith said, "I think in a lot of ways (Eliot) maybe needed to get out from underneath Stoops' shadow."

He will have that chance at Colorado, where he'll be tasked with rebuilding a defense that has lost eight starters to graduation.

CU plans to continue running a 3-4 base defense, which is what Eliot ran at Kentucky.

Eliot told the Herald-Leader he is excited for the opportunity.

"We're fired up about it," he said.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at or