The New Coordinators
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Key Coordinator Hires
As the old saying goes, you can’t fire the team. You can, however, make widespread changes on the coaching staff in an effort to alter the course of a program. It happens at the conclusion of every season, and not just with head coaches.
Somewhat lost in all of the hoopla surrounding the ouster of Joe Paterno at Penn State and the return of Urban Meyer to Ohio State, for example, are the arrivals of a mess of new coordinators from coast-to-coast who share a similar goal—hit the ground running on a new campus or with a new title. Whether it’s on offense or defense, each of the promoted coaches has been tasked with the responsibility of taking a challenging situation and improving it. Their predecessors have been canned, not retained, or promoted to another job. For them, there’s an enormous opportunity to bolster the resume and make the new boss look shrewd.
22. Chuck Amato, Akron
With the hiring of Amato to be his defensive coordinator, new coach Terry Bowden has brought a touch of Tallahassee to Akron. The longtime assistant under Terry’s dad, Bobby, at Florida State figures to be a steal for a Zips staff that rarely attracts Amato’s breadth of knowledge, or his contagious personality. Not only does Amato have four decades of experience on the sidelines, but his prowess as a recruiter will be a huge plus as the program attempts to upgrade its overall talent base. After Amato was not retained by Jimbo Fisher two years ago, Amato stepped away from coaching in 2010 in order to wage a successful battle with throat cancer.
21. Jason Phillips, SMU
Phillips might be just what the doctor ordered. The doctor being coach June Jones, naturally. SMU’s run-and-shoot has been spitting out plenty of blanks over the last two years, a surprising development for a Jones-choreographed production. Phillips, who actually played for Jones while with the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, was a key figure within the Houston passing attack, but was passed over when the program was looking for a successor to ex-head coach Kevin Sumlin. This is still Jones’ offense, but Phillips brings a fresh, new energy to the Hilltop, and a proven track record of recruiting the state of Texas.
20. Shawn Watson, Louisville
Rather than look outside the program, head coach Charlie Strong has opted instead to promote Watson from quarterbacks coach to full-time offensive coordinator. He’d actually called plays for the final eight games of 2011, his first in Louisville, after predecessor Mike Sanford left the program. Best known for an inconsistent five-year stop at Nebraska, where he worked for Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini, Watson’s been put in charge of developing franchise QB Teddy Bridgewater, who made his successful debut last fall. The Cards were noticeably more potent in the second half of the year, momentum Watson hopes to carry into 2012.
19. Dave Campo, Kansas
While Campo has experience at the college level, it’s been a while since he had to recruit players or teach 18 and 9-year-olds. In fact, it’s been almost a quarter-century since he was a member of Jimmy Johnson’s staff with the Miami Hurricanes. Campo is best known for his many years with the Dallas Cowboys, including three seasons as the head coach. Although he struggled as the top guy, he’s had a long history of success when allowed to focus on a single unit. He’ll earn his paycheck in Lawrence, inheriting an inexperienced Jayhawks defense that yielded more than 500 yards and 43 points a game last season.
18. Joe DeForest, West Virginia
Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen will be reuniting with a longtime friend from their days together in Stillwater. DeForest was an underrated staple for more than a decade at Oklahoma State, first under Les Miles before being retained by Mike Gundy. DeForest’s was lured to Morgantown for his prowess as a defensive coach, special teams wiz and procurer of untapped talent. His hiring by Holgorsen is a particular coup since West Virginia has agreed to join the Big 12, meaning DeForest gives the program a key presence and a boots-on-the-ground feel for territories in the Southwest, such as Texas and Oklahoma.
17. Noel Mazzone, UCLA
Of all the hires new coach Jim L. Mora made in the past month, none was more important than Mazzone, who’ll be in charge of an offense that’s been spinning its wheels for years. He’s inventive and versatile, having coordinated six different college attacks from three distinct conferences. He’s also adaptable, willing to work with the talent he inherits in Westwood. Mazzone wants to spread the field, but in a simplified manner that allows the playmakers to react rather than dwell too hard on the process. With Mora calling the shots, it’s safe to assume that there’ll be dashes of a traditional pro-style system as well.
16. Lorenzo Ward, South Carolina
Steve Spurrier could have looked outside the organization to replace Ellis Johnson, even flirting with the idea of hiring former Arizona coach Mike Stoops, but chose instead to hire from within. The coach and the coordinator share the same vision for the Gamecocks defense, aiming to attack from all levels with a combination of tenacity and speed. If Ward’s first game on the job is any indication of the future, the South Carolina defense is going to be in capable hands. With Johnson already off to his new gig at Southern Miss, the Gamecocks put Nebraska in a Capital One Bowl vice grip, shutting it out over the final three quarters of a 30-13 win.
15. Everett Withers, Ohio State
Withers is the final piece of a terrific defensive staff in Columbus that already includes Luke Fickell on linebackers and Mike Vrabel on linemen. Heck, Fickell and Withers were interim head coaches at Ohio State and North Carolina, respectively, a year ago, which could afford Urban Meyer the confidence needed to devote most of his time to the offense. Withers plans to leave his ego at the door as he returns to the role of assistant, focusing on coaching up his new pupils, especially in the secondary, and doing whatever is necessary to get the Buckeyes back on track. He’ll initially take his lead from Fickell, who has held the co-defensive coordinator title since it was given to him by former head coach Jim Tressel in 2005.
14. Bob Bostad, Pittsburgh
If there’s one area that’s plagued the Panthers the most in recent seasons, it’s been an offensive line that allowed more sacks than any other program in the country in 2011. Bostad couldn’t arrive at a more opportune time. Yeah, he was hired to coordinate the Pitt offense, but his top priority will be to begin correcting the myriad problems plaguing the decrepit blocking unit. He was an underrated cog in the Wisconsin machine, the Midwest’s version of current Florida State line coach Rick Trickett. Bostad and buddy Paul Chryst will look to emulate the Badgers’ pro-style offense that set up the pass with a power running game.
13. Scot Loeffler, Auburn
Nearly six weeks after Gus Malzahn found a new home at Arkansas State, the Tigers finally found their successor. More than anything else, Gene Chizik pined for a man who could coach up his young quarterbacks, which has long been the calling card of Loeffler. Known best for his work with Michigan’s passers under Lloyd Carr, he’ll now turn his attention to wide-eyed pupils Clint Moseley, Kiehl Frazier and Zeke Pike. Loeffler has vowed to build a unique system around the personnel he inherits at Auburn, though it seems highly unlikely that he’ll attempt to emulate the fast-paced, up-tempo attack that prevailed on the Plains for the past three seasons.
12. Ted Roof, Penn State
For his first defense, Bill O’Brien will be handing the reigns to Roof, a well-traveled veteran assistant. The two coached together at Duke in 2005 and 2006, O’Brien under ironically Roof, so there’s an established relationship, and a comfort level with each other’s tendencies. The new coordinator will be trying to distance himself from a mediocre three-year stint at Auburn, which preceded a 33-day stop at UCF for former Georgia Tech boss George O’Leary. For those who’d grown tired of Tom Bradley’s soft zone schemes at Penn State, Roof is more inclined to blitz, and will employ the kinds of man coverages that were rare in Happy Valley.
11. Robert Prince, Boise State
For the better part of a decade, Boise State has been a breeding ground for talented, upwardly-mobile assistant coaches. In other words, Prince is liable to use this opportunity to supplant Brent Pease at offensive coordinator, who’s moved on to Florida, as a stepping stone to a big promotion in a couple of years. By the way, prior to Pease at OC were current Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and present Broncos head coach Chris Petersen. The program’s receivers coach and pass game coordinator in 2011, Prince has been hailed by his players as a gifted teacher who brings energy and a positive vibe to the practice field.
10. Mike Locksley, Maryland
Despite crashing and burning for a little more than two years as the coach of New Mexico, Locksley remains a valuable assistant coach. And that’s never truer than at Maryland, a campus located not far from his Washington D.C. roots. Locksley’s impact as Randy Edsall’s offensive coordinator will pale in comparison to his ability to raise the overall talent level of the Terrapins. He’s a potential game-changer for a staff. Just ask former Illinois head coach Ron Zook, who never would have gotten the likes of WR Arrelious Benn from the nation’s capital had Locksley not been on the payroll. Locksley’s back in his element, and ready to make a difference at Maryland.
9. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M
Since being hired by the Aggies, one of new head coach Kevin Sumlin’s most important moves was bringing Kingsbury over from Houston, where he was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Just 32, he’s one of the bright young minds in a game that’s become increasingly reliant on the pass. Kingsbury has been at the forefront of ingenuity and inventiveness, learning from Mike Leach as a player at Texas Tech, and playing a role in the Cougars’ near-perfect season a year ago. His top priority in 2012 will be to elevate the play of QB Ryan Tannehill’s youthful successors, Matt Joeckel, Jameill Showers, Johnny Manziel and Matt Davis.
8. Sal Sunseri, Tennessee
For Sunseri, this move is a huge promotion—and an even bigger responsibility. He’s being tasked with turning around a sketchy Volunteers defense that’s underachieved over the past few seasons. It’s going to help that he has SEC experience, specifically coaching on an Alabama defense that was the stingiest in America a year ago. While Sunseri has a proven track record as a position coach and as a recruiter, how will he fare in his first high-profile opportunity to call plays and be the defensive boss at a major program? Coach Derek Dooley is confident, but Tennessee fans are keeping their fingers crossed.
7. Justin Wilcox, Washington
The opening at defensive coordinator in Knoxville was created when Wilcox left for Montlake after spending a couple of years in the SEC. He’s one of the up-and-coming stars still in his 30’s, who played at Oregon before cutting his coaching teeth at Boise State. Steve Sarkisian brought him aboard with a singular, yet elusive goal in mind—fix a failing defense that’s been the Huskies’ Achilles’ heel for years. If Wilcox is successful where so many others have failed, look for two developments to occur: Washington to take a giant step closer to Pac-12 contention, and the young coach to begin getting mentioned as a candidate for head coaching jobs.
6. Jeff Casteel, Arizona
Reunited. And for Arizona fans, it feels so good. Following a long negotiation, Rich Rodriguez succeeded in luring longtime defensive coordinator Casteel out of West Virginia and on to the Tucson campus. The pair worked very well together in Morgantown, the latter running the defense, and the former fine-tuning the spread offense. Casteel has long been considered one of college football’s best defensive coaches, consistently turning mediocre high school recruits into next-level cogs of an effective unit. His unique 3-3-5 stack, which will be employed by the Wildcats, is designed to get as many good athletes on the field as possible, turning them loose in an exercise of controlled chaos.
5. Brian VanGorder, Auburn
Gene Chizik put out an SOS after his defense finished among the SEC’s worst at stopping other teams in 2011. He honed in on VanGorder, and got his man, enticing him to leave his position as the Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator. The former Georgia assistant under Mark Richt—and 2003 Broyles Award winner as the nation’s top assistant coach—knows the conference, understands what it takes to recruit the South’s top talent and has displayed a penchant for building stout defenses. And don’t expect him to employ a multi-year plan to get things right on the Plains. No, VanGorder plans to hit the ground running in his first year, quickly making this hire rank among the best in the offseason.
4. Doug Nussmeier, Alabama
Shortly after winning the BCS Championship Game, Nick Saban addressed his staff’s attrition, replacing outgoing offensive coordinator Jim McElwain with Nussmeier. The newest member of the Crimson Tide family is coming off a very successful three-year stretch in the same position under Steve Sarkisian at Washington. He’s a respected teacher, well-liked by his players and adept at raising the level of his quarterbacks. Just ask his two most recent pupils, current Tennessee Titans QB Jake Locker and current Husky starter Keith Price. This will go down as a very shrewd hire for Saban, and a great match for QB AJ McCarron, who’s about to enter the second half of his ’Bama career.
3. Mike Stoops, Oklahoma
His tenure as the Arizona head coach over after seven middling years, Stoops is once again joining forces with brother Bob in the hopes of rekindling the success they had together a decade ago. The pair helped build one of the country’s premier defenses, a unit that spearheaded the 2000 BCS National Championship. Mike is a can’t-miss hire for Bob, whose defenses have shown more frequent lapses in recent seasons. His energy, defensive acumen and familiarity with the program make him the kind of addition that would have been a mistake to pass up. He’ll quickly mesh with the rest of the staff, providing a fresh outlook and set of ideas from an old familiar source.
2. Brent Pease, Florida
The last two seasons have not been kind to the Gators offense, a unit that hasn’t traditionally had problems scoring points. With new Kansas coach Charlie Weis calling the plays, Florida averaged less than 15 points over its final eight games versus FBS opponents. Depending on the angle, Pease is entering either a bear trap or the opportunity of a lifetime. Defensive-minded Will Muschamp needs someone to lead his offense, and provide it with more of an identity than it’s had since Tim Tebow graduated. Pease’s latest stop was Boise, where he was a key member of Chris Petersen’s staff since 2006. The aggressive play-caller is also no stranger to the SEC, having done a nice job with Kentucky in 2001 and 2002.
1. Brent Venables, Clemson
Someone’s head was bound to roll following Clemson’s disastrous 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele never stood a chance. In his place steps Venables, an impressive hire by head coach Dabo Swinney. What’s not to like about the new man on the staff? He’s young, gifted as a teacher and a recruiter and leaves behind an impressive 13-year legacy as either a coordinator or co-coordinator for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Venables has always been surrounded by elite defensive athletes, a situation that doesn’t figure to change in Death Valley. This is the kind of fresh start that could result in increased exposure and a stepping stone to a long-awaited head job.