Athletic directors dig the scoreboard. That’s the most logical conclusion from the past three hiring cycles in college football, where the selection of coaches with defensive backgrounds has become about as rare as, well, defensive stops on the field.
We are in an era of relentless offensive football, where frenetic pace, pinball scoring and spread fields have become the norm. Nearly 15 years after innovators like Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer and Mike Leach helped transform the sport, the hiring trends followed.
The movement toward hiring offensive-minded coaches has been extreme, with nearly 80 percent of coaches hired the last three years coming from a primary offensive background. Considering that trend and the glut of solid defensive candidates, it’s logical to project a market correction.
According to a Yahoo Sports analysis, just eight of the past 47 hires in college football the past two seasons have been coaches from a defensive background. In the past three years, it’s just 15 of 70. That’s 17 percent over a two-year period and 21 percent over three years.
College football hiring trends have tricked up, in a sense. The so-called “Young and Handsome” NFL trend, where offensive gurus like Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have sent the league scrambling for copycats, has come with an embrace of more wide-open college-style offenses.
In college, between struggles in attendance and prying students away from their iPhones, the focus on finding the next offensive guru makes sense for an athletic director. Zone blitzes don’t fill the seats.
So why a market correction? Well, the sheer number of offensive coaches have drained the pool of available candidates. Many of the younger generation of coaches – Dan Mullen, Ryan Day, Josh Heupel, Mike Norvell and Jason Candle come to mind – have retained play-calling duties. That limits the number of coordinator/play-callers who can be hired, as search firms covet that criteria. Florida quarterback coach Brian Johnson, for example, is one of the country’s sharp young coaches but lacks the cachet of play-calling at Florida. “There aren’t a ton of offensive candidates,” said an industry source. “All the head coaches are now calling the plays.”
After Clemson’s Tony Elliott, who is the clear-cut top assistant coach in the sport for the second year in a row, the most experience and qualified coaches are on the defensive side of the ball. The big thing that could hold those coaches back is that they’re well compensated, as top defensive coaches like Clemson’s Brent Venables ($2.36 million), LSU’s Dave Aranda ($2.5 million) and Texas A&M’s Mike Elko ($2.1 million) are priced out of nearly every Group of Five job.
But high-end prices aside, it does appear that more defensive coaches will be given opportunities this season. The market will inevitably push back that way.
“I think it’s cyclical,” said an industry source. “It really depends on the athletic director and the job. I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a day, given the offensive rules, where more defensive coaches get hired than offense. But it could be closer to 60-40 this year.”
Here are three lists breaking down the rising assistant coaches. They are broken up into categories – rising coaches, those who can catapult themselves in high-pressure new coordinator gigs and the top Group of Five assistants.
1) Tony Elliott, Clemson OC – He’s been consistently picky about jobs that he’d prefer. Can he follow the path of Kirby Smart, who held out as a high-end assistant for an elite job at Georgia? He’s a West Coast native, which means he’d be intrigued by USC. Is it a stretch that they’d look across the country at the Clemson model?
2) Dave Aranda, LSU DC – He’s earned the golden handcuffs with consistent production and has the talent for another elite year. The $2.5 million eliminates him from a majority of the Group of Five jobs, and he may face the idea of taking a pay cut for his head-coaching start.
3) Jimmy Lake, Washington DC – Lake will be selective about where he leaves Seattle for, as evidenced by declining to interview at Colorado last year. He’s a bit more obtainable than some of his DC peers, making $1.5 million annually. Another top-five scoring defense will continue to garner strong interest.
4) Mike Elko, Texas A&M DC – He had college head coaching and NFL coordinating opportunities last season. Ultimately, he chose to stay in College Station, where the Aggies are primed for a big year on defense and are quietly pointing to 2020 as a year they could contend for the College Football Playoff.
5) Brent Venables, Clemson DC – The most accomplished coach on this list. He never ranks as high as his reputation, as he’s lacked the motivation to leave his record contract. Could a one-percent type job ever call?
6) Todd Orlando, Texas DC – Found himself in the mix at Temple last year, and similar opportunities are expected to follow. He’s the most important member of Tom Herman’s staff, and if Texas’ ascension back into national relevance continues, so will his opportunities.
7) Chip Long, Notre Dame OC – He’s the prototype of a young, gunslinger play-caller that’s missing from this market. After a CFP appearance with Ian Book at quarterback, an encore would mean a strong round of suitors.
8) Clark Lea, Notre Dame DC – With his Vanderbilt degree and philosophical nature, he’s the archetype of a Notre Dame assistant. Notre Dame ranked No. 13 in scoring defense in Lea’s first year as a coordinator and play-caller. A repeat of that will get his phone ringing.
9) Jeff Scott, Clemson CO-OC – It’s the Clemson way to be picky, and Scott has been judicious, much like his colleagues, about leaving Dabo’s cocoon. He got some Group of Five interest last season, but is waiting for something bigger.
10) Morgan Scalley, Utah DC – The Utes are the Pac-12 favorite and loaded on defense, with Scalley’s defensive line expected to be among the most stout in college football. Utah finished top 20 in scoring defense and total defense last year and is expected to be better. That will make Scalley a buzzy name out West.
11) Beau Baldwin, Cal OC – The Bears struggled on offense last season, but the argument for Baldwin comes from being the head coach on an FCS title team at Eastern Washington in 2010. He’d bring an identity, experience and spread-offense expertise to one of the struggling Mountain West programs.
12) Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin DC – If Wisconsin goes back to being Wisconsin again, Leonhard’s name will again be buzzy. His walk-on-turned-All-American-turned-NFL player story portends he’ll overachieve in the coaching space.
13) Brian Ferentz, Iowa OC – With his father extended through 2025, the 36-year-old Ferentz is hitting the point where spreading his wings makes sense. His time under Bill Belichick in New England will certainly be attractive to athletic directors.
14) Don Brown, Michigan DC – He’d be an outside-the-box hire at 64, and the $1.4 million salary prices him out of the MAC and some other smaller leagues. For results and energy, it’s hard to argue he wouldn’t be an asset to a university running his own program.
15) Marcus Arroyo, Oregon OC – The Ducks offense finished second in the Pac-12 in scoring last season (34.8), behind only Washington State. But the expectations with presumptive No. 1 pick Justin Herbert returning at quarterback and 153 career starts on the offensive line will be to improve on 9-4 this season.
16) Butch Jones, Alabama offensive analyst – He’s worked two years with Nick Saban, and his success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati may be an attractive to an athletic director seeking a veteran hand to take on a hard job. Could Jones, 51, follow the model of Mack Brown and Les Miles in returning to a head-coach role?
17) Danny Gonzales, Arizona State DC – Comes from the Rocky Long tree, one of the most stout defensive strongholds on the West Coast. He’s credited there as a huge key to Herm Edwards’ successful transition back into coaching. He’s got nine starters returning on defense this year, so expect his profile to rise.
18) Tim Beck, Texas OC – Beck got a majority of the blame when Texas’ offense went flat in Year 1 under Herman. He got little credit for the offense’s resurrection and the significant development of Sam Ehlinger in Year 2. He has a solid body of work from his days at Kansas, Nebraska and Ohio State.
19) Major Applewhite, Alabama analyst – Applewhite is in quality control this season at Alabama after getting fired at Houston. With the coordinator market thin, he’s shaping up as an attractive candidate to join a staff as an offensive coordinator. The view in college football of his firing after an 8-5 season was more a byproduct of administrative wanderlust than anything he’d done.
20) Justin Lustig, Syracuse associate head coach – He’s the top assistant in a rising Syracuse program, and he can take Dino Babers’ frenetic offensive system to a new address. Syracuse’s elite special teams under Lustig – No. 2 among Power Five programs last year – will help his case. Won Division II Coach of the Year as a head coach at Edinboro in 2016, as he took over an 0-11 program and they went 9-2.
Top coordinators in the crosshairs
1. Josh Gattis, Michigan OC – The highest-stakes coordinator experiment of the season comes with Gattis taking defiantly pro-style Michigan and turning it a no-huddle spread system. He’s a first-time play-caller, which adds to the intrigue. If it works seamlessly, he’s a top candidate. If not, it will get interesting.
2. Graham Harrell, USC OC – The mission is simple – save Clay Helton’s job and restore some luster to a once-proud program. Harrell’s earned high marks in the Air Raid family for his acumen, and there’s plenty of offensive skill. How quickly can it translate?
3. Jeff Hafley, Ohio State DC – He comes from the NFL with the task of overhauling one of the worst defenses in Ohio State history. Hafley has earned raves so far, especially on the recruiting trail, as Ryan Day’s most crucial hire.
4. Steve Sarkisian, Alabama OC – The former USC coach is coming off a two-year stint in the NFL that wasn’t overwhelming. He enters what’s annually the hottest coordinator seat in football; Nick Saban is notoriously difficult to please. All that offensive skill makes play-calling easier, however.
5. Alex Grinch, Oklahoma DC – There’s a lot of optimism in Norman. Grinch thrived as the defensive foil to Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense at Washington State. The talent level at OU is what’s unknown. Grinch may have some growing pains until the talent reloads.
6. Kendal Briles, Florida State OC – He inherits an offensive line that couldn’t block folding chairs or stay onside. After injecting life into offenses at FAU and Houston, can he get the Willie Taggart era back on stable footing?
7. Dan Enos, Miami OC – After fleeing Tuscaloosa for Miami, can Enos help stabilize a lackluster offense? There’s immediate pressure on him to give an adrenaline shot to an offense that finished No. 65 in scoring last season. The issue: Does he have a competent quarterback?
8. James Coley, Georgia OC – Will this position at Georgia evolve into the same revolving door it has been at Alabama? (Why would Jim Chaney possibly flee to Tennessee?) Coley is calling plays at UGA for the first time, but he’s got plenty of experience. Having Jake Fromm to lean on helps. But who will he throw it to?
9. Pete Golding, Alabama DC – He played a significant role in Alabama’s defense after arriving in 2018 from UTSA. Now he’s got the defensive coordinator title, and we all know the expectations are championship or bust.
10. Tom Manning, Iowa State OC – He’s returned from a one-year jump in the NFL to help continue his old pal Matt Campbell’s resurrection of Iowa State football. With QB Brock Purdy and the program’s recent success, there’s pressure to succeed immediately.
Here are the top Group of Five assistant coaches
1. Marcus Freeman, Cincinnati DC – He played for Luke Fickell at Ohio State and has developed into one of the country’s bright young coaching prospects. Be ready to hear his name if UCLA and Ohio State struggle to gain yards.
2. Bert Watts, Fresno State DC – The Bulldogs finished No. 3 nationally in scoring defense last year under Watts, holding opponents to 14.1 points per game. That included a 19-16 overtime victory against Boise State in the Mountain West title game.
3. Adam Fuller, Memphis DC – He runs a similar style of defense as Mike Elko. At Marshall last season, the Herd finished top 20 in run defense, takeaways and sacks.
4. Mike Sanford, Utah State OC – Inheriting stud quarterback Jordan Love will help Sanford rebound after getting fired as head coach at Western Kentucky. Remember, this is where Heupel’s career turnaround began after he got fired at Oklahoma.
5. Will Hall, Tulane OC – The Green Wave’s offense is expected to be flush with LSU transfer Justin McMillan returning at quarterback. Hall has also been pivotal in helping Tulane put together the No. 1 Group of Five recruiting class.
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