How Success and Failure for 2019's Most Important Coordinator Hires Will Be Judged
As someone who is innately optimistic, I love this time of year. To read the local coverage of the biggest college football programs—save one, which we’ll get to momentarily—every freshly hired coordinator is a brilliant mashup of Sean McVay, Vince Lombardi, Bulls-era Phil Jackson, Sun Tzu and Winston Churchill. If he works on offense, his scheme will be multiple and absolutely will be built around the best physical attributes of his players. If he works on defense, his unit will attack. His defense will not wait for the offense to dictate terms like the last guy’s did.
Given that more than half of these people will get fired from these jobs at some point in the future, the overwhelmingly optimistic outlooks probably are a little unrealistic. But it goes against our nature at this point to predict the factors that will be the undoing of the coordinators who don’t make it. Most people want their fellow man to thrive, so they aren’t going to dwell on potential negatives right now. But we strive for realism here, so let’s examine the most important coordinator hires of the offseason. What must they do to succeed? What will go wrong if they fail?
Alex Grinch, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma
We can’t draw much from Grinch’s season at Ohio State because of the oddity of the situation. Greg Schiano was supposed to be a head coach somewhere else and Grinch was supposed to run the defense, but the Tennessee Fan Revolt of 2017 happened and Schiano was still there. So it’s tough to figure out who to credit for a defense that looked great in the season’s final three games but was prone to allowing too many chunk plays for most of the first 11.
So let’s look at Grinch’s final season as Washington State’s defensive coordinator, because we know he was the one in charge. The Cougars ranked 34th in the nation in yards per play allowed (5.13) and 45th in the nation in points allowed per drive (1.91). Those are tremendous numbers considering Mike Leach runs a pure, uncut Air Raid offense on the other side of the ball. By comparison, the 2017 Oklahoma team that won the Big 12 and lost to Georgia in the Rose Bowl ranked No. 82 in yards per play allowed (5.84) and No. 75 in points allowed per drive (2.3). This past season, Oklahoma ranked No. 102 in yards per play allowed (6.13) and No. 113 in points allowed per drive (2.89).
Had Oklahoma had even a serviceable defense in either of the past two seasons, the Sooners might have won one or two national titles. That head coach Lincoln Riley didn’t change coordinators after his first season may go down as one of his bigger regrets, because it was clear after 2017 that Mike Stoops didn’t know how to fix the defense.
But does Grinch? He’ll have more highly recruited players than he had at Washington State, and the level of competition between the Pac-12 and the Big 12 isn’t that different. That suggests Grinch should be able to make Oklahoma’s defense better. Of the players he coached during his three seasons as Washington State’s DC, only one (DB Shalom Luani, a 2017 seventh-rounder) was chosen in the NFL draft. Oklahoma will have NFL-caliber athletes. It will be up to Grinch and his assistants to make them successful.
Grinch’s top priority will be forcing turnovers. It got obscured because Oklahoma produced two defensive scores in a win at West Virginia on Black Friday, but this Sooners defense was awful at forcing turnovers. Oklahoma ranked No. 121 in the nation with 11 takeaways. Grinch’s 2017 Washington State defense ranked ninth in the nation with 28 takeaways. When he met the Oklahoma media Sunday, Grinch mentioned that he did a study while at Washington State in which he found that teams that forced 24 or more turnovers tended to win at least nine games. “We coined a phrase that ‘Takeaways equal victory,’” Grinch told reporters. “It stems from the fact that the sole purpose for the defense to be on the football field is to get the ball back for the offense.”
How Grinch can succeed: If Grinch can push that takeaway number up, the Sooners don’t have to get that much better at covering receivers or stopping the run to have a better defense. If he can push the takeaways up and engineer even a slight improvement in coverage, run stopping and pass rush, the Sooners could be hoisting a national title trophy soon.
How Grinch can fail: Most bowl seasons—including the most recent one—show us that Big 12 defenses don’t stink as much as we believe. Many Big 12 offenses tend to be great at stressing whatever defense they play. If Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Iowa State have great quarterbacks—spoiler alert: They all might in 2019—then you’re going to give up a ton of yards and points.
Steve Sarkisian, offensive coordinator, Alabama
This is the one case we have seen before. For exactly one game. Sarkisian called plays in Alabama’s 35–31 loss to Clemson in the national title game following the 2016 season. Sarkisian had spent that entire season at Alabama as an analyst working alongside friend and fellow fired USC coach Lane Kiffin. Sarkisian had cleaned up after getting fired at USC in 2015 because of alcohol issues, but the partnership between Sark and Nick Saban was not meant to last. Within weeks, Sarkisian, who had already been named Alabama’s OC for the 2017 season, was off to run the Atlanta Falcons’ offense.
Two years later, Sarkisian was fired from the Falcons not long before Alabama OC-apparent Dan Enos took the OC job at Miami. Alabama needed a coordinator who understood how the day-to-day operations at Alabama work, and suddenly the partnership seemed viable again. It also probably didn’t hurt that Sarkisian (as USC’s coach) was on the ground floor of recruiting Tua Tagovailoa and probably would love the chance to coach a transcendent talent who also happens to play with a loaded receiving corps.
Sarkisian just spent two seasons coaching in the NFL, so the NFL passing game concepts left behind by 2017 coordinator Brian Daboll should feel very familiar. Alabama’s run game and quarterback run games remain similar to what Kiffin used, so that also should feel comfortable for Sarkisian.
We can examine the Alabama staff turnover in general and the departure of Enos specifically and decipher what it all means in terms of Alabama’s dominance, but let’s look at this from Sarkisian’s perspective. You just lost your NFL job, and now you have a chance to coach a potential all-time great college quarterback working behind a good offensive line with an absurdly deep group of receivers. We’ve spent a lot of words in the past few weeks wondering if the 44–16 loss to Clemson in the title game plus staff turnover will spell the end of an era for the Tide, but Alabama is still coming off a 14–1 season and has the No. 1 recruiting class coming in.
How Sarkisian can succeed: He keeps Alabama rolling on offense.
How Sarkisian can fail: Alabama loses a game, because Alabama has been so good that the loss of one game constitutes failure.
Josh Gattis, offensive coordinator, Michigan
It’s tough to know what the former Alabama and Penn State receivers coach will do as a playcaller because he’s never been a playcaller before. If he can take some of the best elements from the past two playcallers he’s worked with—and if Jim Harbaugh lets him do it—then the Wolverines should be fairly adaptable. Mike Locksley (Alabama) and Joe Moorhead (Penn State) did a fine job of allowing their offenses to morph into whatever they needed to be on a game-to-game basis. This is what Michigan, which has a mobile, dynamic quarterback and a good collection of receivers, should be. If you are a Michigan fan who spent most of the Ohio State game banging your head against the nearest flat surface, then you know that isn’t always the case.
Can Gattis be the one to say “We’re going to stop trying to establish the run and spread it out because that’s what’s working today” to Harbaugh? Will Harbaugh listen? Harbaugh isn’t completely inflexible. Remember, he coached a team to a Super Bowl using concepts that were somewhat foreign to the NFL at the time.
Michigan improved on the offensive line last season, and the skill position talent base seems sturdy. But the Wolverines need to be capable of scoring in different ways when the defense takes something away.
How Gattis can succeed: He helps Michigan beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten East. This is obviously a team goal, but the people who help the Wolverines accomplish those feats will be celebrated in Ann Arbor for a long time.
How Gattis can fail: If the offense fails to adapt in a big game and Michigan loses, it will feel like more of the same.
TBD, offensive coordinator, USC
The Kliff Kingsbury thing really was a raw deal for USC. Even though it was clear NFL teams were interested in Kingsbury, it still seemed unbelievable when Kingsbury took the USC offensive coordinator that he would get hired as an NFL head coach. Kingsbury’s departure—and the timing—left USC in a tough spot. Few elite coordinators would consider USC for the following reasons:
• Unless the OC can work a miracle, the whole staff probably will get fired.
• If the OC can work a miracle, Clay Helton is still the head coach and the only mobility is to move to a head-coaching job elsewhere.
Maybe Helton should have to save his job by continuing to call plays—as he did at the end of last season after demoting Tee Martin—instead of bringing in a new playcaller. But Helton obviously is allowed to do whatever he feels he must to turn around the Trojans. The problem now is finding someone qualified to do the job.
Here's the sales pitch Helton can make. Quarterback J.T. Daniels is a sophomore who will have a full spring practice and preseason camp this time around. He gets to throw to Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. That should excite potential playcallers. But will it excite a good one enough to risk getting fired in 10 months?
How TBD can succeed: By doing a good enough job to keep the job.
How TBD can fail: USC once again doesn’t reach the potential that its collection of athletes suggests. (This probably wouldn’t only be poor TBD’s fault.)
A Random Ranking
A friend informed me this weekend that he is on a John Hughes movie kick. That got me thinking about Hughes’s incredibly successful but incredibly short directorial career. The late Hughes worked on a lot of movies as a producer or as a writer, but he only directed eight—all released between 1984 and 1991. Let’s rank those movies.
1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
2. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
3. The Breakfast Club
4. Sixteen Candles
5. Weird Science
6. Uncle Buck
7. She’s Having a Baby
8. Curly Sue
Three And Out
1. Alabama hasn’t announced its most recent coaching hires, but the Crimson Tide did continue to fill the openings caused by a recent exodus of coaches leaving for other jobs by choice (Mike Locksley, Dan Enos, Josh Gattis, Brent Key) and leaving by very strong suggestion (Tosh Lupoi).
• Sal Sunseri, who worked for Saban at Alabama from 2009 to ’11, reportedly will return to Tuscaloosa after spending the 2018 season as Florida’s defensive line coach. Sunseri coached linebackers during his first stint in Tuscaloosa.
• Charles Kelly, who spent 2018 working for former Saban assistant Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee after serving as the defensive coordinator for former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher at Florida State from 2014 to ’17, also is reportedly heading to Alabama.
• Charles Huff, who coached running backs at Mississippi State in 2018, is reportedly joining Alabama’s staff. Huff doesn’t have a previous Saban connection. He worked with Gattis at Penn State under James Franklin and went with former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to Starkville when Moorhead got the head coach job there.
• Former Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood, who spent the past two seasons on the Atlanta Falcons’ staff, is reportedly coming to Alabama to coach the offensive line.
• Former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, who spent this past season as an analyst at Alabama, is expected to remain in Tuscaloosa and assume an on-field role. Jones had been slated to join Locksley’s staff at Maryland.
The staff shuffling isn’t finished, so expect more names to emerge this week.
2. Deion Sanders, who played in the NFL and in the major leagues, offered his take last week on whether former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray should choose baseball or football.
3. Quarterback Tate Martell, who transferred from Ohio State to Miami last week, has lawyered up in the hopes of gaining immediate eligibility through an NCAA waiver. Martell’s attorney Travis Leach laid out some of the strategy last week in an interview with Kyle Rowland of the Toledo Blade.
“You try to throw as much against the wall as you can,” Leach told Rowland. “I think the fact that there were some circumstances that happened, some personality clashes at the school—we want to be fair to everyone involved. That’s the approach we’re going to go down.”
This one could get juicy, but if Martell’s main point is that coaching turnover was the reason for his transfer, he may not get much sympathy from the NCAA. The situation involving Justin Fields, who is transferring from Georgia to Ohio State and also seeking a waiver for immediate eligibility, is unusual and puts the NCAA in a vulnerable position if it denies the waiver. Martell’s situation, barring any bombshells, is much more common. That likely would work against him.
What’s Eating Andy?
It seemed unusual when CBS immediately inserted Tony Romo on its No. 1 NFL broadcast crew for Romo’s first season following his retirement from the Cowboys. The reason became early in the 2017 season: No one doing games at the time—college or professional—could match Romo’s combination of enthusiasm and strategic knowledge. Romo was at the height of his powers Sunday during the AFC Championship Game.
How good was Romo at predicting what the teams would do?
It will be interesting to see if Romo maintains his ability to tip plays the further he gets away from his playing career. Remember, he played against many of the defensive coaches and players he’s talking about. He ran offenses similar to the ones the teams run now. So he’s drawing on a wellspring of experience that older analysts simply don’t have.
But the one thing that probably won’t change is Romo’s energy and enthusiasm. It’s obvious he’s having a blast in the booth, and his genuine amazement after a great individual feat or a great play call is infectious. His ability to predict plays led a lot of people to make the logical suggestion that some team hire him to coach next season, but I hope that doesn’t happen. I don’t watch a ton of NFL during the season because I’m usually working, but I’ll make time to watch games Romo calls. He just makes them more fun. I’d rather he keep increasing the enjoyment of millions of people watching at home than just help one team get better. But that’s up to him. If that opportunity arises, hopefully the networks will write checks big enough to keep him in the booth.
What’s Andy Eating?
I always enjoy my visits to Tampa, but I also can’t help but look forward to the journey home every time. It’s not that I want to leave. I just want an excuse to stop by the Jerk Hut.
The area around the University of South Florida isn’t known for much besides school and the Museum of Science and Industry. The restaurant scene in this neighborhood is a seemingly endless sea of chains. But just before Fowler Avenue intersects with Interstate 275, there is a beacon. Actually, it’s a boat. And that boat seems very out of place given the quite landlocked surroundings.
But walk past that boat and open the door. Have a seat and prepare to get full. The only question you’ll need to answer is how comfortable do you want your comfort food?
The Jerk Hut serves all the Jamaican staples, which means you’ll probably dart right to the jerk chicken. This is a good idea. The chicken has crispy skin and juicy meat, and if you order the spicier jerk sauce, you’ll get a taste of how hot your jerk chicken would be if you ordered it in Jamaica. And if you have some extra sauce, you’ll absolutely dump it on your rice and peas. The combination of sweet and blazing works beautifully, and if you were smart enough to order a side of coco bread—or, better yet, two sides of coco bread—then you might want some more of that sauce for dipping purposes.
Maybe you want something a little heavier. Maybe something from the Dutchie pot. But maybe you still want something that kicks on that first bite. Then order the curry goat. Chunks of goat are simmered in a light curry sauce with potatoes, and this produces tender meat in a broth that will first shock, then amaze the tastebuds. You’ll still need that coco bread, because once you get past the initial blast of heat, the curry sauce settles into a sweet groove.
But if you really want to get comfortable, if you want something that makes a plate of fried chicken with sides of mashed potatoes and mac and cheese feel like a light bite, order the oxtail. Cattle tail gets stewed down with carrots and butter beans in brown gravy. The tender bits of meat still clinging to the bone are wonderful, but they aren’t the featured attraction. It’s everything that has melted down off the oxtail to help form that gravy, which is nearly black. It’s sweet and savory with just a hint of allspice, and you’d want to put it on everything you ate if that wouldn’t instantly make you gain 50 pounds. You’ll use your coco bread—you did remember to order coco bread, right?—to sop up every last drop. Then you’ll think about ordering more. Or maybe you'll order the Jamaica Me Crazy platter, which features all three.
And you just might. Because few things in life are as satisfying as a spoonful of that gravy.