The era of the young sideline gunslinger – big points, pinball stats and bold play-calls – appears to finally be meeting some resistance.
For the second consecutive year, there’s a distinct lack of promising young play-callers being considered for head coaching jobs on the horizon. Mostly, it’s because that market has been thoroughly picked through.
Of the 17 jobs that opened last season, nine of the coaches hired had prior FBS head coaching experience – Steve Sarkisian, Butch Jones and Terry Bowden among them. Of the remaining eight jobs, four went to defensive assistants, three to offensive assistants and one to a coach who primarily made his name as a special teams coordinator (Shane Beamer).
That’s a rare spike in defensive-minded assistant coaches, considering that in 2019 there were eight assistants hired from offensive backgrounds compared to four defensive coaches. (There were 12 head coaches or former head coaches hired in that cycle.)
In 2018, there were 10 offensive assistants hired who didn’t have prior full-time college head coaching experience – guys like Eliah Drinkwitz, Ryan Day and Chip Lindsey. There were just two defensive assistant coaches – Manny Diaz at Miami (and Temple) and Mel Tucker at Colorado.
Where have all the young gunslingers gone? It’s a question that will loom over this carousel. Athletic directors tend to be risk averse and hire with a preconceived idea of what they want – offense and play-calling are often among them. With so many head coaches now calling plays, opportunities to shine are diminished.
But a peek at the rising assistants in this year’s crop leaves the potential trend still pointing to the defensive side of the ball.
Here are the top rising assistant coaches who project to be head coaches in the upcoming cycle.
1. Tony Elliott, Clemson OC – We’ve ranked Elliott as the top available assistant in the sport since 2018. He’s 80-6 as a play-caller with the Tigers. We’ve also noted he has been picky, as he said no thanks to interest from Tennessee and Vanderbilt last year and has maintained he wants a job where he knows he can win consistently. Would Virginia Tech fit? Would the Southern California native get a look at USC or UCLA?
2. Brent Venables, Clemson DC – He danced deep with Auburn last year, but the pull of Clemson and coaching his sons there kept him around. The $2.5 million coordinator salary doesn’t hurt, either. If not Auburn, it's hard to envision what job Venables takes.
3. Mike Elko, Texas A&M DC – Elko has long been considered one of the sport’s top defensive minds. He has never had a stage this big, as he returns nine starters from the SEC’s top total defense. If A&M can hold serve until the Alabama game, it will provide a defining stage for Elko. He has turned down interest from Temple and Kansas in recent years.
4. Bill O’Brien, Alabama OC – We tend to shy away from retread coaches on the assistants list, but it’s hard to overlook O’Brien, especially with the talent drain at the offensive coordinator spots. Not only does he fit the preferred background of offense and play-calling, but he could factor in at high-wattage jobs like Michigan. Will he be the latest successful Nick Saban rehab project?
5. Alex Grinch, Oklahoma DC – Another huge stage awaits, and the personnel finally appears ready for the Sooners to break through in the College Football Playoff. Grinch has been picky, as he drew strong interest from Illinois and Arizona.
6. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame DC – He blew away Illinois officials in his head coaching interview and his recruiting prowess has invigorated Notre Dame, who is No. 1 in the Rivals.com rankings. He has been choosy, including passing on a lucrative offer to go to Michigan State as the defensive coordinator in 2019. If he can keep the Irish defense at the elite levels similar to Elko and Clark Lea, opportunities will follow.
7. Dan Lanning, Georgia DC – At 35, Lanning has established himself as the top young assistant in the SEC. He drew interest from Texas last year for that DC job, and will soon become a target for Group of Five jobs. A big opener against Clemson projects much opportunity.
8. Todd Monken, Georgia OC – He turned around Southern Miss in his three seasons there, leaving for the NFL after a 9-5 record. With J.T. Daniels back at quarterback, an NFL caliber stable of tailbacks and an easy schedule after Week 1, it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs not getting hot. Monken was well-regarded enough in the NFL to interview for three head jobs. His time in college could be coming again.
9. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin DC – The Badgers finished top 10 in scoring defense and total defense last season. The biggest question looming over Leonhard, who starred at Wisconsin and played 10 years in the NFL, is whether he’s happy sticking around Madison forever. There has been plenty of interest elsewhere in college and in the NFL. But Leonhard has stayed home, for now.
10. Joe Moorhead, Oregon OC – It only makes sense that three of the first four offensive assistants on this list are former FBS head coaches. The pool of fresh offensive coaches is shallow. There’s little doubt about Moorhead’s offensive chops, dating back to his overhaul of Penn State and days at Fordham. Opportunity looms if he can get quarterback Anthony Brown playing at a high level.
11. Brian Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles QBs coach – He’s the former Florida offensive coordinator who interviewed at South Carolina and Boise State in the last cycle. He could loom again as a college candidate, as he’s widely regarded as one of the sport’s top young offensive minds.
12. Phil Longo, UNC OC – With Sam Howell the potential No. 1 NFL draft pick and UNC ranked in the Top 10, Longo is poised to become more of a household name this year. His pass-happy offense will always score points, and his New Jersey roots along with background in Texas, the SEC and now ACC give him versatility on where he could go.
13. Graham Harrell, USC OC – He received interest from Boise State last year for the head coach job and has made it clear he’ll be picky. He’s a brand name in Texas and beloved at his alma mater, Texas Tech. He’s also the rare young, up-and-coming West Coast assistant in this cycle.
14. Rhett Lashlee, Miami OC – It’s been a meandering journey for Lashlee, who went from a prodigy at Auburn with a linear rise to having to work his way back at UConn and SMU. There are few better stages for a coordinator this year than Miami’s opener against Alabama. Score big there, and he’ll have his pick of jobs.
15. Tom Manning, Iowa State OC – Matt Campbell’s staff has stayed fiercely loyal to him. Manning returned to Ames after spending 2018 with the Indianapolis Colts. He’d be attractive at any MAC job or as a candidate for promotion at ISU if Campbell leaves. Few schools are as poised for a better year on offense than the Cyclones, who return 11 starters.
16. Jay Bateman, UNC DC – Bateman has recruited with alacrity at Carolina, who has six four-star and one five-star defensive commitments for 2022. His defenses at Army included two top 10 finishes in total defense. He strong roots in North Carolina from his time at Elon make him an attractive local candidate.
17. Steve Wilks, Missouri DC – Another former NFL head coach who ended up in the SEC, Wilks has already given Missouri’s scheme and recruiting a significant jolt. At 52, there’s plenty of time for Wilks to get a head coaching chance in college. Look for the Carolina area to be a target, as he played at Appalachian State and coached for the Carolina Panthers from 2012 to 2017.
18. Kasey Dunn, Oklahoma State OC – He had a solid debut as play-caller for the Cowboys last season. There’s a strong lineage of Mike Gundy coordinators going on to shine elsewhere – Todd Monken and Larry Fedora among them. Dunn should draw interest for smaller jobs in the Big 12 footprint.
19. Aaron Roderick, BYU OC – He played a huge role in the rise of QB Zach Wilson, who credits him with overseeing his development there. With the lack of established coordinators out West, opportunity will loom with another big year. This year, tailback Tyler Allgeier will provide the identity.
20. Tommy Rees, Notre Dame OC – He’s only 29, so there’s plenty of time left for him to soar to his high ceiling. Rees has already called plays on a College Football Playoff team that went undefeated in the regular season. Does he stick around for when Brian Kelly is ready to hand over the baton? He has a year of NFL experience from the Chargers in 2016, which looms as a potential path.
Other assistants, G5 coordinators who could factor in head coach job market
Last year, Will Hall jumped from Tulane OC to Southern Miss’ head coach, Mo Linguist was a Dallas Cowboys assistant (with a spring at Michigan as co-DC) before landing at the University at Buffalo and Charles Huff catapulted from Bama’s running backs coach to Marshall’s head coach. Who are promising candidates from similar non-traditional job profiles? We peeked at each conference.
Kenny Dillingham, Florida State OC – At age 31, he has begun to be considered for head coaching jobs. He interviewed at Utah State and Buffalo last year, and should be in the mix for more jobs if FSU can improve on its rocky 3-6 season in Mike Norvell’s first year.
Nate Scheelhaase, Iowa State WR/RBs – He’s viewed as a linchpin of Matt Campbell’s coaching staff. A former quarterback at Illinois, he has the experience and pedigree to soon be a play-caller. He’s just 30, and has resisted college and NFL overtures. Scheelhaase has a chance to be special, as he’s regarded as among the best young coaches in the sport.
Tony Alford, Ohio State RBs – Alford has been close in recent seasons, and he earned an interview at Kansas this past offseason. (Northwestern RBs coach Lou Ayeni did as well.) Alford’s experience under Brian Kelly, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day will remain attractive to athletic directors looking for a program builder.
Tavita Pritchard, Stanford OC – The Stanford quarterback who Andrew Luck beat out for the job in 2009 is now the Andrew Luck Director of Offense. He’s a Stanford lifer, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s someday the Stanford coach. Does he need to expand his wings elsewhere first?
Jon Sumrall Kentucky CO-DC – An old hand in the Southern footprint after stops at Tulane, Troy and Ole Miss, Sumrall is a dogged recruiter and respected coach. He’ll be in the conversation for Sun Belt jobs this season and beyond.
Holmon Wiggins Alabama WR coach – There has been no position group in the country as consistently prolific as Wiggins’ receivers. Alabama produced four first-round NFL draft picks the past two seasons, which have raised his profile in the industry.
Gino Guidugli, Cincinnati QB coach – He has been Desmond Ridder’s quarterback coach for his entire Cincinnati career. If Cincinnati soars this season and Ridder continues to develop into a first-round NFL draft pick, Guidugli will be in demand.
Joe Sloan, Louisiana Tech OC – Skip Holtz’s longtime wingman would be a leading candidate if Holtz ever skipped town to greener pastures. Sloan is one of the most respected young coaches in that footprint, as evidence by Louisiana-Monroe showing interest last year.
Chad Staggs, Coastal Carolina DC – Coastal Carolina finished with a top 20 scoring defense last season. Staggs’ group returns 10 starters and has a marquee early opportunity with Kansas coming to visit on Sept. 10. Defensive end Jeffrey Gunter has a high ceiling as an NFL prospect after 12.5 TFLs last year.
Vince Kehres, Toledo DC – He has a 95-6 Division III head coaching record and won two national titles as a head coach, which makes a leap back to the head coach chair fairly obvious. This projects as Toledo’s best defense in Jason Candle’s tenure, and team success will raise Kehres’ profile.
Mike Thiessen, Air Force OC – He has been the offensive coordinator at Air Force for eight seasons and has become known as an incubator of innovation, as Air Force is annually dealing with a steep talent deficit. After dozens of opt-outs in 2020, there’s a lot of optimism for a big season at Air Force in 2021.
Lance Taylor, Notre Dame RB coach – He played at Alabama and has experience at Stanford, in the NFL and now at Notre Dame. Taylor has already gotten some serious looks for head jobs, and the Irish’s elite tailback stable and the school’s No. 1 recruiting ranking will only increase the interest.