New College Football Coordinators to Keep a Close Eye on During Spring Practice
Much noise has been made of the head coaching hires this offseason, and rightfully so. Moves like James Franklin to Penn State and Steve Sarkisian to USC have already made a major impact in recruiting and stand to make even more of an impact on the field.
But what about the men on the coaching tier right below them? The men who run their respective offenses and defenses, who work a more specialized role in charge of those units?
College football is a weird sport where assistant coaches can become famous. The best are held in higher regard than even a majority of head coaches. And this year, just like any other, some of the best moved from stop to stop.
Having said that, falling down a tier from head coach to coordinator can still feel like going from the Hollywood A-list to landing a campy multi-cam sitcom pilot on CBS. And this year, again, just like any other, a couple of FBS coaches got demoted.
With spring practice on the horizon, every new coordinator in the country is ready to start his new tenure, meet his new players and begin that one last step toward becoming or returning to the esteemed ranks of a head coach.
Here's who we'll be watching the closest.
Co-DC Chris Ash, Ohio State
Ash comes to Ohio State from Arkansas via Wisconsin, returning to the Big Ten after one year in the SEC but leaving the side of Bret Bielema for the first time since they initially joined forces back in 2010.
In Columbus, he'll team up with the much-maligned Luke Fickell to run a Buckeyes defense that collapsed down the stretch in 2013, allowing 1,617 yards and 105 points in its final three games against Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson.
Ash is a secondary specialist, brought in for almost that express purpose. Ohio State struggled at the cornerback position and loses Bradley Roby—one of the major culprits of those struggles—so how Ash grooms the talented young corners on the roster will be of paramount importance this spring.
DC Vance Bedford, Texas
Thanks to the presence and accolades of Teddy Bridgewater, casual fans mistakenly regarded Louisville as a team that succeeded because of its offense these past few seasons.
Despite average-to-good talent, Vance Bedford and Charlie Strong built one of the best defenses in America for the Cardinals. Now the caliber of prospect they'll be coaching takes a major jump forward, and Texas fans are hoping their developmental prowess will translate.
Even though things got (much) better once Manny Diaz was replaced with Greg Robinson last season, the Texas defense never looked like a bona fide Texas defense. How the residual and incoming players respond to their new staff should set the tone for next season.
OC Dave Christensen, Utah
Utah was the close-but-no-cigar champion of 2013, missing a bowl despite staying competitive with some of the best teams in America and even pulling an upset of eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford.
All this despite an inconsistent offense, along with the simultaneously tantalizing and infuriating play of 6'7" quarterback Travis Wilson. Blessed with an NFL arm and at times All-Pac-12 production, Wilson needs the proper coach to help realize his potential.
Enter Dave Christensen, the former head coach of Wyoming, where he just turned Brett Smith into an NFL prospect. He was also the longtime offensive coordinator at Missouri, where he did the same with Chase Daniel and Brad Smith and even very briefly Blaine Gabbert.
Always a stronger coordinator and QB groomer than head coach, Christensen might be able to get Wilson over the hump and in turn push Utah into the realm of contention next year. But all of that will start with a strong showing in spring ball.
DC Todd Grantham, Louisville
This feels familiar yet different.
Last season Scot Loeffler, whom many in SEC circles thought was overrated beyond dispute, left Auburn to join an ACC school in Virginia Tech. The result was an ugly blend of poor development and insipid play-calling and one of the worst offenses in the conference.
This season Todd Grantham, whom many in SEC circles think was overrated beyond dispute, left Georgia to join an ACC school in Louisville. The result is TBD.
I'll be watching Grantham this spring to see whether he proves SEC people (and myself) wrong or if his flight from Athens exposes what others already thought they knew. Louisville loses a good deal of talent on defense, so his job will not be an easy one.
OC Lane Kiffin, Alabama
How could you not keep an eye on this?
Sure, Nick Saban has done and will continue to do a good job of keeping Lane Kiffin away from the media. Exposing him to the vulturous swarm of microphones can only end poorly, and Saban is too smart to let that happen.
Still, watching the reports come out of Tuscaloosa this spring will at least shed some insight on what the team thinks of its vexed new offensive coordinator, on whether his former SEC coaching foes on Saban's staff have forgiven how he behaved at Tennessee.
There's a six-way quarterback battle set to embark in Tuscaloosa, and Kiffin will have one of the loudest voices regarding who wins the job.
Laugh all you will at his head coaching career: Kiffin the coordinator helped develop Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez into top-tier FBS quarterbacks. Knowing what we know about their professional careers, that is an achievement that gets better with age.
OC Doug Nussmeier, Michigan
Doug Nussmeier has a tall task on his hand this spring. And this fall. And if he's lucky, late this winter.
Michigan's offense has been plagued by inconsistency and shoddy execution these past few seasons. There is a quarterback battle brewing between Devin Gardner—who complicated things by ending a poor season with a heroic, one-legged effort vs. Ohio State—and former blue-chip recruit Shane Morris. Everywhere you look on the depth chart, another major question seems to arise.
Compound that with the perpetual win-now mindset of Michigan fans, and Nussmeier is arguably the new offensive coordinator with the most pressure to have a good spring. That holds doubly true given the uncertain fate of Brady Hoke.
For an even more thorough breakdown, here's a good piece by B/R's Michael Felder on the challenges that lie ahead at Michigan.
DC Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia
Jeremy Pruitt does not lack for confidence.
How else can you explain leaving Florida State—a place where even after massive personnel losses, the defensive is oozing with talent—for a team that finished 10th in the SEC in scoring defense last year?
That might be a little misleading, though. Georgia doesn't quite lack for talent on either side of the ball, even if Todd Grantham struggled to make the defense look like it at times last season. Pruitt has some talented young weapons to work with.
Still, especially now that Josh Harvey-Clemons has been dismissed from the team, Pruitt also has some questions to answer in his first spring with the program. He also has some high expectations to reach and a new fanbase that only tolerates championships.
How else can you explain Mark Richt's "hot seat?"
OC Kurt Roper, Florida
Say what you will about former offensive coordinator Brent Pease. After the state of the Gators' offense these past few seasons, much of it will be deserved.
But when Pease came to Gainesville a couple of seasons ago, he was viewed as one of the hottest, best and most imaginative coordinators in the game. He helped a little ol' football school like Boise State compete with some of the nation's best.
That is precisely the hoopla surrounding former Duke coordinator Kurt Roper right now, so you can forgive Florida fans for taking a cautious wait-and-see approach. They've read this story before, they've heard this patter and spiel.
And they've been burned.
Roper will be under a watchful eye during spring practice as he tries to develop some wide receivers and turn Jeff Driskel—who is hopefully in decent health after breaking his leg early last season—into a late-bloomer rather than a bust.