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John Clay: College football’s latest trend: Hiring NFL coaches for important positions

John Clay: College football’s latest trend: Hiring NFL coaches for important positions

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Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien checks the scoreboard during action against the Minnesota Vikings at NRG Stadium in Houston on October 4, 2020.

Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien checks the scoreboard during action against the Minnesota Vikings at NRG Stadium in Houston on October 4, 2020. (Bob Levey/Getty Images/TNS)

If you thought Mark Stoops was crazy for dipping into the NFL when the Kentucky coach hired a new offensive coordinator in 2021, there are a lot of other crazy college coaches out there.

Stoops’ selection of 35-year-old Los Angeles Rams assistant quarterbacks coach Liam Coen to be his newest play-caller is just one of several examples of college coaches looking to the NFL to fill important staff positions.

Start at the top with the reigning national champions. After Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian parlayed a terrific 2020 season into the head coaching job at Texas, Nick Saban is reportedly finalizing a deal with former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien to be Sark’s replacement.

Now Saban is hiring ex-Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone to coach his offensive line after Kyle Flood left to join Sarkisian in Austin. Before their NFL days, Marrone and O’Brien worked together at Georgia Tech from 1995 to 1999.

Ed Orgeron is trying to make history repeat at LSU. After former New Orleans Saints assistant coach Joe Brady propelled the Tigers as offensive coordinator in 2019, Oregon has hired 37-year-old Carolina Panthers assistant Jake Peetz to be LSU’s OC in 2021. Peetz worked under Brady with the Carolina Panthers this season.

Orgeron thought he had hired Saints’ defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen to replace ousted Bo Pelini as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. But the Saints countered by promoting Nielsen to assistant head coach under Sean Payton, prompting the LSU grad to stay in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, new South Carolina coach Shane Beamer also went to the NFL’s Panthers for his new offensive boss, hiring Carolina offensive line coach Marcus Satterfield, who was serving as Matt Ruhle’s assistant offensive line coach.

Now come reports Steve Wilks has emerged as a defensive coordinator candidate for Eli Drinkwtiz at Missouri. Wilks has been an assistant with the NFL’s Bears, Chargers, Panthers and Browns and was the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach in 2018. He played at Appalachian State, where Drinkwitz was the head coach in 2019.

It’s not just the SEC. Jim Harbaugh has hired a pair of NFL assistants to run Michigan’s defense in 2021. Harbaugh plucked linebackers coach Mike Macdonald from brother John’s staff with the Baltimore Ravens to be co-defensive coordinator along with Maurice Linguist, former defensive backs coach with the Dallas Cowboys. And Northwestern is hiring Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs coach Jim O’Neil as their defensive coordinator.

To be fair, like UK’s Coen, most of these coaches have previous college experience. After serving as the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator, O’Brien was the head coach at Penn State for two seasons before becoming the Texans’ head coach. After Georgia Tech, Marrone was an assistant at Georgia and Tennessee before leaving for the NFL’s New York Jets in 2002. He was Syracuse’s head coach from 2009-12.

Peetz was an offensive analyst not once but twice (2013 and 2018) under Saban at Alabama before joining the Panthers in 2019. The 44-year-old Satterfield was an assistant under Ruhle at Temple and Baylor before following Ruhle to Carolina.

Still, given today’s college football complexities, NFL experience is a help. Stoops obviously believes so. After serving as offensive coordinator at Maine (2016-17), Coen spent the last three seasons with the Rams. New running backs coach Jemal Singleton was with the Colts (2016-17), Raiders (2018) and Bengals (2019-20). New offensive line coach Eric Wolford was with the 49ers (2015-16) before spending the past four seasons at South Carolina.

On defense, coordinator Brad White was with the Colts (2012-15) before coming to UK in 2016. A year later he succeeded DC Matt House, who returned to the NFL, joining the Kansas City Chiefs after coaching under current Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with the St. Louis Rams.

And remember, Sarkisian was a longtime college coach, an offensive analyst at Alabama before spending two seasons (2017-18) as the Atlanta Falcons’ play-caller. When he returned to Tuscaloosa, the Tide took off.


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