First-year head coaches facing big challenges

1:36 | College Football
#DearAndy: Will any team look more different than the Nebraska Huskers next year?
Tuesday March 21st, 2017

It’s never easy on first-year coaches. Some impatient fan bases have outsized expectations of what the team should achieve in its first year. Others have become so accustomed to losing that they don’t show up at home games. It’s a challenge to get players recruited by your predecessor motivated to play hard for you.

It’s not easy, and these few first-year coaches may have to endure some growing pains before finding sustained success (if they ever do).

Cal head coach Justin Wilcox

After four years of disappointing play under Sonny Dykes, Cal opted for a coach familiar with the program in hiring Wilcox, who was the Bears’ linebackers coach under Jeff Tedford from 2003–2005. The hire was popular, and for good reason. Wilcox is a widely respected defensive coordinator, understands the demands of working for a school where football isn’t a priority, and will revitalize local recruiting pipelines that dried under Dykes. Dykes refused to change his recruiting tendencies while in Berkeley, returning to familiar territories in Texas and on the junior college circuit instead of fostering relationships with local Northern California high school coaches. One of the finest architects of the Air Raid offense, Dykes also focused his recruiting on offense. The Bears’ defense, on the other hand, was execrable every year Dykes was in charge. Fixing it will be no small task.

Wilcox is an accomplished defensive coach, but he and new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter need to overhaul a defense that has finished no higher than 109th in the nation for the last four seasons (three out of the four saw the Bears finish at No. 124 or lower in total defense). There are a few promising players on the defense (James Looney, Cameron Saffle, Devante Downs), but the unit is composed of players who probably aren’t Pac-12 caliber and will need aggressive coaching to try and keep up with Pac-12 caliber offenses. Need further proof? John Ross and Christian McCaffrey (admittedly two of the Pac-12’s best players) will provide the highlights.

The defense has been a problem since Dykes inherited the program in 2013. What’s different is that Cal will no longer have neither the quick-strike “Bear Raid” offense nor a surefire NFL draft pick (Jared Goff and Davis Webb) commandeering it. Dykes stocked the roster with plenty of offensive talent, but new offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin has to make the pieces fit with no clear successor to Webb under center. Wilcox indicated that one of the staff’s first goals was to recruit a tight end, signaling a significant overhaul in the offense’s structure.

With a non-conference schedule that includes North Carolina and Ole Miss, Wilcox will likely be in for a difficult first year, and it may not get much better the year after that. For now, the restoration of local recruiting and focus on a complete rebuild should be the focus of the fan base, because there won’t be many wins in 2017.

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule

Rhule did an admirable job saving a recruiting class that (mostly) fled after the fallout from Baylor’s ongoing sexual assault scandal by signing 27 players. After a glut of transfers (a few more may join after spring practice, commonplace with a new coach) and a torrent of terrible press, Rhule will try and get the Bears into the headlines for their play. It doesn’t help that Rhule has already dismissed support staff members for being caught in a prostitution sting and sending inappropriate text messages to a teenager. 

Rhule has plenty of public relations rehab to do off the field. On the field, the problem is they may be too short-staffed to compete in the Big 12 this season. The lack of depth under interim coach Jim Grobe cost Baylor at the end of the last season, as the Bears lost their last six regular-season games (four by 20-plus points) and will likely harm Rhule in his first season. 

Rhule arrives highly regarded from Temple, where he was revered for a smashmouth, run-heavy offensive style and a sturdy defensive line. That stands in stark contrast to the Art Briles regime, which featured college football’s most electric offense and a passable, but often effective defense. The question is whether Rhule can transform the defense into the punishing kinds he raised at Temple.

Fortunately for Rhule, finding a starting quarterback shouldn’t be a major issue in his first season. Sophomore Zach Smith looked like the future after shredding Boise State to the tune of 28-for-39 passing, 375 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Add in graduate transfer Anu Solomon from Arizona, who shined as a freshman in Tucson but struggle with injuries and inconsistency afterwards, and a formidable quarterback competition should emerge in Waco. 

Oregon head coach Willie Taggart

Taggart has plenty of talent at Oregon, he just needs to mobilize and motivate one of the most under-performing programs of 2016. With promising quarterback Justin Herbert entering his sophomore year and the surprising return of senior running back Royce Freeman, the Ducks will be equipped to score plenty of points. After poaching regarded defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt from Colorado, the defense should improve after its nightmare season under Brady Hoke (the Ducks finished 126th in total defense in 2016). With a regarded staff compiled (Taggart lured co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal away from Alabama along with Leavitt), the Ducks will be in position to win next year. As Taggart told SI’s Lindsay Schnell, he feels like it’s a rebuild even if the rest of the college football world doesn’t see it as one.

What Taggart should probably avoid is starting flame wars with the press. After three players were hospitalized after a workout, Taggart lambasted reporter Andrew Greif from The Oregonian after what he felt was an unfair characterization of the incident. Taggart later declared that he won’t speak to Greif, the lead Oregon football reporter for the state’s most prominent newspaper. The demanding fan base won’t care much about a media beef if the Ducks win, but starting a petty rivalry with a reporter before is, to say the least, a confusing strategy. (Taggart and Greif have reportedly since resolved their differences.)

Taggart, who has been commonly referred to as “the third Harbaugh brother,” has proven his mettle with excellent turnaround jobs at Western Kentucky and South Florida. If he can motivate the Ducks the same way he did his last two programs, the Ducks could skyrocket in a hurry. If he can’t, and fights everyone he can along the way, disaster may strike quickly.

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm

Brohm probably won’t win much for two seasons. He’s one of the most regarded offensive minds in the nation, but the attack’s complexity will likely take at least one year to teach. The good news for Brohm is that he has a gifted quarterback in junior David Blough, who was the lone bright spot of another lost season in West Lafayette. Blough finished the season with 25 touchdown passes (and 21 interceptions, but what can you expect when you play on a team as bad as Purdue) and nearly led the Boilermakers to an upset of rival Indiana in the final game of the season.
 
Brohm will be given a long leash, which is what the program needs to return from the coma it is currently in. With Blough, the Boilermakers could pull off one upset that could give the program some momentum. It typically takes one or two surprise wins to spark a team that is accustomed to being bad, which is what Purdue has been since about 2007.
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