• Almost every recent head coaching hire in the Big Ten has produced solid early returns. How long can that trend continue? Plus, an intriguing position switch at Clemson, Oklahoma's toughest non-conference opponent and the rest of this week's #DearAndy mailbag.
By Andy Staples
March 14, 2018

Many of the programs in the Big Ten’s West Division are still in their honeymoon phase with new or newish coaches. My answer to our first question looks into the future when the flight from Cancun arrives home and day-to-day living begins…

From Dan: Can you remember a conference nailing as many recent coaching hires as the Big Ten? Jeff Brohm is great, Scott Frost and P.J. Fleck seem to be good fits, and Paul Chryst and Jim Harbaugh are top-notch. Only the Lovie Smith experiment seems to be a failure.

There’s only one problem with Dan’s thesis. He referenced four of the seven coaches in the Big Ten West Division as excellent hires, and basic arithmetic tells us they can’t all win enough to keep their fan bases happy. (Especially when Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz—two excellent, established coaches—and games against the beasts of the East get added into the mix.) It will be interesting to watch the division going forward to see how realistic everyone’s expectations really are. It also will be interesting to see—if these coaches are as good as advertised—how other programs view their progress when they’re looking for coaches.

Let’s examine Brohm specifically. In terms of degree of difficulty, going 7–6 in his first season at Purdue is just shy of a miracle. If he makes the Boilermakers even better this season, every Power 5 AD with an open job should just fly into West Lafayette and say, “Take all of my money.” Brohm did enter the orbit of Tennessee’s Bizarro search this offseason, but if he has another good year, he should get bombarded with offers. But if he goes, say, 5–7, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s lost his touch. His job is tougher than the others.

Success for Fleck would be something akin to what Ferentz has done at Iowa. The Golden Gophers should be solid most years with the occasional run at a division title. But even that standard will be difficult to achieve if Frost and Brohm are doing their jobs well. The fan base could get restless if the Gophers can’t crack .500 in league play in the next two years.

We’ve discussed several times what a reasonable expectation of success for Frost is. It’s to make Nebraska what Wisconsin is. If that happens, it will siphon wins away from the others and get those coaches in trouble. If Frost can’t do that, Nebraska will go looking for someone who can.

Chryst, meanwhile, has his program exactly where it needs to be. The Badgers overachieve nearly every season relative to their recruiting rankings, and they have a clearly defined identity that makes it easier to find players who fit what they do.

As for Harbaugh, Michigan fans might not agree with Dan’s assessment as much today as they did two years ago. We’ve already discussed that at length, so feel free to read about that situation here.

From Greg: Why is Clemson moving the best player at its weakest position to linebacker?

Greg is referring to rising redshirt sophomore Isaiah Simmons, who made 49 tackles while playing about 18 plays a game last season as a safety. Greg is also referring to the fact that the Tigers seem thin at safety. So why is the 6'3", 225-pound Simmons competing with senior Jalen Williams this spring for the starting strongside linebacker spot?

To understand this move, it’s best to not get so hung up on labels. I had to make sure Greg was referring to Simmons, because I never thought of the guy Simmons might replace (Dorian O’Daniel) as a traditional linebacker. O’Daniel covered slot receivers and fit gaps in the run game. Fifteen years ago, a player with his duties would have been called a strong safety.

The game has changed, and the way we name positions probably should change with it. Basketball is ahead of football on this front. Hardly anyone uses traditional position names (point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center) anymore. Hoops junkies just use the numbers one through five. Here’s a test. What position does LeBron James play? How about Draymond Green? They check so many boxes that saddling them with one position doesn’t do justice to what they provide their teams. The hybrid linebacker/safety in today’s football works the same way. This position probably should be called the Swiss Army Knife, because it can be used in myriad ways. But no matter the deployment, the goal is the same. Have a guy who can play the run and cover receivers so the quarterback can’t tell by substitution patterns who is covering the receivers.

O’Daniel’s role was similar to the one Shaquem Griffin played at UCF, but other teams used multitalented players a little differently. For Alabama, Minkah Fitzpatrick could slide effortlessly between secondary positions or play at the second level (with the linebackers) or rush the passer. At Florida State, Derwin James wasn’t going to cover an opposing team’s best receiver, but he could play centerfield as a free safety, cover slot receivers and tight ends, fill a hole in the run game or line up opposite an offensive tackle and rush the quarterback.

Moving Simmons to linebacker isn’t going to hurt Clemson’s secondary. Against most of today’s offenses, Simmons would still be part of that secondary on most plays. If Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables thinks Simmons is good enough to replace O’Daniel, that’s awfully high praise. It’s also a sign that the Tigers want to make sure Simmons is on the field for every important snap this fall. But first, Simmons has to win that job.

From @BlinkinRiley: Who poses the bigger threat to Oklahoma in the non-conference next season: UCLA in Chip Kelly's first year or Florida Atlantic and The Lane Train?

This is a great question. We don’t know what UCLA will look like under Chip Kelly, but we can assume the offense will be similar to what he ran at Oregon. What we don’t know is how much he’s adjusted it after spending three seasons in the NFL. He probably brought back a few good ideas, and he’s certainly aware that no one is going to be surprised or shocked by an up-tempo offense this time around. A lot of coaches borrowed from Kelly because he was so successful at Oregon, so he’ll have to continue to adapt.

While we don’t yet know who will play quarterback at UCLA, we know Kelly inherited some excellent athletes. If his history holds, he’ll get more out of them than the previous staff did. As for facing Oklahoma specifically, the Sooners should be prepared for the Kelly offense, which spreads the field, frequently changes tempos and uses between-the-tackles runs to set up the pass game. They faced one of its cousins the past two seasons when they played Ohio State.

Meanwhile, FAU players will have a year in Lane Kiffin’s system under their belts. Also, the guy taking the snaps for the Owls may be very familiar to the Sooners. Chris Robison, who signed with Oklahoma last year but was dismissed from the program in August, will get his chance to play in Norman. When Robison began practicing with FAU last year, Kiffin compared Robison to Johnny Manziel. If that comparison is even partially accurate, the combination of Robison, tailback Devin “Motor” Singletary and Kiffin’s playcalling could be a serious challenge for an Oklahoma defense that hasn’t exactly locked down opponents the past few seasons. The problem for FAU is that to win, the Owls will have to shut down Oklahoma’s run game. No matter whether Kyler Murray or Austin Kendall wins the right to replace Baker Mayfield, opposing defenses will have to deal with a steady diet of Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon. Of all the people I’ve mentioned in the answer to this question, those two are the surest things.

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