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Forde-Yard Dash: Will These 10 Coordinator Changes Work Out?

Examining the outlook for several key personnel moves in 2021, starting with the reigning national champs.

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Change is constant in college football, and coordinator changes have become much-scrutinized, big-dollar transactions. Some schools are trying to replace star coordinators who moved on to head-coaching jobs or higher-profile opportunities, while others are trying to correct mistakes. The Dash looks at 10 schools that made at least one big coordinator change, and how those might turn out:

Alabama (11). Key staff turnover: offensive coordinator. Who’s in: Bill O’Brien, former NFL and college head coach. Who’s out: Steve Sarkisian, now the head coach at Texas. O’Brien is the latest to enter the Saban Rehabilitation Center For Fired Head Coaches. At age 51 and having led both Penn State and the Houston Texans, he is one of the most experienced residents. O’Brien might not call games as aggressively as predecessors Sarkisian and Mike Locksley, but that probably would have more to do with the youth of his offense and the potential for this to be a Bama team led by defense. But if quarterback Bryce Young and his teammates show they’re capable, that could change quickly.

Outlook: Saban has had precious few coordinator misfires, and there’s no reason to believe this one will go poorly.

Notre Dame (12). Key staff turnover: defensive coordinator. Who’s in: Marcus Freeman, former DC at Cincinnati. Who’s out: Clark Lea, now the head coach at Vanderbilt. Brian Kelly lost one under-40 coaching star and replaced him with another. Under Lea, the Fighting Irish allowed fewer than 20 points and 350 yards per game for three straight seasons, something the program last accomplished in the Lou Holtz glory days of 1987 to ’89. But Freeman’s Cincinnati defenses were just about as stout over that same 2018 to ’20 time.

Outlook: This is Kelly pulling a Saban, losing great coaching talent and replacing it with great coaching talent.

Cincinnati (13). Key staff turnover: defensive coordinator. Who’s in: Mike Tressel, former DC at Michigan State. Who’s out: Freeman, now the DC at Notre Dame. Fickell plucked this hire from the Jim Tressel family/Mark Dantonio coaching tree, grabbing Jim’s nephew and former Dantonio assistant at Michigan State. The Spartans had 99 problems in the final years under Dantonio, but defense wasn’t one.

Outlook: This should be a good fit, with Fickell having plenty of input as well.

Oregon (14). Key staff turnover: defensive coordinator. Who’s in: Tim DeRuyter, former DC at California and before that the head coach at Fresno State. Who’s out: Andy Avalos, now the head coach at Boise State. The Ducks’ defense backslid last season, although it was playing much better in the last three games of the abbreviated and delayed COVID-19 than in the first four.

Outlook: Bringing in DeRuyter from within the Pac-12 North will pay dividends in terms of league knowledge, which should aid in scouting and gameplanning.

Penn State (15). Key staff turnover: offensive coordinator. Who’s in: Mike Yurcich, who arrives from Texas and before that Oklahoma State. Who’s out: Kirk Ciarrocca, now an offensive analyst at West Virginia. Yurcich has one job: repairing the confidence of starting quarterback Sean Clifford, which seemed to take a beating in his one season under Ciarrocca. It should help the offense significantly to have running back Noah Cain back after a season-ending injury in the first game of 2020.

Outlook: It almost has to be better than last year. And it may help Clifford to know he’s not looking over his shoulder to see whether Will Levis (see below) is replacing him.

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LSU (16). Key staff turnover: offensive and defensive coordinators. Who’s in: Jake Peetz at OC, Daronte Jones at DC—both arrive from NFL staffs. Who’s out: Steve Ensminger, now an offensive analyst at LSU; Bo Pelini, out of coaching. Pelini was, dollar-for-dollar, maybe the worst coordinator hire of the 21st century. The offensive side of this makeover is a greater mystery. The quarterback depth chart has been thinned by transfer (TJ Finley to Auburn) and injury (Myles Brennan), and hiring a guy who worked with Joe Brady doesn’t guarantee that you’re getting Joe Brady (much less a guarantee that Max Johnson is Joe Burrow).

Outlook: Put the OC hire in the wait-and-see category. On the defensive side, things can only go up from Bo.

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Michigan (17). Key staff turnover: defensive coordinator. Who’s in: Mike Macdonald, from John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens staff. Who’s out: Don Brown, now the DC at Arizona. Harbaugh finally had enough of watching Ohio State receivers running free against Brown’s coverage schemes and made a change. Macdonald has said he prefers a defense that appears complex to an offense, with myriad looks, but is actually fairly simple. We’ll see what that means Saturday against Western Michigan.

Outlook: Brown had his strengths, and something of a cult following. But it was time for a change if Michigan wants to compete with the best of the Big Ten.

Indiana (18). Key staff turnover: defensive coordinator. Who’s in: Charlton Warren, who arrives after two years coaching defensive backs at Georgia. Who’s out: Kane Wommack, now the head coach at South Alabama. Wommack’s defense led the nation in interceptions per game last year with 17 in only eight contests played, while also excelling at hitting opposing quarterbacks. We’ll see whether Warren opts for a similar high-risk, high-reward scheme with a veteran returning unit, or picks his spots for blitzes.

Outlook: Grabbing someone from Kirby Smart’s defensive staff has been known to work well.

Kentucky (19). Key staff turnover: offensive coordinator. Who’s in: Liam Coen, who was with the Los Angeles Rams the past three years. Who’s out: Eddie Gran, who is out of coaching. Gran called a comically conservative offense, ranking 122nd nationally in passing yards per game and 113th in pass efficiency. Coen is expected to dramatically modernize the attack, but his ability to do that likely depends on quarterback Will Levis—a colorful character and dangerous runner but a limited passer in two seasons at Penn State.

Outlook: Any improvement in the UK passing game will be welcomed, but both the 35-year-old Coen and Levis have something to prove.

Missouri (20). Key staff turnover: defensive coordinator. Who’s in: Steve Wilks, who has NFL experience as a coordinator and a head coach. Who’s out: Ryan Walters, now the DC at Illinois. Walters showed his value in Illinois’s season-opening upset of Nebraska, leading a defense that tackled well and flew to the ball. Wilks certainly knows the game, but he hasn’t coached at this level since 2004. Can he keep it simple enough for college players to grasp?

Outlook: Wilks has a couple of nice pieces to build around in edge rusher Trajan Jeffcoat and defensive back Martez Manuel, but departed linebacker Nick Bolton will be missed and Mizzou must prove it can stand up to proficient running attacks.

MORE DASH: Coaching Tests | Backlash Predictions | Herbstreit

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