PHILADELPHIA – He’s from the Chip Kelly coaching tree.
Really, though, that’s not how the story of new Eagles special team coordinator Michael Clay should begin, because, well, the Kelly tree feels a bit rotted, and there haven’t been many limbs that have sprouted, if any at all, since his short stay with the Eagles.
Clay is young enough, at the age of 29, to grow his own tree after landing his new gig as an outlier of sorts to the coaching staff Nick Sirianni assembled.
Sirianni knew well his two other coordinators – OC Shane Steichen and DC Jonathan Gannon – from having worked with them along his journey to earning his first crack at head coaching from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.
“I think in the coaching world you're not going to know everyone, but you get to build these relationships with new guys,” said Clay. “I've been fortunate enough to be around different staffs, and everyone I've been around here in this building has been fantastic.”
Clay isn’t exactly a stranger in a strange world.
Kelly hired him to be the defensive quality control coach in 2014, just two years removed from playing linebacker and, for one season, long snapping, for him at Oregon.
First, though, Clay tried to latch on as an undrafted free agent player with the Miami Dolphins in 2013 but was cut.
That’s when Kelly called.
“I owe the world to him right now because he gave me my first gig as a young guy getting out of college, going with the Dolphins, getting cut, and then him extending an olive branch out and saying, 'Hey, do you want to come coach?'
“What I learned from him is just you've got to be on the details, but you've also got to believe in yourself more than anything else.”
Clay was ready to trade in his helmet for a whistle.
“My first time here in Philadelphia was a blessing,” said Clay. “I grew up being a defensive guy. I played special teams in college and everything but being able to work under [former Eagles special teams coordinator and current Lions special team coordinator] Dave Fipp during those runs really helped me grow as a coach and especially fall in love with the special teams' world.”
His first run through Philadelphia brought him close to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, offensive quality control coach T.J. Paganetti, and assistant special team coordinator Joe Pannunzio, all three of whom are still on staff.
“I think the familiarity really helped settle any of the nerves, but everyone has been fantastic, from Coach Sirianni down to JG [Jonathan Gannon] to Shane,” said Clay. “Like once you get in the building, we all know we're all going to ride or die together.
“Once we get that sense of confidence like conversations turn up easily right now. You get all these connections. Like A-Mo [Eagles wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead], he was at Stanford when I was at a player at Oregon. We can connect that way. They beat us on an alleged catch by Zach Ertz. You get to talk about that, and it just builds camaraderie within the staff.”
The son of a football coach at Clay’s high school, Mount Pleasant in San Jose, Calif., he was named Fipp’s assistant ST coordinator in 2015 but left after Kelly was fired that season, ending up with the San Francisco 49ers for five years, the last two of which were as assistant ST coordinator.
He said that, in 2018, or thereabouts, he thought to himself that he would like to get an interview by the time he was 30.
“That would be pretty cool, just for a coordinator, not even being a coordinator, just getting an interview,” he said. “I felt like that's a pretty attainable goal.”
So, he wrote his thought down. And Sirianni called.
“I think the football IQ and just recollection of a lot of special teams things really resonated with him,” said Clay. “Obviously, as you know, I had never met Nick until the interview. So going through the whole process with everyone and sitting in there, I think my recollection, and I think the organization that I had, that I learned … really was a sticking-out point, like all right, this guy may be ready for it.
Then the follow-up interview of plays and recognizing it, and I give all the credit to the guys I learned from more than anything else, is just being on top of it regardless, pulling out plays, like, oh, I know what this play is going to be, and just being confident in knowing, I'm going to tell him what this play is before the play starts. I think that really caught Nick's eye to help push myself over the top there.”
Set to turn just 30 on Aug. 30, Clay could someday be one of Kelly’s strongest branches.
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.