A record number of head coaching hires and changes made headlines this offseason. However, there have been several key assistant hires – from coordinators to positional coaches – who are going to make huge differences for the teams that made the hires. What assistants should we keep an eye on?
Jim Knowles, defensive coordinator, Ohio State
This is by far the most notable coordinator move this offseason, and perhaps the best hire of them all. Ohio State’s defense has been abysmal over the past few seasons. They made a midseason change in call play after Oregon drove circles around Ohio State in Week 2.
Enter Jim Knowles – bandleader of Oklahoma State’s dominant unit in 2021. He’s a cheerful and aggressive blitz player known for his exotic fronts and stunts. The Buckeyes used to hang their hats on their defense, especially their secondary, dubbed the “Silver Bullets.” It’s clear that Ryan Day is looking to restore this unit to its former glory.
What did it take to bring one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to Columbus? Nearly $1.9 million, making him the college’s highest-paid assistant (the previous three — Brent Venables, Tony Elliott and Mike Elko — all took managerial roles this offseason).
Jeff Lebby, offensive coordinator, Oklahoma
Not only did Jeff Lebby take Ole Miss’ offense to new heights and produce a Heisman contender quarterback in Matt Corral, but he also worked with Oklahoma transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel in the past. It’s a heavenly game and a pass well executed by defensive-minded head coach Brent Venables.
A season ago, the Rebels were in the top 30 on offense in points per practice. They did so with the ninth most talented roster (according to 247Sports player ratings) against SEC West. Like Knowles, it took a pretty penny to pull Lebby out of Oxford in what is truly a sideways move: $1.8 million a year for three years.
It should be noted that Lebby is an Oklahoma alum and has a real opportunity with Gabriel in town. If you’re a gambler, it’s worth watching Gabriel’s Heisman Market.
Zach Kittley, Offensive Coordinator, Texas Tech
Zach Kittley has been the Midas king of offensive coordinators in the college ranks. It all started at Houston Baptist, where he led the Huskies to an average of 49.3 points per game in his sophomore year (33.3 in his senior year). He was hired by Western Kentucky, where he helped Bailey Zappe, now known as the family, break passing records.
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Kittley got his start in Lubbock as a student and graduate assistant before moving to Houston Baptist. It’s a true air raid coordinator, a system that Texas Tech will return to in the coming year. He served as assistant offensive coordinator and interim coach for Sonny Cumbie-Tech until the end of 2021.
Pair him with talented transfer QB from Oregon Tyler Shough and there should be fireworks in Lubbock this season.
Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Penn State
The former Miami head coach managed to find himself in a formidable position at Happy Valley. Although Miami hasn’t quite lived up to expectations in recent seasons, Diaz wasn’t ousted for underperformance, but rather because they secured the commitment of Mario Cristobal.
The Nittany Lions landed an absolute home run in Diaz, who runs a tight ship. Penn State has recently been a producer of head coaches, with the two 2021 coordinators serving in leadership positions elsewhere. This places James Franklin’s coaching tree at four current head coaches in the college ranks.
Diaz is likely a short-term hire while he slips back into the coaching rotation and gets a head coaching job in the future. Having a known head coach caliber assistant on your team certainly doesn’t hurt. The icing on the cake: Diaz is using the same system that was already in place under outgoing coordinator Brent Pry.
Brennan Marion, passing game coordinator, Texas
It turns out that when you train a true first-year wide receiver (Jordan Addison) to win the Fred Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s top wide receiver, you spark interest. Texas came knocking on his door, presumably handing him the bag to move from Pitt to Texas (his salary is not available at the time of writing).
Who should Marion work with this season? Sophomore Xavier Worthy, who — but for Addison and record-breaking Jaxon Smith-Njigba — would have been the best freshman receiver in the nation. Worthy had 12 touchdowns despite a maligned passing game from the Longhorns a season ago, one of the highest ratings in the nation. Texas will also line up Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor, who I’ve talked about several times as a stallion (19.9 yards per reception last year, for those in need of a refresh).
This year, there are real bones in Texas being one of the deadliest offenses in the nation. Marion was the perfect recruit for the Longhorns.
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