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Alabama assistant coaching searches are exercises in patience

There is debate whether stability is better for coaching staffs, or whether contenders should be quick to make changes if the results of a particular season weren’t up to expectations.

For 2023, Alabama is replacing — or is expected to replace — several assistant coaches, including probably both coordinators. Here’s our tracker of what’s happening on both sides of the ball.

Defensive Staff
While Nick Saban has been said to be more concerned about getting the right fit on offense – especially in light of the inevitable, and potentially drastic change at quarterback now that Bryce Young has officially declared for the NFL Draft – fans seem to be more focused on the defensive side of the ball. We’ll address changes there first.

Out: Charles Kelly, safeties; In: None yet
Kelly voluntarily took leave from Tuscaloosa at the end of the season, which wasn’t necessarily a surprise – but his ultimate destination was. Kelly, an Auburn graduate, was considered a strong contender to return to his alma mater in some capacity, and for a time was an Auburn fan-favorite pick for defensive coordinator. Whether he was ever offered that job under new Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze or not, he instead chose to follow Deion Sanders to Colorado as defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator. Had Kelly remained at Alabama, it was unlikely he would have been promoted to defensive coordinator with the departure of Pete Golding, so the move makes sense if he was looking for additional responsibilities (and, perhaps, salary). Kelly was an effective recruiter and a quality safeties coach. Alabama has yet to fill the position, which may be wrapped up in the process surrounding the replacement of Pete Golding and subsequent shuffling of responsibilities

Out: Pete Golding, ILB/defensive coordinator; In: Austin Armstrong (ILB), Southern Miss
So far the only “official” replacement on the board, Alabama reportedly coaxed Southern Miss defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong to join the staff two weeks ago. We’ll discuss Armstrong-as-defensive coordinator-possibility in a minute, but we have him penciled in already to replace Pete Golding, now heading to Ole Miss, as inside linebacker coach, given comments attributed to several recruits in a recent visit to campus. If Armstrong is indeed the new ILB coach, but not the coordinator, that would likely mean the new defensive coordinator will be a secondary coach of some kind. Golding’s work as a coordinator was not up to the level of some of Nick Saban’s previous coordinators, but we would argue it was mostly better than those of Kevin Steele’s tenure and certainly better than those of Tosh Lupoi’s time in the role. In 2022, Alabama was 9th in scoring defense, 13th in total defense, 6th in pass efficiency defense and 17th in raw pass defense. Those are championship-grade numbers. As a developer of ILB talent, Golding was considered hit-and-miss, and seemed to have long developmental curves with most of the players he tutored.

Currently still employed: Freddie Roach, DL; Coleman Hutzler, OLB/ST; Travaris Robinson, CB
At this point, all we can offer is predictions here. We expect Travaris Robinson to return to the staff, especially since Alabama was able to keep him away from alma mater Auburn. Also, for all the problems Alabama had on defense this year, cornerback was not one of those. Coleman Hutzler was rumored to be separating from the staff as early as mid-December. The original rumored replacement in his case was Sal Sunseri, currently serving in a support role, but who has been an on-field coach for Alabama twice in the past. Sunseri would likely be a short-term replacement at most, but his previous results with Alabama’s OLBs have been stellar. Hutzler was criticized for a lack of development among the OLBs, but Alabama used sub package fronts far more often in 2022 and the OLBs weren’t turned loose to the extent they were in previous seasons. Hutzler’s metrics as a special teams coordinator were actually quite good, as Alabama showed improvement in most phases, so maintaining the special teams has to be a consideration, either at this position or somewhere else. As for DL coach Freddie Roach, he is rumored to be considering other options, including a move to the NFL. Alabama’s defensive line did not perform to expectations in 2022, but was affected early on by the loss of Justin Eboigbe to a neck injury. Roach, an Alabama graduate, was a linebacker in college and could move to take Hutzler’s spot in the event of a change there.

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR CANDIDATES
And now the discussion you’ve been waiting for. Here’s a list of names currently being discussed as possibilties to replace Pete Golding:

Jeremy Pruitt, unemployed
Everything is going to run through Pruitt until it no longer does. That’s just the way it is for a guy with a UA background, a prior positive experience working for Nick Saban, and the reputation of being a good recruiter. He also has experience coaching the secondary, and would be an easy fit for Alabama’s vacancy with Austin Armstrong taking over Pete Golding’s ILB duties. The problem here is why there’s an “unemployed” tag next to Pruitt’s name. Pruitt is accused of making monumentally bad decisions during his brief time as Tennessee head coach, both on the field and off – especially off, where he became embroiled in an NCAA investigation that is almost certain to result in penalties both for Tennessee and Pruitt himself. If Pruitt receives a show-cause order or other major sanctions from Tennessee, NCAA rules permit those penalties to be transferable to Pruitt’s new employer, in this case Alabama. Pruitt could end up becoming the next Mickey Andrews, the long-time Florida State defensive mastermind/assistant to Bobby Bowden, and that would be just fine – so long as the NCAA leaves him mostly alone. There are a ton of very loud rumors circulating around Pruitt’s name at the moment, but part of that is due to Pruitt’s large fan base, state of Alabama ties and a penchant his camp has for sometimes oversharing. One scenario would have Alabama bring Pruitt on as a defensive analyst while the NCAA case works itself out, which we feel is a viable option so long as Alabama can identify another defensive coordinator who would be OK working just a year or two and then transitioning to a Pruitt-led coordinatorship. Without firm word from the NCAA as to Pruitt’s future, we believe it unlikely Alabama would chance taking on a possible judgment from the NCAA.

Glenn Schumann, ILB/co-DC, Georgia
Schumann checks a lot of boxes: He began his coaching career at Alabama as an analyst. His father, Eric, played for Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama. He has been co-defensive coordinator of a highly effective defense at Georgia, learning from Nick Saban protege Kirby Smart. What he hasn’t been is his own, solo defensive coordinator yet, and he is said to credit Smart with his success, perhaps as much or more than Saban. Smart seems keen to keep Schumann on the Georgia staff, not just for his own prowess as a defensive assistant, but because it would be a net loss to both lose Schumann and have him join Georgia’s prime competitor in the SEC at the same time. A week or two ago, Schumann was by far the most likely candidate, but continued rumors from the Pruitt side of the search and talk that Georgia was going to make a move to keep Schumann has tempered those expectations a bit. The question now becomes whether Alabama is trying to downplay the move in order to lessen media scrutiny until it is time to announce something official.

Jim Leonhard, DC/IHC (2022), Wisconsin
Younger than most fans probably think (40), Leonard retired from the NFL in 2014, became Wisconsin’s defensive backs coach in 2016, defensive coordinator a year later, and was named interim head coach when Paul Chryst was fired in October. He also worked with Dave Aranda for a year (2015) but wasn’t formally credited with being on staff under Aranda. Despite the short resume, Leonhard gets lumped into the “veteran” defensive coordinator category by many even though Schumann has a longer resume. The primary advantages to hiring Leonhard are that he would be coming from a defensive backs background (where Alabama has an opening) and that he could help meld together some of the Aranda and Saban approaches to defense. He’s also a former walk-on DB and shares many of Saban’s traits, as he followed a similar path up from college unknown to big name. Alabama’s primary competition here might be the NFL, as Leonhard is said to be considering multiple offers at this time.

Todd Grantham, defensive analyst, Alabama
This has been simmering a bit under the surface, but it makes some degree of sense especially if the long-term plan is to elevate Jeremy Pruitt from an analyst role to eventual defensive coordinator. Grantham was Nick Saban’s defensive line coach at Michigan State and was associate head coach for his final season there. He was also reportedly approached to join Saban’s first Alabama staff, but opted to remain with the Cleveland Browns at the time. He was also a satellite candidate for an opening at Alabama during Mike Shula’s tenure, so the connections are long-running. But Grantham’s most recent stops have varied between uneven and unimpressive. He was defensive coordinator at Florida from 2018-2021 before being fired there less than a year after turning down a promotion to the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. Grantham’s strengths are that he has coached all DL and LB spots and could fit in anywhere as needed, and he certainly fits the title of “proven veteran.” He works well with Saban’s personality and shares many of Saban’s traits. But would he be amenable to the idea of essentially helping Alabama clear the deck for Pruitt? And does he have anything left in the tank?

Austin Armstrong, ILB, Alabama
He’s supposedly not a candidate for defensive coordinator, but there’s a possibility that he could serve in the role while Pruitt works to get fully cleared, then go into a co-DC arrangement with Pruitt once the gloves come fully off. Armstrong was one of the youngest defensive coordinators in college football last year, if not youngest of them all, and his appointment to the position at Southern Miss brought substantial improvement over USM’s 2021 season – especially in turnover metrics, sacks, big defensive plays and fourth-down stops. The big risk here, of course, is one of overall lack of experience. The fact he would be following Pete Golding, who Saban took a similar chance upon when hiring, is not a mark in Armstrong’s favor, but would rather be something to overcome. There seems to be a push to hire a veteran defensive coordinator to help challenge Saban’s long-held defensive tendencies, and that was an area in which Pete Golding proved to be too passive.

Jimmy Lake, unemployed
Most recently the head coach at Washington, Lake was let go after allegations emerged that he had a physical confrontation with one of his players. Lake will be 47 years old this year and was considered a rising defensive star prior to replacing Chris Peterson as head coach for the Huskies. His name has popped up in the search, primarily from sources on the West Coast, but we’re not sure just how serious a candidate he actually is. Lake’s resume is split between college and pro stops, one of them under Monte Kiffin at Tampa Bay. He teaches many of the same defensive concepts as Saban, is thought of as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach and probably wouldn’t take long to get acclimated to the Alabama culture. The terms of his departure from Washington, however, would need to be addressed.

Lance Guidry, DC/S, Marshall
Guidry is defensive coordinator for former Saban assistant Charles Huff at Marshall. The Thundering Herd ranked 9th in total defense in 2022 and had good defensive metrics up and down the ranking list. Guidry is a former head coach (McNeese State, 2016-2018, and also interim head coach for Western Kentucky and Miami-Ohio) but otherwise his resume has been full of successful stops at smaller schools. He’s considered another up-and-comer, he coaches defensive backs, but would be another Golding-type hire. So far, his name has only come up in the most fringe of scenarios, and we’d probably not give it second notice were it not for the fact he currently works for Huff.

The Current Staff
There are a couple of different ways to promote from within and make it work. We took the time to specifically mention analyst Todd Grantham’s potential candidacy, but if one considers Sal Sunseri to be “current staff,” it’s a longshot – but not completely out of the realm of possibility – that Alabama give him the role in the short term. In fact, if bringing back Jeremy Pruitt to the position (in a later season) is the end goal, Sunseri is at the age where he probably wouldn’t mind playing the role of handoff. The problem there is Sunseri’s last assignment as a defensive coordinator – Tennessee, 2012 – went about as poorly as it could have gone. It would likely be a case of DC-by-committee, with even Saban himself controlling the defensive headset. The most likely other current staff member to get a promotion would be Travaris Robinson, and that would be a total shot in the dark right now. But Robinson will be in high demand soon, and promoting him may be the only solution to keeping him in the program. Freddie Roach and Coleman Hutzler are probably both on the outside looking in.

Offensive staff
There haven’t been any official moves yet, but at least one is almost a certainty and a couple of others could happen, too. Any time Alabama changes offensive coordinators, it means big things for the program. Here’s our outlook:

Out: Bill O’Brien, QB/OC; In: None yet
While not technically “out,” O’Brien’s contract ends in February and there has been no movement from either side to re-up. O’Brien is considered the top choice for the New England Patriots’ vacant offensive coordinator spot and is also a candidate for at least two other jobs at that level. Alabama started searching for O’Brien’s eventual future replacement back in early December and reportedly have already talked off-the-record to at least three candidates. This will be an important decision on several fronts, not the least of which hinges on what type of quarterback Alabama wants to have going forward. The spring practice battle between Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson could be tilted one way or another solely by the style of play preferred by the new coordinator. Whereas Nick Saban has long kept Alabama’s defensive philosophy pegged closely to his own preferences, offensive coordinators have been given far wider latitude.

Currently still employed: Holmon Wiggins, WR; Joe Cox, TE; Eric Wolford, OL; Robert Gillespie, RB
Of the names listed, Holmon Wiggins is the least likely to return, as he is reportedly in demand at Texas and a handful of other schools, and possibly NFL teams as well. Wiggins was considered a rising star not long ago, to the point that one of Alabama’s more out-there possibilities of replacing O’Brien was to have Wiggins elevated to the offensive coordinator’s role and a dedicated quarterbacks coach hired to replace O’Brien. While that looks unlikely to happen at this point – in no small part to the struggles of Alabama’s wide receivers for much of 2022 – it does appear Alabama would have to bid up Wiggins’ salary to keep him around as a position coach. Of the rest, Joe Cox would appear to be the most likely to move on, as tight end wasn’t a strength in 2022, with the younger players especially not showing a lot of development. Cox, for a time, may have been looked at as the dedicated quarterbacks coach in the Wiggins-to-OC scenario, but that’s probably off the board now. Robert Gillespie is safe in his role as running backs coach, and Eric Wolford had a mostly successful first season as offensive line coach, working with a more blue-collar and injury-affected unit than the one Doug Marrone had at his disposal the previous two years. Both would seem locks to get another year in Tuscaloosa.

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR CANDIDATES
Here’s a list of names currently connected to the Alabama offensive coordinator job in some way. A couple of names, such as TCU’s Garrett Riley and North Carolina’s Phil Longo, have already moved on to new jobs:

Jeff Lebby, OC/QB, Oklahoma
On the surface, it doesn’t make sense: Lebby is an Oklahoma graduate, and got his start in coaching as an Oklahoma GA. He left Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss to return to Oklahoma in 2022 in support of head coach Brent Venables, but the honeymoon appears to have soured, to the point that Lebby is actively looking around for other opportunities. Oklahoma went 6-7 in 2022 despite Lebby’s offense ranking 13th overall and 10th in rushing. In 2021 at Ole Miss, the Rebels ranked 6th in total offense, 12th in rushing and 22nd in passing. Lebby is probably the best mixture of dynamic passing strategy and commitment to the running game that Alabama would be likely to find. Nick Saban is said to desire a return to more of a run-based offense going forward, and Lebby has found a way to do that without becoming boring or ineffective in the passing game. He should probably be considered the strong leading candidate for the job right now, and would be a homerun by any measure should Alabama be able to snag him.

Dan Mullen, unemployed
Mullen has been doing analysis for ABC television since his tenure as Florida head coach came to an end in 2021. The co-architect of the spread-option offense along with Urban Meyer, Mullen is viewed as a tough, run-first head coach who was always innovative and willing to spread the ball around. His most memorable contributions probably came in how he chose to utilize the quarterback position in the modern offense, famously saying that his quarterbacks had to always be ready and willing to run a called running play. Mullen even found a way to make the statuesque Kyle Trask into a legitimate running option while at Florida. He was briefly attached to the offer of an analyst’s job at Alabama after leaving the Gators, and has a good report with Nick Saban, and current Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne once hired Mullen as head coach at Mississippi State. Were he to get the job, the quarterback competition this spring would likely take a swift turn, giving Jalen Milroe a much better shot at holding off Ty Simpson due to Mullen’s focus on the QB run game. If Lebby turns down Alabama, we expect Mullen to become the top candidate.

Brian Johnson, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Twice an assistant for Dan Mullen, including once as an offensive coordinator, Johnson now works as quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, coaching former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. Johnson’s style meshes well with that of his mentor, and Alabama could expect a similar look from its offense if Johnson was to be hired in Tuscalooosa. The question is whether Johnson wants to continue to further his NFL coaching career, because a promotion to offensive coordinator somewhere is almost a certainty at this point; it’s just a matter of time.

Charlie Weis Jr., QB/co-OC, Ole Miss
Weis took over a large portion of Lebby’s duties in 2022 when Lebby left for Oklahoma, and the Rebels’ total offense and rushing offense numbers actually saw an uptick. Ole Miss ranked 8th in total offense and 3rd in rushing offense, but passing fell off to 59th, and for that reason the Rebels have recently raided the transfer portal at quarterback, with 2022 starter Jaxson Dart expected to now transfer out of Oxford. Weis has worked at Alabama before as an analyst, and has been closely tied to Lane Kiffin throughout his career. His resume has been a bit uneven – his time under Jeff Scott at South Florida was less than spectacular, to be kind – but his results while working alongside Kiffin have been far more favorable.

Joe Brady, QB, Buffalo Bills
Brady’s legend stems from a single season at LSU, where his prowess as a QB coach helped the Tigers win an unlikely national championship under Ed Orgeron. He was not technically the offensive coordinator for that team, but rather the “passing game coordinator” and wide receivers coach under OC Steve Ensminger. Ensminger, a veteran coach with multiple stops around the Southeast, had his best year by far as a coordinator working with Brady, and Brady parlayed the experience into a promotion to offensive coordinator spot for the Carolina Panthers of the NFL. He was fired from that job after two seasons and landed in Buffalo as a position coach. Despite the legend of that fated 2019 LSU team, Brady would be a fairly high boom/bust risk as an OC hire due to the limited overall resume. His work with Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints in 2017-2018 as a general offensive assistant is what launched him into the role at LSU, and is probably considered his most substantive work. Whether Alabama would hand the keys over to him after his performance in Carolina remains to be seen.

Andy Kotelnicki, OC/AHC, Kansas
Whether Kotelnicki is a legitimate candidate or just an internet rumor mill throw-in is yet to be seen. His career path has been nontraditional to say the least – a decade in lower divisions followed by a seven-year stint at the University of Buffalo. Most likely, his ascension to a spot of mention comes from his association with a suddenly resurgent Kansas program and being the right-hand man of head coach Lance Leipold. Leipold for a time was considered a strong candidate for the Nebraska job, and that focus likely rubbed off on Kotelnicki, who has served for two years as offensive coordinator and was promoted to assistant head coach in December. Kansas went just 6-7 this year, but that’s considered high cotton for the KU program, and the Jayhawks ranked 32nd overall in total offense and was almost in complete balance between rushing (39th) and passing (43rd). Kansas ranked 21st in scoring offense and 4th in passing efficiency. Whatever happens in Kotelnicki’s future, it’s a good bet Kansas won’t be his last stop, but we would consider him a longshot for the Alabama job.

Mike Bloesch, OC/QB, North Texas
The big question here is whether Bloesch can coach quarterbacks. Until the 2022 season, Bloesch was the rare offensive coordinator who also coached the offensive line. As OC/OL coach in 2021, North Texas ranked 5th in rushing offense but only 41st in total offense, thanks to dragging behind in the passing attack (98th). Heading into 2022, Bloesch was moved from the line to the quarterback room, and balance became better overnight. North Texas jumped to 21st in total offense, fell to 25th in rushing offense but lept to 37th in passing offense. Scoring was 28th and passing efficiency 34th. Bloesch is another fringe candidate for bigger jobs, but he has a proven track record as an offensive line coach dating back more than a decade, and offensive coordinators who understand the intricacies of how line play work tend to make for good risks. Gauging the depth of Alabama’s interest here is difficult; this probably is the case more a coach to keep an eye on for future searches.

The Current Staff
Going back to the top, it’s unlikely Alabama would promote from within. About the only path to make it happen would involve giving Holmon Wiggins the OC tag, then moving Joe Cox from TE to QB (or hiring a new QB coach entirely). Considering those were the two worst-performing positions on the 2022 offense, Alabama will probably look outside the staff for its next offensive coordinator. There is one other current staff member that bears mentioning simply because of his resume and close connections to Nick Saban: offensive analyst Derek Dooley. Dooley served as offensive coordinator for Missouri in 2018 and 2019 and has a solid resume of college and pro stops, but he has struggled as a head coach. While that wouldn’t be his assignment at Alabama, Dooley has never shown to be a particularly dynamic coach regardless of his assigned task, and Alabama is looking for more creativity in its offense going forward.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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