Almost predictably, Alabama kicked the tires on several established offensive coordinators and hot names – and then eventually chose Notre Dame quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees as its choice to replace Bill O’Brien.
Rees’ name came somewhat out of left field over the past week or two, a testament to Alabama’s ability to put clamps on the flow of information coming out of the Mal Moore Building. Sources indicated Friday that Rees emerged from a group that included Oklahoma’s Jeff Lebby, Washington’s Ryan Grubb, former Florida head coach Dan Mullen, and Brian Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles, whose candidacy may have been impacted by the Eagles’ continued path through the NFL playoffs. Another name, former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, was mentioned in some media reports, but TideFans was not able to get independent confirmation on his status as a candidate.
Rees’ career has been short – he won’t turn 31 years old until the spring – and he has served as a coordinator for only three seasons, along with three additional seasons (2017-2019) as Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach. His first year with the headset on, 2020, produced solid results: Notre Dame finished the season 10-2, losing to Alabama in the first round of the College Football Playoff, and the Fighting Irish were ranked 26th in total offense, 24th in rushing offense and 30th in scoring offense. While passing offense lagged (58th), Notre Dame’s quarterback, Ian Book, was drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints.
The 2021 and 2022 seasons didn’t produce the same kind of numbers, as Notre Dame took a more passing-centric approach in 2021, then reverted back to a run-first philosophy in 2022.
In hiring Rees, Alabama is betting on potential. Brian Kelly, Rees’ former boss at Notre Dame, reportedly tried to bring Rees to LSU with him but was unable to convince Rees to make the move at the time. Rees’ name has also been tied closely to Georgia’s impending search for an offensive coordinator, which will become necessary if current Georgia OC Todd Monken takes an NFL job as expected. Kelly has praised Rees’ acumen as a playcaller and quarterback coach, and if the reports concerning the Georgia job are accurate, it appears Rees was considered by several programs to be a good fit for SEC football.
To that end, one of the common threads to Alabama’s search for a new coordinator was to find a coach committed to power running concepts, and to return Alabama to a more physically dominant style of football. While Alabama of the past two years was by no means a true finesse team, it had eschewed a traditional, downhill style of running the football in favor of more frequent zone concepts and misdirection in the backfield. Nick Saban was said to be purposefully targeting a return to a more physical offense with this hire, and if nothing else, Rees certainly fits that bill. The question now becomes whether Rees’ future results will be more productive now that he has access to better overall talent than what he had been working with the last couple of seasons in South Bend.
Defensive coordinator search continues
On the other side of the ball, Alabama continues to have a vacancy at defensive coordinator, where Pete Golding served before leaving for Ole Miss. Here’s an update to our tracker from Jan. 20:
Jeremy Pruitt, unemployed: Pruitt’s candidacy gets less and less likely by the day. Alabama has always been, and still is, unlikely to hire Pruitt unless it has a firm grasp of what the fallout from Pruitt’s NCAA troubles while head coach at Tennessee are going to be. A show-cause order of some length is expected, as are other restrictions, most likely on his recruiting availability. There is still a good chance Pruitt ends up in Tuscaloosa as a defensive analyst or in some other role, but as an on-field coach – and especially a coordinator – we’re not so sure Pruitt is still in the running.
Glenn Schumann, co-DC, Georgia: If Pruitt is out, Schumann is probably tops on both fan boards and Nick Saban’s personal list as well. But reports out of Georgia suggest the Bulldogs are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Schumann, up to and including removing the “co-DC” tag from his name and possibly finding current co-DC Will Muschamp something else to do. Schumann seems to have closely-held ties to Kirby Smart and is in no hurry to leave, although the Alabama job might provide him his best chance to prove himself and eventually be a candidate for the head coaching job in Tuscaloosa when Saban eventually hangs it up in a few years. This one is still simmering under the surface a bit, but we can’t call Schumann the lead candidate given the reports out of Athens.
Jim Leonhard, unemployed: The former defensive coordinator and interim head coach at Wisconsin, Leonhard continues to not have a job, but he’s being mentioned for several college and professional gigs. Leonhard is a defensive backs coach by trade, and Alabama’s lone position coach opening on defense is Charles Kelly’s old safeties slot. Leonhard isn’t the best schematic fit of the bunch, but aside from perhaps Jeremy Pruitt, his name was the first to be connected to Alabama’s opening, even before there was an official opening. We believe he’s more likely to head to the NFL then come south, but terms of his financial separation from Wisconsin were just announced on Feb. 1 and it may have been a necessary step before Leonhard could go anywhere. This would be a grand slam home run for Alabama if it happens, but if Leonhard is the top candidate, Alabama has done a magnificent job of keeping it hidden.
Jimmy Lake, unemployed: Lake has his own issues stemming from his departure from Washington, as his termination was related to an allegation that he and a player had some kind of physical altercation. Lake’s name popped up on the front end of the search, but we’ve heard next to nothing sense, and there are even some who believe the rumor mill may have gotten him confused with Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, who was a candidate for the job that just went to Tommy Rees. We’re still tracking Lake’s name but this is probably the longest shot on the board right now.
Austin Armstrong, ILB, Alabama: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Alabama might elevate Armstrong, who was the defensive coordinator last year for Southern Miss, to the same position here. We believe Saban would prefer a more veteran presence, if for no other reason than to avoid the possibility of having two relative greenhorns serving as coordinators at the same time. But as other names continue to fall off the list, Armstrong becomes more likely by default.
New name: Travaris Robinson, CB, Alabama: Robinson was South Carolina’s defensive coordinator under Will Muschamp prior to joining the Crimson Tide as cornerbacks coach, and his results weren’t bad, especially given South Carolina’s inferior talent level. Robinson’s name has already come up as a potential defensive coordinator choice for other schools – his alma mater Auburn most notably, before the Tigers chose to go in a different direction – so he won’t be long for Tuscaloosa unless he gets the coordinator tag.
New name: Kevin Steele, DC, Miami (Fla.): This would be the ultimate “handoff hire” if Alabama was eventually looking to install Jeremy Pruitt in the spot. Steele has worked for Nick Saban twice before, and he’s long been considered one of the best recruiters Saban has had. He was mentioned the last two times Auburn had a head coaching vacancy, and he’s always in the mix when an SEC team needs a coordinator. But his recent results have been scattershot at best, and last year’s statistics at Miami were horrendous: 54th in rushing defense, 65th in total defense, 80th in pass defense and 102nd in pass efficiency defense. Steele would be hired for two reasons above the others: Nick Saban is familiar with him, and it wouldn’t be hard to swap him to an off-field position if or when Jeremy Pruitt became available. The latter is literally the only reason to make this hire, because Steele’s best days are probably behind him, and it’s hard to imagine him being a step up from Pete Golding. It would also create a potential issue with the makeup of the staff, as Steele has never coached defensive backs before, meaning Austin Armstrong would probably have to take on that role, or Alabama would have to replace Coleman Hutzler at outside linebackers coach with another defensive backs coach.
New name: Geoff Collins, unemployed: Another former Saban assistant, Collins began the 2022 season as head coach at Georgia Tech before ultimately being fired from the spot. The Yellow Jacket program is barely viable as an FBS power anymore, and Collins probably should have started his head coaching career at a smaller venue. He was formerly the defensive coordinator at Florida International, Mississippi State and Florida, and was an analyst on Saban’s first Alabama team. He checks a lot of boxes regarding familiarity with Saban and the region in general.
Out of the running: Todd Grantham, analyst, Alabama; Lance Guidry, DC/S, Marshall: Lance Guidry was hired Jan. 30 as the new defensive coordinator at Tulane. While Alabama could probably swoop in and make a better offer than anything Tulane would be prepared to give, it’s unlikely Guidry would have taken that job if he were a legitimate candidate for Alabama’s job the first time. More likely, his name was being mentioned originally more as an unknown coach to watch for future openings. Todd Grantham, on the other hand, saw himself go from fringe candidate to briefly the top candidate for the job, albeit much the same way Kevin Steele’s name is now being tied to the job. Grantham would have been viewed as a handoff hire in the Jeremy Pruitt saga much like Steele currently is viewed. On Feb. 3, Grantham was hired by the New Orleans Saints as a defensive assistant, effectively ending his chances of getting Alabama’s DC job.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN