Florida State will have its third defensive coordinator in as many years when the Seminoles take the field in 2014.
Mark Stoops left FSU after three seasons to become Kentucky's coach in December 2012. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher hired Jeremy Pruitt in January 2013, and he helped direct the nation's No. 1 defense (allowed 12.1 points per game). Pruitt then surprisingly left FSU to become Georgia's defensive coordinator in January.
So Fisher opted to promote Charles Kelly from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach. While such turnover could be viewed with raised eyebrows, especially for a program looking to repeat as national champion, Fisher feels that promoting Kelly makes sense for the team.
"You don't always want change," Fisher said Sunday at FSU's media day. "It all reflects to how your players react to him, and that's been tremendous. (Kelly is) a tremendous football coach and tremendous guy."
"Hire good people, people are going to want them," said Kelly. "When you do a good job, people are going to come after your (coaches). I think that says a lot about Jimbo. I think it says a lot about his being able to recognize people that can do the job that he wants done and work within the system."
Kelly said that he had wanted to work with Fisher for the past few years. The two actually coached together for a season in 1993 at Auburn (Fisher was the quarterbacks coach, and Kelly was a graduate assistant). They faced off a few times in the ACC when Kelly was an assistant at Georgia Tech from 2006-12.
Georgia Tech's defense was struggling midway through the 2012 season, and coach Paul Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh after a string of three straight losses to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson. Ken Sugiura of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that the Yellow Jackets allowed an average of 46 points and 573.3 yards in those losses.
But Kelly became the interim defensive coordinator and turned things around. Georgia Tech won four of its last six regular-season games and reached the ACC Championship Game.
FSU defeated Georgia Tech 21-15 to win the league title, but Kelly's Yellow Jackets defense shut out the Seminoles in the second half, and E.J. Manuel was held to just 134 passing yards on the night. And Georgia Tech went on to dominate Southern California 21-7 in the Sun Bowl, as the Yellow Jackets held the Trojans to 205 offensive yards.
Just a few months later, Fisher hired Kelly. Fisher said he didn't promise Kelly that he could one day be the defensive coordinator, but Fisher did mention it as a possibility. Then, it became reality; Pruitt left Tallahassee a week after the national championship, and Fisher promoted Kelly in February.
"I've always been the type where if you work hard at what you do and do your job, things will take care of themselves," Kelly said. "I believe that. I'm very honored and very grateful for the opportunity."
Kelly is set to begin his 25th season as an assistant coach, and this is his biggest opportunity. He has been a position coach or coordinator at schools like Jacksonville State, Henderson State, Eufaula, Nicholls State and Georgia Tech.
But he is now leading what could again be the nation's top defense. While FSU lost an All-American corner in Lamarcus Joyner as well as defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, safety Terrence Brooks and leading tackler Telvin Smith, the Seminoles' recent recruiting success has ensured that there is plenty of depth.
The Seminoles return Mario Edwards Jr., a versatile, 300-pound end who can also slide inside and play tackle or drop back into coverage. Terrance Smith had 59 tackles last season and has emerged as a leader at linebacker. And the defensive backfield is loaded between corners like Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams and safeties like Jalen Ramsey, Nate Andrews and Tyler Hunter.
So far, the transition has gone well.
"The main thing for me is that, first of all, I work with a great group of guys," Kelly said. "Everybody has a job to do, and everybody does that job very hard. It's great working with Jimbo because it's a team—it's not offense, special teams, defense. We all work together to get better."
Kelly said he has relied heavily on his assistant coaches—Odell Haggins (defensive tackles), Sal Sunseri (defensive ends) and Bill Miller (linebackers). Haggins, Sunseri and Miller have a combined 87 years of experience as college coaches, including three national titles for Sunseri and two for Haggins.
"You think about Odell Haggins and how many national championship games he's been in," Kelly said. "You think about Sal, how many national championships he's been in and won. Bill Miller has been a coordinator at some really good places and been very successful. You have that to work with? That, to me, just helps you out as a coordinator."
The other advantage for Kelly is that the players already knew him. He coached the linebackers in 2013 but kept tabs on the rest of the defensive players. So when Kelly was promoted, the transition felt smooth.
"I knew coach last year when he coached the linebackers," Darby said. "He was always a great dude, come talk to you, say, 'You're doing a good job.' Now that he's my coach, I see why the linebackers liked him so much. He's a great coach."
Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bob on Twitter.
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