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Building the Ultimate College Football Coaching Staff for 2014 Season

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2014

Building the Ultimate College Football Coaching Staff for 2014 Season

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    Nick Saban has established himself as college football's premier head coach.
    Nick Saban has established himself as college football's premier head coach.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    What if money were no option?

    What if contracts, school loyalty and recruiting ties weren’t an issue?

    What if you could build the ultimate coaching staff?

    As college football teams across the nation prepare for the 2014 season’s kickoff in just over two weeks, head coaches are garnering the lion’s share of attention.

    Which coaches are national title contenders?

    Which coaches are on the hot seat?

    Behind the scenes toil the secret to their success: Assistant coaches. While head coaches serve as CEOs of their programs, their assistants do the bulk of one-on-one work with players, molding and shaping them for fall success.

    Those assistants are becoming exceedingly well-paid, and with good reason. Without them, college programs would be in a world of trouble. They deserve the pay, as well as the recognition.

    Here’s a look at one man’s idea of the ultimate college football coaching staff, across the board.

Defensive Coordinator: Kirby Smart

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    Kirby Smart is the nation's top defensive coordinator.
    Kirby Smart is the nation's top defensive coordinator.Dave Martin/Associated Press

    During Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure, the Crimson Tide has enjoyed one constant over all: stingy, brutish defenses which keep Saban and Co. in games and produce loads of NFL talent.

    When Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, he brought former Georgia defensive back Kirby Smart  with him from his Miami Dolphins staff. A year later, Smart replaced Kevin Steele as the Tide’s defensive coordinator and hasn’t looked back.

    In each of Smart’s six seasons as defensive coordinator, Alabama has ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense. The Tide has ranked no lower than fourth in that category since 2009.

    In 2009, Alabama won a national title and ranked second nationally in scoring defense (11.7 points per game) and total defense (244.1 yards per game). In 2011, the Tide won another national title while leading the nation in all five major defensive categories, allowing 183.6 YPG and 8.2 PPG. A year later, that defense played a huge role in another national title run, allowing just 10.9 PPG (best nationally) and 250 YPG (also tops nationally).

    Smart has also helped mold NFL talent like linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Mark Barron, defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, linebacker Rolando McClain, defensive tackle Terrence Cody, linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Dee Milliner.

    While he is considered one of the nation’s top assistant coaches and a prime head coaching candidate, Smart’s $1.15 million salary, per USA Today, should keep him plenty content until the right position comes along. He told Atlanta's 680 The Fan, per AL.com's Andrew Gribble, that he's perfectly happy as a coordinator under Saban.

Defensive Line: Rodney Garner

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    Rodney Garner left Georgia following 17 seasons to return to his alma mater at Auburn.
    Rodney Garner left Georgia following 17 seasons to return to his alma mater at Auburn.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    In the SEC, a strong defense is the foundation for success. The foundation of a strong defense? An excellent defensive line.

    Over the last 25 years, Rodney Garner has built a reputation as one of the best at molding strong defensive lines at both Auburn and Georgia. The former Auburn defensive line standout enjoyed a triumphant return to his alma mater last fall, as the Tigers defensive line played a big role in a turnaround from a 3-9 2012 season to a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

    Garner led a tough, nasty defensive line led by senior end Dee Ford (a first-round pick of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs) and junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright, an honorable mention All-SEC selection.

    While at Georgia, Garner coached a host of SEC standouts and future NFL players while serving as part of a staff that won 117 games, two SEC championships, five SEC East titles and seven bowl wins. He coached five NFL first-round selections in Charles Grant, David Pollack, Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud and Johnathan Sullivan, along with seven other NFL draft picks.

    Garner is also an excellent recruiter who serves as Auburn’s recruiting coordinator. Auburn fans are certainly glad that he came home to the Plains after 17 years away.

Linebackers: Bud Foster

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    Bud Foster has built a sterling reputation in 27 years at Virginia Tech.
    Bud Foster has built a sterling reputation in 27 years at Virginia Tech.Steve Helber/Associated Press

    When we started building this staff we said that money, school ties and recruiting ties were no object, which was how we fit a star like Bud Foster into a linebacker coaching role. Foster has been as much of a Virginia Tech institution as Frank Beamer.

    He is entering his 27th season on the Hokies staff and 20th as Beamer’s defensive coordinator, an unheard of run in today’s volatile college coaching climate.

    Still, Foster just keeps churning out tremendous, stingy, nasty defenses in Blacksburg.

    Last fall, Tech finished No. 4 nationally in total defense and ranked in the top 15 in six other defensive categories, one of the best performances in Foster’s stellar career.

    2004 through 2006 also ranked as an impressive stretch. In 2004, Tech ranked in the top five nationally in in total defense, pass defense, scoring defense, interceptions and turnovers forced.

    The Hokies led the national in total defense in both 2005 and 2006, with the 2006 team also leading the nation in scoring defense and passing defense. That year, Foster was honored with the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach.

    Foster has been a regular on college football’s coaching carousel but has consistently chosen to stay with Beamer and churn out talented, nasty defenses. Hokie fans are glad he has.

Secondary: Chris Ash

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    Chris Ash is one of the top secondary coaches in college football.
    Chris Ash is one of the top secondary coaches in college football.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    When Urban Meyer sought to bolster his defensive staff last fall, he found the answer in a coach with Midwestern and Big Ten roots in a move that was highly praised.

    New co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash is regarded as one of the nation’s top secondary coaches. He is entering his 19th season as a college football coach and 13th as a secondary coach.

    In one season at Arkansas, Ash had a major impact on the Razorbacks pass defense. Arkansas was No. 113 nationally in pass defense in 2012 and improved to No. 72 in 2013, allowing 50 yards fewer per game through the air.

    He has spent the past three seasons as a defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Arkansas and Wisconsin.

    In 2011, the Badgers were No. 4 nationally in passing yards per game (163.6) and No. 15 in total defense, allowing 316.4 yards per game. In 2012, Wisconsin allowed 322.5 YPG (No. 15 nationally).

    Ash also coached at Drake, Iowa State and San Diego State.

    He is a proponent of the 4-3 defense, according to Ohio State's official website:

    To me, to be successful, I think you have to be detailed. You have to be able to coach and teach the fundamentals of the game, and that's how you develop players. You have to have a consistency with how you prepare yourself so you can prepare them and then get them to play hard.

    If the Buckeyes improve defensively this fall, it won’t be hard to figure out where to assign credit.

Recruiting Coordinator: Frank Wilson

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    Jeremy Hill is just one of a number of talented recruits and running backs mentored by LSU's Frank Wilson.
    Jeremy Hill is just one of a number of talented recruits and running backs mentored by LSU's Frank Wilson.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    At $650,000 annually, LSU’s Frank Wilson is the highest-paid running backs coach in FBS. And while Wilson has some talent as a position coach, producing NFL talents like Jeremy Hill and Stevan Ridley, his real value lies as a recruiting coordinator.

    The New Orleans native and former standout high school coach spent time on the staffs at Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Tennessee before joining Les Miles’ staff in 2010.

    He made an immediate impact as a recruiter. Per 247Sports, the Tigers had the nation’s No. 8 class in 2011, No. 14 in 2012, No. 6 in 2013 and No. 2 in 2014. Wilson was named as the 2011 Recruiter of the Year by Rivals.com.

    With his personality and connections to the New Orleans area, Wilson has the ties and drive to keep the talent flowing to the Tigers roster and keep LSU relevant for the forseeable future.

Offensive Coordinator: Chad Morris

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    Chad Morris is one of the nation's hottest assistant coaches.
    Chad Morris is one of the nation's hottest assistant coaches.Jeffrey Boan/Associated Press

    Chad Morris is entering only his fifth season as a college coach, but he has rapidly established himself as one of the game’s top assistant coaches. The longtime Texas high school head coach was hired as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and used his hurry-up, no-huddle offense to light up scoreboards. The Golden Hurricane averaged 41.4 points per game, ranking eighth in the FBS in points per game.

    Dabo Swinney snapped him up to revive Clemson’s moribund offense, and he delivered in 2011, helping the Tigers capture their first ACC championship since 1991.

    A year later, the Tigers offense set program records for points per game (41.0) and total offense (512.7 yards per game). Last fall, Clemson averaged 507.7 yards per game and 40.2 points per game. The Tigers are one of only five programs nationally to average more than 40 points and 500 yards of total offense per game in each of the last two seasons. Morris was named the 2013 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year.

    Under Morris’ tutelage, quarterback Tajh Boyd became one of the ACC’s most prolific quarterbacks ever, setting the league’s career touchdown record and finishing No. 2 all time in career passing yards behind N.C. State’s Philip Rivers.

    Wideout Sammy Watkins set Clemson career records for receptions and receiving yards and was a top-five overall NFL draft pick of the Buffalo Bills. A year earlier, DeAndre Hopkins was a first-round pick of the NFL’s Houston Texans.

    Morris makes $1.3 million annually as the highest-paid assistant coach in college football,  per USA Today. Clemson fans will be glad to pay that salary for as long as they can if it means keeping Morris on staff.

Offensive Line: Rick Trickett

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    Rick Trickett is one of the game's top offensive line coaches.
    Rick Trickett is one of the game's top offensive line coaches.Phil Coale/Associated Press

    While much of the attention surrounding Florida State’s 2013 BCS national championship team surrounded Heisman Trophy quarterback Jameis Winston, the foundation of the Seminoles’ success was rooted in the offensive line. Florida State set program and ACC records for total offense (7,267 yards), points per game (51.6) and set the national record for points (723).

    The line played a huge role in that success. All five starters earned All-ACC honors, and three were honored as All-Americans. Center Bryan Stork won the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s top center, and was a consensus All-American.

    It was just the latest achievement in what has been a stellar career for offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who joined Florida State’s staff in 2007.

    He has coached 10 All-Americans and 17 freshman All-Americans, and over 30 of his former players have gone on to play in the NFL.

    Trickett served as West Virginia’s offensive line coach from 2002-06. The Mountaineers rushing offense finished in the top 15 nationally in each of his five seasons in Morgantown, improving from No. 35 in 2001 to No. 2 in his first season in 2002. In 2006, the Mountaineers finished No. 2 nationally in rushing offense, No. 3 in scoring offense and No. 5 in total offense.

    With Trickett on board, the Seminoles have become known as a physical, nasty team. That doesn’t appear likely to change as long as he hangs around in Tallahassee.

Running Backs: Burton Burns

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    Burton Burns has been a steady force as Alabama's running backs coach.
    Burton Burns has been a steady force as Alabama's running backs coach.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    While defense has been a hallmark of Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure, the Crimson Tide’s consistent, bruising running game has been almost as important. One man has been behind that running game: Burton Burns.

    Since arriving from Clemson in 2007 (where he coached NFL first-round pick C.J. Spiller), Burns has churned out a series of strong tailbacks. In 2009, tailback Mark Ingram became the first Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama’s storied history, piling up 1,658 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns.

    Two years later, tailback Trent Richardson won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back and was the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year while averaging 129.2 yards per game. He was also a Heisman Trophy finalist and played a huge role in the Crimson Tide’s BCS championship.

    A year later, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon became the first backfield duo in Alabama history to rush for 1,000 yards apiece, combining for 2,430 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground as the Tide won another national title.

    Last fall, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore. This fall, Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake will form one of the nation’s top backfields. Alabama’s run of strong backfields doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon, and Burton is a huge reason why.

Wide Receivers: Tee Martin

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    Tee Martin is a fast rising star in the assistant coaching ranks.
    Tee Martin is a fast rising star in the assistant coaching ranks.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Most college football fans know Tee Martin as the quarterback who did something that Peyton Manning couldn’t: lead Tennessee to a college football national championship. Martin led UT to the 1998 national title and, following a pro football career that included stops in the NFL and CFL, built a career as a standout assistant coach.

    He began his career at Morehouse in 2006 and spent two years in the high school ranks in Atlanta before being hired as New Mexico’s quarterbacks coach in 2009.

    In 2010, he moved on to Kentucky as the Wildcats’ wide receivers coach, where he helped mold first-team All-American Randall Cobb, a second-round pick of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. In addition, fellow wideout Chris Matthews tied for the SEC lead in touchdown catches.

    In 2012, Martin was hired as USC’s wide receivers coach, where he has mentored a talented group of wideouts. Marqise Lee won the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top wide receiver, setting Pac-12 single-season records for receptions (112) and receiving yards (1,680), leading the league in receptions, receiving yards, kick return yards and all-purpose yards. Fellow wideout Robert Woods was a second-round NFL draft pick.

    Lee is gone, but this fall, Martin will work with speedy, versatile Nelson Agholor. Martin is also an exceptional recruiter. It’s no surprise that new coach Steve Sarkisian retained him and named Martin the passing game coordinator when he took the Trojans job last winter. Martin is a rising star in college football’s ranks and one of its top receiver coaches.

Head Coach: Nick Saban

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    There's no questioning Nick Saban's status as college football's top coach.
    There's no questioning Nick Saban's status as college football's top coach.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Love him. Hate him. There’s no denying that Nick Saban is one of college football’s most polarizing figures, given his penchant for oversigning and tirades against media members.

    There’s also no denying this: The man just knows how to win. And win. And win.

    In 19 seasons as a collegiate head coach, Saban has never had a losing record, although he did have a 6-10 record in 2006 in his second and final year as head coach of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

    His collegiate record is 165-57-1, and he has won at least 10 games in seven of the last nine seasons and each of the last six at Alabama. A two-game losing streak, like the one that ended the 2013 season, leads to talk of a powerful rebound, per The Associated Press.

    Saban won a BCS national championship at LSU in 2003 before bolting a season later for the NFL. When he arrived at Alabama in 2007, he found a proud program battered by NCAA sanctions and four different head coaches in a seven-season span.

    Following a difficult 7-6 debut best remembered for a home loss to lowly Louisiana-Monroe, Saban and the Crimson Tide broke out in 2008 and haven’t looked back. In the last six seasons, Alabama is 72-9 with BCS national championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

    Saban has established himself as a relentless recruiter and one of college football’s top defensive minds. In addition, he has an impressive coaching tree, with assistants like Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp, Mark Dantonio and Jim McElwain, among others, going on to prominent head coaching roles.

    Alabama is currently paying Saban a $6.9 million annual salary, and the good people of Alabama would argue he is worth every penny.

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