The Best 10 CFB Assistants with Head Coach Potential

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2020

The Best 10 CFB Assistants with Head Coach Potential

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    Nearly every college football coach starts as a low-level assistant and slowly moves up the ladder. The typical path involves stops as a position coach and coordinator before landing the big title.

    So, the important question: Who's next?

    We're scanning the nation for the top assistants who are best suited to take on a head coaching role. As you'll see, though, that's not necessarily synonymous with "most likely." But a few unfamiliar names will appear on the list.

    Former defensive coordinators Dave Aranda and Jimmy Lake are among the assistants who have graduated from this group. They're now the head coaches at Baylor and Washington, respectively.

    Age also factored into the choices. While a few seasoned assistants could be head coachesAuburn and Michigan defensive coordinators Kevin Steele and Don Brown, for examplewe deferred to the names who could be around for a while. Former head coaches—such as Alabama's Steve Sarkisianwere not considered.

10. Morgan Scalley, Utah

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    Did you know Kyle Whittingham is 60? The longtime Utah boss hasn't shown any signs of leaving the program, but his tenure will be coming to an end sooner rather than later. Whittingham spent 11 years as a position coach with the Utes before his promotion.

    Might be a familiar story for Morgan Scalley.

    An All-American safety in the early 2000s, he spent the 2006-07 seasons in low-level assistant roles. Scalley has been the safeties coach since 2008 and served as the recruiting coordinator for seven years before taking over the defense in 2016.

    Over the last three seasons, Utah has ranked 28th, 10th and sixth nationally in yards allowed per play. That success is worthy of head coaching looks elsewhere.

    But it would also be sensible for a Utah lifer to replace a coach who spent 27-plus years at the school.

9. Marcus Freeman, Cincinnati

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    The former Ohio State linebacker has made a steady rise in the coaching ranks since a heart condition ended his fledgling NFL career in 2010.

    After spending one year as a graduate assistant in Columbus, he spent two years at Kent State as the linebackers coach before holding the same position at Purdue for four seasons. He then joined his former position coach, Luke Fickell, as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati.

    As the Bearcats posted back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2018 and 2019, Freeman oversaw a top-15 defense in 2018 and one that ranked 17th nationally in tackles for loss last season. That success led to an offer to join the Tennessee Titans staff this offseason, per The MMQB's Albert Breer.

    Freeman stayed in Cincinnati, though. Fickell is a popular candidate to accept a bigger job soon, and Freeman would be a logical replacement.

8. Sean Gleeson, Rutgers

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    Sean Gleeson made it clear this offseason: He's a Jersey kid.

    Despite a successful year as Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator, he returned to the Northeast with the same job at Rutgers. Prior to his one-year detour in Stillwater, Gleeson guided the offenses at Princeton and Fairleigh Dickinson.

    But don't mistake small schools for low expectations. Gleeson oversaw a record-setting Ivy League attack at Princeton, and his creativity led to a deserved chance at OK State. Last year, the Pokes ranked 20th nationally in yards per play and boasted one of the most explosive offenseseven pacing the FBS in gains of 60-plus yards.

    It seems Gleeson's field of opportunities is narrow. But if the right job opens up, he's clearly worth a call.

7. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin

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    Jim Leonhard understands he doesn't need to furiously climb the coaching ladder.

    "I know I'm still an extremely young coach," he said, per Colten Bartholomew of the Wisconsin State Journal. There's coaches out there that have forgotten more than I know at this point. And I don't take that for granted. I understand the growth that I need to have from now till next season. I know over the course of time where I want to be as a coach."

    It also helps to have the security of his position. Leonhard is an embodiment of the programwalk-on turned All-American safety who spent a decade in the NFL. He returned to Madison as the defensive backs coach in 2016 and replaced coordinator Justin Wilcox when he departed for Cal in 2017.

    Wisconsin has thrived with Leonhard, most recently leading the FBS in third-down defense and tying for second in sacks.

    Leonhard is safely employed at Wisconsin, but he should be regularly mentioned in future coaching searches.

6. Clark Lea, Notre Dame

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    Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, one of Lea's top players at Notre Dame.
    Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, one of Lea's top players at Notre Dame.Associated Press

    Throughout the last decade, Clark Lea bounced around the nation coaching linebackers. He received a promotion to position coach at UCLA in 2010, then headed to Bowling Green (2012), Syracuse (2013-15), Wake Forest (2016) and Notre Dame in 2017.

    Lea, now 38, replaced Mike Elkomore on him shortlyas the defensive coordinator in 2018, and the Irish have excelled since.

    The 2018 unit ranked 14th nationally in yards allowed per play and helped Notre Dame reach the College Football Playoff.  Last year, the Irish rose to eighth while surrendering the third-fewest yards per pass. 

    Given that Brian Kelly is unlikely to leave South Bend soon, Lea should emerge as a popular candidate elsewhere.

5. Mike Elko, Texas A&M

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    Mike Elko has succeeded at every stop.

    As the defensive coordinator at Bowling Green from 2009-13, the Falcons ranked 98th, 102nd, 74th, 12th and 24th in yards allowed per play. Elko's defenses at Wake Forest braced the program while it endured a miserable stretch of offenses. And with Notre Dame, the unit climbed from 45th before Elko to 25th with him.

    The trend has continued at Texas A&M, where the defense improved from 68th in 2017 to 35th last season. The Aggies had a top-three rush defense in 2018 too.

    Elko has been mentioned in a few searches. But as one of only a few coordinators earning $2 million annually, per USA Today, he's probably in no rush to leave College Station.

4. Brent Pry, Penn State

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    After a career-ending injury in 1991, University of Buffalo defensive back Brent Pry joined the coaching staff as a student assistant. Eight stops and 28 years later, he's a highly regarded linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at Penn State.

    In his four seasons as DC, the Nittany Lions have finished no lower than 23rd nationally in yards allowed per play, tackles for loss or sacks. Only once (47th, 2016) did they fall below that mark in scoring defense.

    Considering that level of sustained success, it's no surprise Michigan State considered Pry this offseason.

    And since Penn State returns much of its production in 2020, Pry should be a top option once again this winter.

3. Alex Grinch, Oklahoma

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    Just like another former Oklahoma defensive coordinator who's now at Clemson, Alex Grinch isn't worried about the next promotion.

    "[Being a head coach is] something I've always thought about and I think a lot of coaches have," Grinch said in 2019, per Vic Reynolds of the OU Daily. "I think at this stage, I'm just thrilled to be at Oklahoma, to run a defense, to run a room. To have a title next to your name or a seat at the head of the table doesn't really interest me."

    Grinch impressed as Washington State's DC from 2015-17 and Ohio State's co-coordinator in 2018. Then last season, he took an atrocious Oklahoma defense and turned it into a reasonably effective unit. The rise from 102nd in yards allowed per play to 63rd is no small accomplishment.

    If Grinch's feelings about becoming a head coach change, there should be no shortage of interest.

2. Tony Elliott, Clemson

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    For the last five years, Tony Elliott shared OC duties with a former teammate. But Jeff Scott is now leading South Florida, so Elliottalso the running backs coachis officially the boss in Clemson.

    Maybe not for long, though.

    Elliott turned down an interview with the Carolina Panthers this offseason. While it's reportedly because he felt the interview wasn't legitimate, the connection itself was totally reasonable. Elliott has earned that kind of opportunity.

    He's been the primary-play caller since his promotion to co-OC in 2015, and in that span, the Tigers have won five straight ACC titles and two national championships. During the last two years specifically, Clemson ranked first and second in yards per carry.

    If he wants it, Elliott is ready for the next step.

1. Brent Venables, Clemson

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    Still only 49 years old, Brent Venables has a resume more accomplished than many current head coaches, and the praise for him isn't going away anytime soon. The question, as always, is whether he'll actually leave Clemson.

    His history says no. His son Jake is a rising sophomore, and the elder Venables should be the highest-paid assistant coach in 2020. Why would the immediate future bring a different answer?

    Nevertheless, that doesn't change his merit.

    Venables spent 13 years as the coordinator at Oklahoma and joined Clemson in 2012. During his tenure, the Tigers have boasted five top-five defensesall in the last six seasons. The ability to assemble, develop and sustain that elite performance is special.

    Maybe he never leaves Clemson. But from Kansas State or Texas Tech in the past to the inevitable interest in the future, it's not for lack of other programs trying to steal Venables.