College Football Coaches Who Are Rebuilding Their Programs the Right Way
A few years ago, a handful of ACC programs were getting ready to take a major leap forward. Based on the way North Carolina was recruiting and Miami was building through the transfer portal, both teams were destined for a production uptick.
That happened in 2020.
So, which teams might be the next to make a major leap forward?
Nobody would have predicted Brent Brennan's San Jose State Spartans would make their surge last year and win the Mountain West Conference, but player development and the strategic placement of productive transfer quarterback Nick Starkel expedited the process.
All of the teams featured here have fallen on hard times recently, but they are showing signs of life. They are not only getting better on the field, but things off the gridiron seem to be falling into place as well.
The following college football coaches are quietly preparing their teams for a major turnaround.
Neal Brown, West Virginia Mountaineers
It was always going to be difficult for West Virginia to move on from Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid offense. No matter which direction the Mountaineers went in following the 2018 season, the rebuild was bound to be interesting.
The search wound up on then-Troy head coach Neal Brown, and he headed north to turn around the Mountaineers program.
It's taken less time than expected.
In an offensive-minded Big 12, Brown's Mountaineers have churned out strong defenses. They allowed the fewest yards and points per game in the conference last year on their way to a surprising 6-4 record after a 5-7 campaign in Brown's first season in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers have building blocks in place on that side of the ball, returning nine starters from a unit that was easily the Big 12's best.
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Jarrett Doege, running back Leddie Brown and leading receivers Winston Wright Jr. and Bryce Ford-Wheaton are all returning in 2021 as well. There are a lot of reasons to expect them to take a leap forward this season.
Brown's recruiting classes will never knock anybody's cleats off, but his player development has been evident in every stop. West Virginia's program is in good hands for 2021 and in the future.
Kalen DeBoer, Fresno State Bulldogs
When longtime California head coach Jeff Tedford took over at Fresno State ahead of the 2017 season, he turned the Bulldogs into instant contenders in the Mountain West Conference. But after the Bulldogs went 10-4 in his debut campaign and 12-2 in 2018, they fell to 4-8 in his final season.
When Tedford retired, he wasn't going to be easy to replace. Fresno State tabbed Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer to usher the team into the next era.
DeBoer had a successful stint as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Tedford in 2017 and 2018 before taking over that same role at Indiana. When he returned to Fresno State, the Bulldogs went 3-3 in his first season as head coach.
DeBoer benefited from the transfer of Washington signal-caller Jake Haener, who settled in to complete 64.7 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. With leading rusher Ronnie Rivers coming back to school rather than heading to the NFL, the Bulldogs offense should remain strong.
Fresno State's No. 76-rated recruiting class is the team's best since 2015. If DeBoer continues to hit on a few transfers from Power Five conferences, the Bulldogs will keep surging.
With Boise State breaking in a new coach, conference supremacy is there for the taking.
Karl Dorrell, Colorado Buffaloes
Colorado was thrown into disarray in February 2020 when head coach Mel Tucker left the program after only one year to follow the money to Michigan State.
Not only did it leave the Buffaloes searching for a head coach at an inopportune time, but it was a major disappointment considering how much excitement Tucker had brought to the Rockies. He was recruiting at a high level, and the program took a step forward despite going only 5-7 in 2019.
Colorado hired Karl Dorrell as Tucker's successor, which didn't move the national needle. He hadn't served as a head coach since going 35-27 with UCLA from 2003 to 2007, but he might wind up being the right guy to lead the Buffaloes moving forward.
Colorado's players responded to him in his first season, going 4-2 and nearly making the Pac-12 championship game as the South's representative.
Running back Jarek Broussard is going to be a superstar, and the Buffs have a quality defense as well. Though starting quarterback Sam Noyer is returning, he will be challenged by strong-armed Tennessee transfer J.T. Shrout. If Dorrell finds a playmaker there, the Buffaloes could surprise some folks.
The only real disappointment so far is Colorado's 10th-ranked recruiting class in the conference, but that won't matter if Dorrell can develop them. The Buffaloes were 64th in recruiting nationally after being No. 36 last year.
But if Dorrell can convince players to head to Boulder moving forward, he's proving he can coach.
Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri Tigers
You may forget about Missouri in the SEC East, but the program has represented the division twice in the conference championship game over the past nine years and has produced some strong playmakers like Denver quarterback Drew Lock.
Still, the program hit a wall under former head coach Barry Odom, and the Tigers struggled to bring in their top choices when they tried to replace him after the 2019 season, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd.
The search wound up settling on Appalachian State coach Eli Drinkwitz, who had been in Boone for only one year after leaving his post as North Carolina State offensive coordinator to replace Scott Satterfield.
Nobody would have predicted the Tigers going 5-5 in 2020, and that was after losing their final two games. Along the way, Drinkwitz found a budding star in redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak.
Though Mizzou finished 11th in the SEC in recruiting, it had the No. 28 class overall, and that group featured a number of quality prospects. That continued in the 2022 class, when Drinkwitz lured his QB of the future in top-100 prospect Sam Horn, per 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong.
The Tigers finished eighth in the conference in total defense last year. That needs to improve, and if it does, a Drinkwitz-led offense is going to score enough points to win games, even in the SEC.
You may not know a lot about him or his program, but Drinkwitz is proving he knows what he's doing.
Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss Rebels
Upon his return to the Power Five as head coach of Ole Miss, Lane Kiffin quickly realized what his team did well and strived to be the best of the conference at it.
Although Kiffin's team didn't lead the SEC in scoring, Ole Miss finished third, trailing only the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide and SEC East champion Florida.
The Rebels had a major turnaround season, going 5-5 and beating Indiana in the Outback Bowl. They also took Alabama to the brink in one of the biggest nail-biters that head coach Nick Saban faced all year.
Their defense just couldn't stop anybody. While that's a major issue moving forward, Kiffin understands it.
Ole Miss' 17th-ranked recruiting class is heavy on playmakers on that side of the ball, led by 4-star defensive tackle Tywone Malone and 4-star safeties Tysheem Johnson and Dink Jackson.
Add in the offensive stars Ole Miss is bound to lure with Kiffin calling plays, and things are about to get exciting near the Grove. Kiffin was the perfect hire for an Ole Miss program in need of a jolt.
Mike Locksley, Maryland Terrapins
In his second go-round in College Park, it's going to take Mike Locksley some time to build Maryland into a proud program. But he understands the area, and he'll be able to keep some elite prospects in the Atlantic region and especially around the Washington, D.C., area from leaving.
Will he get everybody to stay? No. But a fair share will.
Sprinkle in some transfers like former Alabama quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, whom Locksley helped bring along during his early time in Tuscaloosa, and the Terrapins could have the backbone of a terrific program.
Maryland finished just behind Ole Miss in recruiting at No. 18, and the Terrapins loaded up with playmakers on defense. Five-star linebacker Terrence Lewis, and 4-star linebacker Branden Jennings and defensive end Demeioun Robinson are future stars.
They aren't the only high-ceiling prospects in that class, though.
While there were disappointments in an abridged 2-3 season, there were also high points like beating Penn State 35-19 and upending Minnesota in overtime. Those are baby steps for a program that could wind up being steppingstones.
Mike Norvell, Florida State Seminoles
There are major benefits when a coach can build a program through consecutive quality recruiting classes that develop over the course of several years.
At a program like Florida State, though, coaches don't have the luxury of time. Just ask Willie Taggart, who lasted less than two years.
The Seminoles brought in Mike Norvell to pick up the pieces. Though they struggled through a 3-6 season in 2020 that was devoid of any offensive highlights and featured several total collapses, they're set up for a turnaround in 2021.
Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher used to convince the top players in the country to come to Tallahassee, so the nation's 23rd-ranked recruiting class might appear pedestrian in comparison. But FSU has only 17 total commitments, and seven of those are 4-star recruits.
The Seminoles also hit the transfer portal heavy, led by a major wild card in former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. He missed the past two years after a gruesome injury, but he was a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate before getting hurt.
Defensive lineman Keir Thomas and safety Jammie Robinson (South Carolina), defensive lineman/linebacker Jermaine Johnson (Georgia), defensive back Brandon Moore (UCF), defensive back Jarques McClellion (Arkansas), receiver Andrew Parchment (Kansas) and running back D.J. Williams (Auburn) could also be huge.
Sam Pittman, Arkansas Razorbacks
Much like Missouri did when it hired Eli Drinkwitz, Arkansas struck out with rumored top candidates following the ouster of Chad Morris after a miserable two-year run in Fayetteville.
While Sam Pittman was a well-respected offensive line coach for years in the SEC at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia, it's difficult to make the leap from a highly regarded position coach to a head coach in the toughest division in college football.
Although the Hogs finished only 3-7 during Pittman's first season, they notched more wins in two fewer games than they had in either of the previous two seasons. They were robbed of a win in a 30-28 setback to Auburn, lost by 11 to Texas A&M, three to LSU and two to Missouri.
In other words, they were close to having a far better season.
With Kendall Briles at offensive coordinator and Barry Odom leading the defense, Pittman made two savvy coordinator hires. The Razorbacks also finished 25th nationally in recruiting in 2021, although that ranked only ninth in the conference.
Arkansas has a quality, young nucleus, and getting a transfer like quarterback Feleipe Franks from Florida made a year that was always going to be tough much more watchable. This turnaround won't happen overnight, but there are plenty of reasons to appreciate the direction of Pittman's program.
Greg Schiano, Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers was a respectable program (68-67) from 2001 to 2011 under Greg Schiano, but it has been largely awful since he left for the NFL.
He's now back for a second go-round with the Scarlet Knights, and he's proving to have some kind of magic touch with the program.
Though Rutgers went only 3-6 in 2020, that was an improvement over either of the previous two seasons under Chris Ash. The Scarlet Knights had been one of the worst Power Five programs in the nation, along with Kansas and Vanderbilt, but they were far from a laughingstock last year.
Schiano's no-nonsense attitude was ideal for that Rutgers team, which won three games against Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland and nearly beat Michigan and Illinois. The Scarlet Knights didn't improve much defensively, but they increased their offensive output by more than 60 yards per game.
With quarterbacks Noah Vedral and Artur Sitkowski returning, Rutgers should keep improving on that side of the ball. It also finished 41st nationally in recruiting in 2021 after ranking 61st and 65th over the two previous cycles, respectively.
While it's going to be tough for Rutgers to make a huge leap in the rugged Big Ten, a gradual improvement and consistent competitiveness is something Schiano can bring. He was the perfect hire for this program.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.