As the Jedd Fisch era at Arizona enters its first true offseason, the Don Brown era is officially over. And the sooner Fisch can find a replacement for his defensive coordinator, the better.
“I would like to be able to start talking to some guys over the next 24 hours,” Fisch said Sunday. “And, depending on where I would hope to go, hopefully have it done by the middle of the week.”
Brown, off to be head coach at UMass for the second time, leaves the UA after a 2021 season in which he made considerable improvements to what had previously been an abysmal defensive unit. The Wildcats finished the regular season 56th nationally in total defense, their best ranking since 2010 and up 60 spots from 2020, while in the Pac-12 their fifth-place finish is the school’s best in 11 years and first above 10th since 2016.
Arizona’s pass defense was particularly stout, finishing second in the Pac-12 at 190.1 yards allowed per game.
“I would say that we certainly in total defense improved tremendously,” Fisch said. “What Coach Brown did for our program is tremendous. He brought in a passion for defense. He brought in a mentality of aggressiveness, and he brought in he laid down a great foundation of how we can play football.
“Now we have to find guys that are going to improve upon taking the ball away. Red zone defense. One of the things that is really important to me is that we really focus in on some of the things that were deficient.”
Arizona forced only six turnovers in 2021 and allowed opponents to score on 97.4 percent of red zone possessions, both of which were worst in FBS. The Wildcats were also dead-last in red zone touchdown possession on offense and turned it over 23 times, most since 2012, but those are Fisch’s issues to fix and he’s repeatedly said a large part of spring practice will be devoted to those areas.
Fisch, who is set to spend the majority of the time leading up to the Dec. 15 early signing day on the road recruiting, will want to have his defensive coordinator in place as soon as possible in order to sell recruits on that new hire. Below are some of the things Fisch said he’s looking for in his new DC, and who that may eliminate from contention for the job:
Someone with play-calling experience
Fisch said it’s not a prerequisite for his DC to have been a coordinator in college, but they ideally should have been involved in calling plays at some point.
“Usually, you’d find someone that’s either been a pass game coordinator, run game coordinator, assistant head coach, a co-defensive coordinator or a defensive coordinator, one of those five, they would have had that,” he said. “We’re not going to hire someone that’s been a position coach and has had no coordinator responsibilities of some nature. But we are going to make sure that the guy we hire is able to put the whole package together and also able to do a great job of understanding the talent we need.
The play-calling requirement means Fisch is putting a priority on game management than recruiting, since many defensive coordinators serve more as closers than point people while position coaches do the bulk of the leg work.
West Coast ties
If there was one knock on Brown it was that his entire coaching career prior to coming to the UA was east of the Mississippi. Heck, before his 5-year stint at Michigan he’d spent the previous 39 years coaching in the Northeast (hence his willingness to take an ultra-tough head coaching gig at UMass).
Brown’s replacement will be the complete opposite.
“I’d like to make sure that the next coordinator that we hire is someone that’s very familiar with the Pac-12, the West Coast and what we need to do here in this conference to win,” Fisch said. ‘We’re going to look for a great talent developer, a great recruiter, someone that’s really going to absolutely go out there and harvest talent, find talent, search for talent, and really make sure that we continue to bring in great players. Someone that coaches with incredible passion, similar to Coach Brown in that regard, different maybe in terms of personality, but someone that you can feel and see on the field. And then somebody that’s very familiar with the West Coast.”
That rules out guys like UAB defensive coordinator David Reeves or Wisconsin outside linebackers coach/defensive run game coordinator Bobby April III, neither of which have coached out west. April was born in Tucson when his father was defensive line and secondary coach from 1980-86 under Larry Smith, but his coaching career has been spent entirely in the eastern half of the country.
Someone Fisch knows, or at least knows of
Shortly after Brown was officially named the UMass coach, Fisch joked that his circuitous coaching journey to Arizona could pay off when it comes to hiring new assistants.
“When you’ve coached as many teams as I’ve coached at, you know a lot of people,” he said last week.
But when it comes to this hire, at least, having worked with Fisch at one of his many stops prior to the UA is not a prerequisite, he said.
“I would say that every candidate that I have on my list is somebody either I do know, or I know of based on someone else that I do know, or someone else on our staff has possibly worked with them, or I’ve worked with them in the past,” he said.
The football coaching forest is a tangled mess of limbs thanks to all the movement from job to job, and with all the connections Fisch has—as well as those the UA’s other assistants have worked with—there aren’t many candidates out there that don’t have some link to someone in the Wildcat program. If there is, don’t expect them to get consideration.
Someone who feels Arizona’s pain
Now that Fisch has gone through one season at Arizona, and sees just how much work is to be done to turn things around, he’s looking for some company to share the misery.
“I would like to have somebody that’s been a part of the rebuild,” he said. “I would like to have somebody that’s been a part of taking something from where we are and recognizing how important it is to develop the talent we have and to also gain confidence in our team. We’re going to try to limit our list of those guys that understand what they’re going to undertake.”
Translation: if you haven’t been through a 1-11 season and stuck around to see it get to 6-6 or better, you’re not the guy.
Someone that’s available immediately
Of the 130 FBS programs, 82 will be participating in bowl games this December and January, but save for a handful of those games the rest are frankly meaningless. Fisch said he talked with his team Sunday morning about how valuable the pre-bowl practices are to a team’s development, but at the same time the recent trend in college football has seen those with pro aspirations opting out of those games.
And when it comes to coaches, the percent that end up coaching their current team in a bowl game is ridiculously low.
But there are also 10 conference championship games on tap for Friday and Saturday, nearly all of which mean vastly more than a bowl game. For as rampant as coaching movement is in college, those moves don’t tend to happen when there’s a title at stake.
There’s always exceptions, as is the case with outgoing Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Billy Napier, who will coach the Ragin’ Cajuns in next weekend’s Sun Belt title game against Appalachian State despite being named Florida’s coach on Sunday.
If Fisch gets his way, though, he’s going to have his new defensive coordinator on the recruiting trail before the week is over. That means potential hires like San Diego State defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix, Ole Miss co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Chris Partridge or Oregon assistant head coach/co-DC/defensive line coach (and former UA standout) Joe Salave’a are probably not in the mix.
Candidates who check all the boxes
Take all of the above criteria, and here are a few possibilities:
Former Washington head coach Jimmy Lake: He was fired earlier this month less than two seasons after taking over for Chris Petersen, a move accelerated by combining his 7-6 record with an in-game incident in which he appeared to strike a player (which led to a 1-game suspension immediately before his firing) and allegations that he was physical with a player during halftime of a 2019 game at Arizona Stadium.
Those incidents are hard to ignore, but so is Lake’s resume prior to being a head coach. He was Washington’s defensive backs coach and later co-defensive coordinator under Petersen, helping recruit and develop several NFL players. And while he wasn’t part of a traditional rebuild, when he came with Petersen from Boise State in 2014 they had to reshape the culture of a program that wasn’t particularly healthy under previous coach Steve Sarkisian.
Auburn OLB coach/special teams coordinator Bert Watts: Part of Bryan Harsin’s inaugural staff and integral to a defense that finished in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss and held Alabama without a touchdown until the final minute of Saturday’s Iron Bowl. Before going to Auburn, Watts was linebackers coach at Memphis in 2020 when the Tigers ranked in the top 20 in FBS in red zone defense, takeaways and fumbles recovered.
Watts was at Fresno State from 2017-19, where as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator he helped them win the 2018 Mountain West title two years removed from being 1-11. He played linebacker at Cal in the early 2000s and grew up about 20 minutes from where Fisch went to high school in New Jersey.
Interim USC head coach Donte Williams: It’s hard to look past USC finishing last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense this season, but Williams wasn’t in charge of that side of the ball either before or after taking over for the fired Clay Helton in mid-September. He was, however, the Trojans’ defensive pass game coordinator (as well as cornerbacks coach) the past two seasons, and in 18 games with him on staff they intercepted 23 passes.
Williams, who spent the 2016 season as Arizona’s CBs coach under Rich Rodriguez, has worked for seven schools since 2010 with all but one in the Pac-12 or Mountain West. He was part of rebuilds (or attempted ones) at Washington, Nebraska and Oregon and is known as one of the top recruiters in the country.
Other potential names to watch
- Purdue co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Ron English
- UNLV defensive coordinator Peter Hansen (former Arizona football/basketball player)
- SMU defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt
- San Jose State defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Derrick Odum
- Syracuse defensive coordinator Tony White