After six years spent under the direction of Justin Fuente, the Virginia Tech football program is looking for a new head coach. The job may not appear as desirable as it once did, and there are a few more prestigious programs who are also looking for replacements, but there are still plenty of intriguing candidates.
First, let’s set the stage. The Hokies are probably situated behind USC, Florida and LSU – and similarly positioned with Washington – in the arms race to find new head coaches.
Personally, I don’t expect interim head coach J.C. Price to be a serious candidate – although it would be wise to keep him in Blacksburg in some capacity.
I also wouldn’t prioritize keeping other assistant coaches, although I’d entertain the option of keeping a few if they’re interested in staying once the new head coach has been named. Hiring a coach based on who would fit with the assistants is the wrong approach to take.
Now onto the good stuff!
Admittedly, some of the more appealing head coaches who were believed to be on the market have received hefty contract extensions within the last couple weeks. James Franklin (Penn State) and Mel Tucker (Michigan State) were each awarded roughly 10 more years and $100 million from their current schools. Dave Aranda (Baylor) is rumored to be progressing towards a lengthy extension, as is Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma) – although he’s also reportedly a leading candidate for the LSU job. Dave Clawson received a new contract, and might be at Wake Forest for the rest of his career. Even Hugh Freeze (Liberty) re-upped through 2028 at an average annual value of more than $4 million.
So, who does that leave available?
I wrote a thorough synopsis of potential candidates for the Virginia Tech job last year, in the event that Fuente’s contract was terminated. Although Athletic Director Whit Babcock didn’t pull the plug at that time, many of the options that existed a year ago should still be considered. The coaches I evaluated at the time are listed below:
- Shane Beamer (hired as South Carolina head coach last offseason)
- Todd Grantham (recently fired as Florida defensive coordinator)
- Torrian Gray (hired by Beamer as South Carolina defensive backs coach)
- Barry Odom (Arkansas defensive coordinator)
- Brent Pry (Penn State defensive coordinator)
- Luke Fickell (Cincinnati)
- Matt Campbell (Iowa State)
- Tony Elliott (Clemson offensive coordinator)
- Billy Napier (Louisiana-Lafayette)
- Will Healy (UNC-Charlotte)
- Willie Taggart (Florida Atlantic)
- Bruce Arians (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Of these candidates, Odom, Pry, Napier and perhaps Healy seem to be the most realistic options this time around. All of them except Pry have experience as head coaches, including Odom from 2016-19 at Missouri, and Pry has led one of the most talented and productive defenses in the country for several years.
In line with my assessment, Marty Smith of ESPN identified Odom as someone he would “go hard after” in the search.
The rest of the pack doesn’t merit much discussion, in my opinion. Beamer has moved onto greener pastures (in his mind, anyway), Fickell and Campbell would probably only leave their current jobs if they received offers they couldn’t refuse, Elliott has had a rough season, and I’m not sure if any Power Five program truly “wants” Taggart.
There might be an outside chance that Tech alum Todd Grantham gets a look, but his recent firing as defensive coordinator at Florida certainly takes a lot of shine off his name. Torrian Gray makes more sense as a defensive coordinator than a head coach. And of course, Bruce Arians of the defending Super Bowl champions is still employed and appears to be safe in Tampa Bay for the foreseeable future.
Smith also cited two additional coaches with considerable NFL experience as potential fits. Each of them are leaders of two of the most productive offenses in the pros for the last two seasons.
Brian Daboll (47)
- 1997: William & Mary (volunteer assistant)
- 1998-99: Michigan State (graduate assistant)
- 2000-01: New England Patriots (defensive assistant)
- 2002-06: New England Patriots (wide receivers)
- 2007-08: New York Jets (quarterbacks)
- 2009-10: Cleveland Browns (offensive coordinator)
- 2011: Miami Dolphins (offensive coordinator)
- 2012: Kansas City Chiefs (offensive coordinator)
- 2013-16: New England Patriots (tight ends)
- 2017: Alabama (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2018-21: Buffalo Bills (offensive coordinator)
Of the two, Daboll has considerably more college experience – although very little of it is recent. Technically, he spent a year coaching in the state of Virginia, but not in a considerable role.
Aside from the success he’s had in Buffalo with Josh Allen and a solid defense, what makes Daboll appealing is his guidance of Alabama’s offense to a National Championship in his only season at the helm.
Much like Fuente, his area of expertise is in the passing game. He’s worked with two of the better pro quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Josh Allen) of this era – which would likely help him during recruiting – and he’s led various position groups in multiple successful organizations. The wealth of experience he boasts at such a fairly young age puts him in line for a promotion.
Byron Leftwich (42)
- 1998-2002: Player at Marshall
- 2003-06: Player for the Jacksonville Jaguars
- 2007: Player for the Atlanta Falcons
- 2008: Player for the Pittsburgh Steelers
- 2009: Player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 2010-12: Player for the Pittsburgh Steelers
- 2017-18: Arizona Cardinals (quarterbacks)
- 2019-21: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (offensive coordinator)
Leftwich’s lack of experience at the college level makes him a bit risky, but he has a few factors working in his favor.
First, he’s a local product. He grew up in Washington D.C. and was a star quarterback at Marshall. Presumably, he has some connections within the area that could boost recruiting.
Second, he’s a product of Bruce Arians – one of the most legendary athletes in Virginia Tech’s history. Maybe Leftwich doesn’t have his min set on being a college coach, but Arians could definitely talk him into the status of the program.
Lastly, he brings considerable overall credibility. He was a star athlete, carries himself like a natural leader, and was the middleman between Arians and Tom Brady en route to a Super Bowl championship last season.
It’s unclear whether either Daboll or Leftwich would consider a collegiate-level job. Daboll’s experience as a college coach is limited, Leftwich has only coached in the pros, and both will likely receive interviews for NFL head coach openings. Still, the Virginia Tech job could propel them to where they want to go – even if it isn’t their long-term destination. It would require patience from Babcock, though.
Here are some names that might be more realistic.
Current College HCs
Blake Anderson (53)
- 1987-91: Player at Baylor and Sam Houston State
- 1992: Eastern New Mexico (graduate assistant)
- 1993: Eastern New Mexico (wide receivers)
- 1994: Howard Payne (wide receivers)
- 1995-97: Trinity Valley Community College (quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs)
- 1998: Trinity Valley Community College (offensive coordinator)
- 1999-2000: New Mexico (running backs)
- 2001: New Mexico (wide receivers)
- 2002-04: Middle Tennessee (co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers)
- 2007: Louisiana-Lafayette (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2008-09: Southern Miss (quarterbacks)
- 2010-11: Southern Miss (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2012-13: North Carolina (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2014-20: Arkansas State (head coach)
- 2021: Utah State (head coach)
Anderson has flown under the radar, but he’s had winning seasons in eight of his nine years as a head coach. He’ll also likely reach 10 wins in his first year in the Mountain West Conference.
Anderson knows how to run an offense, too. His rushing offense set Sun Belt Conference records in his lone season at Louisiana, he turned Austin Davis into a record-setting quarterback at Southern Miss (the same school Brett Favre attended), and he led an offense that broke North Carolina’s record books in 2012.
From 2007-13, Anderson was an assistant under Larry Fedora. Although Fedora has drawn a lot of criticism from the national media – as well as Tech fans, it’s primarily based on his struggles once Anderson left his side. The Fedora/Anderson duo went 6-for-6 in terms of recording winning seasons, but Fedora finished with a losing record in three of his last five years at UNC – including five wins combined in 2017-18.
There isn’t a ton to show for his time at Arkansas State, although he had plenty of success there. It’s far from a Power Five job, though. His success at Utah State is more notable, as he’s led the Aggies to the Mountain West championship game in his first season at the helm – in a conference that includes Boise State and San Diego State, among others.
Dave Aranda (45)
- 1995: High school coach
- 1996-1999: Cal Lutheran (linebackers)
- 2000-02: Texas Tech (graduate assistant)
- 2003-04: Houston (linebackers)
- 2005-06: Cal Lutheran (defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- 2007: Delta State (co-defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- 2008-09: Hawaii (defensive line)
- 2010-11: Hawaii (defensive coordinator)
- 2012: Utah State (defensive coordinator)
- 2013-15: Wisconsin (defensive coordinator and inside linebackers)
- 2016-19: LSU (associate head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- 2020-21: Baylor (head coach)
Admittedly, there will probably be better jobs available to Aranda if he wants them. His defenses at Utah State and Wisconsin consistently ranked among the best in the FBS, and he helped lead LSU to a National Championship in 2019.
While at LSU, Aranda guided six different defenders to All-American selections, including NFL superstars Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White, as well as Grant Delpit (twice), Greedy Williams and Devin White.
Aranda’s first season at Baylor was extremely bumpy, but he has the Bears in contention for the Big 12 crown and a top-10 finish in the nation this year. In many respects, he’s a lot like former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule – who’s now leading the Carolina Panthers and is someone may Tech fans thought the Hokies should’ve hired instead of Fuente.
Still, Aranda is a frontrunner at both USC and LSU, and (again) he may be receiving an extension from Baylor. As qualified as he may seem, it might not matter.
Jamey Chadwell (45)
- 1995-99: Player at East Tennessee State
- 2000-03: East Tennessee State (quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends)
- 2004-08: Charleston Southern (offensive coordinator)
- 2009-11: North Greenville (head coach)
- 2012: Delta State (head coach)
- 2013-16: Charleston Southern (head coach)
- 2017: Coastal Carolina (offensive coordinator, quarterbacks and interim head coach)
- 2018: Coastal Carolina (associate head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2019-21: Coastal Carolina (head coach)
Until last year, Chadwell wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar for a Power Five job. Since 2020, however, Coastal Carolina has been one of the most prominent Group of Five teams in college football. In particular, they went undefeated last regular season, including a victory over BYU (the Cougars’ only loss of the year).
Quarterback Grayson McCall and tight end Isaiah Likely have been particularly productive for the Chanticleers. Tight end production was mostly absent during the Fuente era, aside from Bucky Hodges, despite having talented players at the position on the roster.
Chadwell’s history in Tennessee and South Carolina should return some value in recruiting – although there is some distance between those areas and Virginia. The consensus seems to be that Tech needs to get back to winning the in-state recruiting battle, and Chadwell might be able to get them there.
The biggest question might be whether Babcock feels comfortable with selecting a Sun Belt head coach. Fuente was also a Group of Five coach before joining the Hokies, but it’s unclear whether Tech is willing to go that route again.
Dave Clawson (54)
- 1989-90: Albany (graduate assistant)
- 1991: Buffalo (defensive backs)
- 1992: Buffalo (quarterbacks and running backs)
- 1993: Lehigh (running backs)
- 1994-95: Lehigh (offensive coordinator)
- 1996-98: Villanova (offensive coordinator)
- 1999-2003: Fordham (head coach)
- 2004-2007: Richmond (head coach)
- 2008: Tennessee (offensive coordinator)
- 2009-13: Bowling Green (head coach)
- 2014-21: Wake Forest (head coach)
Nothing about Clawson is overwhelmingly flashy – although his offense is certainly innovative – but he’s turned a lot of programs from nothing into something. Fordham progressed from winless to a 10-win team under his watch, Richmond improved from 3-8 to 11-3 in three seasons, Bowling Green wracked up 10 wins in his last season there, and now Wake Forest consistently finishes with a winning record – and they’re well on their way to an ACC Championship bid in 2021.
Another plus in Clawson’s favor is that much of his success has come in the Mid-Atlantic region and states bordering Virginia. He’s never been a dominant recruiter by any means, but he’s at least familiar with the area.
Wake’s heavily RPO-based, mesh point offense is very unconventional, but concepts that work are typically worth replicating. It might take some time to make the new-look offense consistently productive, but if the fans want a good team and someone who would stick around, Clawson should be able to deliver.
The biggest downside to Clawson is that he’s never boasted a particularly good defense. In fact, that side of the ball for Wake has been especially bad this season. They’ve won in spite of it, but it could certainly be viewed as a red flag.
It’s likely a moot point, though, since Clawson appears to be staying at Wake Forest for the foreseeable future.
Hugh Freeze (52)
- 1992-94: High school assistant
- 1995-2004: High school head coach
- 2006-07: Ole Miss (tight ends)
- 2008-09: Lambuth (head coach)
- 2010: Arkansas State (offensive coordinator)
- 2011: Arkansas State (head coach)
- 2012-16: Ole Miss (head coach)
- 2019-21: Liberty (head coach)
Freeze has a lot of appeal as purely a coach. He comes with two major red flags, though: He has a major scandal on his record, and he just received a hefty extension by Liberty’s standards – although Babcock could likely top it if he wants to.
The Hokies tend to stay away from controversy. Normally, that would remove Freeze from consideration. Yet, with each passing year, Freeze’s past transgressions move further and further into the past. If Tech can forgive his troubling past, Freeze is among the most qualified coaches they could possibly get their hands on.
We have to acknowledge the violations that likely skewed the data in his direction. However (even excluding wins and losses), Freeze had four receivers on his roster in 2016 who are now starters in the NFL, including superstars D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown. That alone should leave Tech fans salivating.
Freeze also led the Rebels to a victory over the Hokies in 2020, and he’s led Malik Willis – who was once recruited by Tech – towards likely becoming a first-round draft pick in 2022. That level of player development and overperformance would be more than welcome in Blacksburg. But does Freeze’s name carry too big of a stain?
Charles Huff (39)
- 2001-2005: Player at Hampton
- 2006: Tennessee State (offensive line)
- 2007-08: Tennessee State (tight ends and special teams)
- 2009: Maryland (assistant offensive line)
- 2010: Hampton (offensive line and run game coordinator)
- 2011: Vanderbilt (offensive quality control)
- 2012: Buffalo Bills (assistant running backs)
- 2013: Western Michigan (running backs)
- 2014-17: Penn State (running backs and special teams)
- 2018: Mississippi State (assistant head coach, running backs and run game coordinator)
- 2019-20: Alabama (assistant head coach and running backs)
- 2021: Marshall (head coach)
Huff’s resume is interesting, to say the least. On the surface, much of his career looks pretty lackluster. However, he’s been an unheralded star every step of the way. He was a team captain as a senior, and he mentored first-round draft pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at Tennessee State.
He spent three stints (2009, 2011, and 2014-17) as an understudy to James Franklin. In between, he aided former Clemson superstar C.J. Spiller to his first 1,000-yard rushing season in the NFL and a Pro Bowl, and he helped Western Michigan nearly double their rushing output the following season.
At Penn State, he recruited and coached Saquon Barkley and (briefly) Miles Sanders. Barkley shattered nearly every possible record while in school en route to a No. 2 overall selection in the 2018 draft. He also guided kicker Tyler Davis to All-Big Ten first-team honors in 2016, a season in which the Nittany Lions won the conference.
Huff’s rushing attack in Starkville in 2018 finished second in the SEC, and his success in Tuscaloosa goes without saying – Najee Harris was a Heisman Trophy finalist under his watch in 2020, as the Crimson Tide won the National Championship. Huff has also led Marshall to an eight-win regular season in his debut campaign.
Huff is young, a local native (Denton, Maryland), and an outstanding recruiter. All signs point to him having a bevy of success as his career progresses. But is it too soon for him to take over a fairly prestigious program like Virginia Tech?
Jay Norvell (59)
- 1982-85: Player at Iowa
- 1986-87: Iowa (graduate assistant)
- 1988: Northern Iowa (wide receivers)
- 1989-94: Wisconsin (wide receivers, offensive line and tight ends)
- 1995-97: Iowa State (quarterbacks and wide receivers)
- 1998-2001: Indianapolis Colts (wide receivers)
- 2002-03: Oakland Raiders (tight ends)
- 2004-06: Nebraska (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2007: UCLA (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2008-10: Oklahoma (assistant offensive coordinator and wide receivers)
- 2011-14: Oklahoma (co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers)
- 2015: Texas (wide receivers)
- 2016: Arizona State (passing game coordinator and wide receivers)
- 2017-21: Nevada (head coach)
Norvell’s name hasn’t been mentioned for the Virginia Tech job, but his experience is quite impressive. At past jobs, he’s worked with future NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels (Iowa State); All-Pros Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne (Colts); and future NFL contributors Demarco Murray, Samaje Perine, Ryan Broyles (an NCAA record-setter), Sterling Shepard and Kenny Stills at Oklahoma.
He served as an assistant on teams that have appeared in the Super Bowl (Raiders) and BCS National Championship (Oklahoma) and has played/coached in 22 bowl games.
Norvell has turned Nebraska into a clear stepping stone to the NFL for skill-position players. His current roster consists of quarterback Carson Strong, wide receiver Romeo Doubs and tight end Cole Turner – all of whom may be selected in the first half of the upcoming NFL Draft. Strong (a likely first-round selection) was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year in 2020, and the Wolfpack’s two greatest tallies of all-conference awardees (2020 and 2018) have come under Norvell’s watch – with a third such season likely upcoming.
He leverages a blended approach on offense that includes Air Raid tendencies and an under-center, downhill running scheme. It’s turned Nevada into arguably the cream of the crop in the Mountain West. He doesn’t have youth on his side, but neither does Tech’s basketball coach.
The Coordinator Pool
Tim Beck (56)
- 1988-89: High school assistant
- 1990: Illinois State (outside linebackers and punters)
- 1991-92: Kansas State (graduate assistant)
- 1993-95: High school head coach
- 1996: Missouri State (wide receivers)
- 1997: Missouri State (passing game coordinator and wide receivers)
- 1998: Missouri State (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 1999-2004: High school head coach
- 2005-06: Kansas (wide receivers)
- 2007: Kansas (passing game and wide receivers)
- 2008-10: Nebraska (running backs)
- 2011-14 Nebraska (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2015-16: Ohio State (co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2017-19: Texas (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2020-21: NC State (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
Beck has flown under the radar for a long time. Frankly, that needs to end. Everywhere Beck has been has improved with him there and regressed when he left.
He started his collegiate coaching career as a graduate assistant under Bill Snyder at Kansas State. Then he served to stints as a high school head coach, with a few successful years at Missouri State in between. Then he coached at Kansas during the Jayhawks’ glory days. With Beck directing the passing game in 2007, Kansas finished No. 2 in the nation in scoring offense and finished as the No. 7 ranked team in the country – after defeating Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Beck was an assistant to Bo Pelini throughout his tenure at Nebraska. Beck guided future NFL draft pick Roy Helu Jr. to consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons (the first player to do so for the Cornhuskers in nearly two decades) and a pair of All-Big 12 selections. In 2010, Nebraska finished No. 7 in the country in yards per carry; posted its first 2,500 yard rushing season since 2003; and scored 30 rushing touchdowns for the first time since 2001.
In Beck’s four seasons as Pelini’s offensive coordinator, his unit averaged more than 33 points per game and broke more than 50 individual records. they amassed 2,500 rushing and passing yards in his final three seasons (the first three times the program had ever done so), and quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead each earned All-Big Ten honors.
As is customary, Ohio State’s offense was strong under Beck – enough to win a National Championship in 2015. The same held true at Texas, especially as it related to Sam Ehlinger. The quarterback was the first player to ever account for 40 touchdowns (2018) and not win the Heisman. By every metric, he was the Longhorns’ most productive quarterback since Colt McCoy in Beck’s three years in Austin.
For the third time of his career, Beck was a nominee for the Broyles Award (top collegiate assistant) in 2020. Last season, he led two quarterbacks (Devin Leary and Bailey Hockman) to top-six finishes in program history in passing efficiency – Leary finished second all-time, only behind Philip Rivers. He’s on pace to shatter Rivers’ record this season, in addition to his single-season passing touchdowns record (which he claimed in the regular season finale), and NC State enters their bowl game with a chance to win 10 games for the first time since 2002.
Maybe Virginia Tech isn’t the job for Beck, but he’s long overdue to get a chance somewhere.
Joe Brady (32)
- 2009-12: Player at William & Mary
- 2013-14: William & Mary (linebackers)
- 2015-16: Penn State (graduate assistant)
- 2017-18: New Orleans Saints (offensive assistant)
- 2019: LSU (passing game coordinator and wide receivers)
- 2020-21: Carolina Panthers (offensive coordinator)
Brady is young, and he’s perceived to be most interested in coaching in the NFL. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be considered for the Virginia Tech job.
He has history in the state of Virginia, he may be able to poach some players from Penn State’s backyard, and he’s showcased his innovative mind in his last three stops.
In his two seasons in New Orleans, the Saints won the NFC South both years, they scored the third-most points in the league, and Drew Brees poted the second-highest cumulative passer rating.
At LSU (where Brady was the de facto offensive coordinator), Joe Burrow set the FBS single-season record for passing touchdowns, his top two receivers led the nation in receiving touchdowns – JaMarr Chase (20) and Justin Jefferson (18), and Chase won the Biletnikoff Award (nation’s best receiver). The 2019 Tigers’ offense is considered one of the best in college football history, as they amassed 568.5 yards and 48.4 points per game en route to a National Championship.
In 2020, the Brady-led Panthers became the fifth team in the Super Bowl era to produce four different players who gained 1,000 scrimmage yards in a season. Teddy Bridgewater also set the franchise record for completion percentage.
Brady would likely be a short-term hire for the Hokies, but it’s tough to imagine him not having plenty of success in Blacksburg if he took the job.
Mike Elko (44)
- 1995-98: Player at Penn
- 1999: Stony Brook (graduate assistant)
- 2000: Penn (defensive backs)
- 2001: Merchant Marine (defensive coordinator and defensive backs)
- 2002-03: Fordham (co-defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- 2004-05: Richmond (linebackers and recruiting coordinator)
- 2006-08: Hofstra (associate head coach, defensive coordinator, linebackers and defensive backs)
- 2009-13: Bowling Green (defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- 2014-16: Wake Forest (defensive coordinator and safeties)
- 2017: Notre Dame (defensive coordinator)
- 2018-21: Texas A&M (defensive coordinator and safeties)
Elko’s name has been mentioned for the Tech job by some experts, and it’s with good reason. He can’t be viewed as “too young” for the job, and he’s performed well at multiple high-pressure schools – namely Notre Dame and Texas A&M.
He first made a name for himself at Hofstra, where he led the top-rated passing defense in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2007. He ascended to Bowling Green, where he boasted a top-10 defense nationally in yards and points per game in 2012 and 2013.
Elko’s units at Wake Forest ranked inside the top 40 in total defense in his first two seasons – a feat in itself for the program – before improving to No. 20 in his final season. In fact, they rated on par with three College Football Playoff teams that year.
The cupboard was unusually bare when Elko arrived at Notre Dame; but he improved the defense by 20 or more spots nationally in rush defense, pass efficiency, scoring, third-down efficiency, turnovers forced, sacks, and tackles for loss. In his lone season in South Bend, he was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award.
Elko has boosted the Texas A&M defense in each season since his arrival. The Aggies finished with the No. 9 total defense in the nation last season. Entering championship weekend, they rank in the top 15 again this year – which is a major accomplishment against SEC offenses. Defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal could be drafted in the top half of the first round in 2022, following up fellow run-stuffer Justin Madubuike, a second-year contributor with the Baltimore Ravens.
Elko is also uniquely qualified due to his experience recruiting the Mid-Atlantic region throughout most of his career.
Referring back to the success of the front four, defensive line coach Elijah Robinson would be a natural fit to follow Elko to Blacksburg as defensive coordinator. Robinson split his first eight years of coaching (2009-16) between Penn State and Temple – meaning that he also groomed numerous NFL prospects in State College as legendary d-line coach Larry Johnson’s understudy, as well as Haason Reddick and Matt Ionnidis in Philadelphia.
Marcus Freeman (36)
- 2004-08: Player at Ohio State
- 2009: Player in the NFL (multiple teams)
- 2010: Ohio State (graduate assistant)
- 2011-12: Kent State (linebackers)
- 2013-15: Purdue (linebackers)
- 2016: Purdue (co-defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- 2017-20: Cincinnati (defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- 2021: Notre Dame (defensive coordinator and linebackers)
Candidly, I think there are three more likely outcomes for Freeman than choosing Virginia Tech: 1) get a more prestigious job; 2) replace Luke Fickell at Cincinnati; 3) stay at Notre Dame for at least one more year. Nonetheless, he’s a worthy candidate, so let’s continue!
After a highly-productive playing career, Freeman returned to Ohio State as a graduate assistant in 2010 – a year in which the Buckeyes finished with a 12-1 record. Then, he groomed linebackers at Kent State and Purdue for a combined six years. His most notable pupil was Ja’Whaun Bentley, a Freshman All-American under Freeman at Purdue who has since become a role player (and at times a starter) for the Patriots.
Freeman made his name known as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. His units led the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and was in the top 15 nationally in most categories every year from 2018-20. He was named 247Sports.com Defensive Coordinator of the Year last season. Two of his safeties were drafted in 2021, and multi-time All-American Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is expected to be a first-round selection in 2022. Of course, the Bearcats have also been arguably (and recently not so arguably) the best Group of Five school in the nation for the last four years.
Notre Dame’s season on defense has been a bit more bumpy, partially due to injuries, but they should still end up as one of the better defenses in the nation, led by safety Kyle Hamilton – who has a chance to be a top 10 draft pick this offseason.
Much like the other young coaches, there’s some projection involved when evaluating Freeman, but his leadership qualities are clear and his players produce at a high level.
Josh Gattis (38)
- 2003-06: Player at Wake Forest
- 2007-08: Player for the Chicago Bears
- 2010: North Carolina (graduate assistant)
- 2011: Western Michigan (wide receivers)
- 2012-13: Vanderbilt (wide receivers and offensive recruiting coordinator)
- 2014-17: Penn State (passing game coordinator, wide receivers and offensive recruiting coordinator)
- 2018: Alabama (co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers)
- 2019-21: Michigan (offensive coordinator and wide receivers)
Gattis is complicated to evaluate, but if you can look beneath the surface, he’s a pretty appealing candidate. The common denominator has often been that, despite Gattis succeeding in the development of receivers, quarterback play has limited their impact. In his lone year at Western Michigan, Jordan White caught an NCAA-best 140 passes for 1,911 yards, breaking numerous Mid-American Conference records. Then he led Jordan Matthews to All-American honors twice at Vanderbilt. Matthews left college as the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions and the holder of the single-season record for catches.
Gattis guided the Nittany Lions to top-25 recruiting classes in all four years he was at Penn State, including two groups that finished in the top 15. He was named Big Ten Recruiter of the Year by Scout.com in 2015 and coached an All-Big Ten wide receiver in each of his four years (future NFL players DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin twice each).
In his lone year at Alabama (Tua Tagovailoa’s first year as a starter), four of Gattis’ wide receivers (plus a tight end) topped 500 receiving yards, and Jerry Jeudy took home the Biletnikoff Award. Then at Michigan, Gattis guided Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell to career-best seasons in 2019, and Zach Charbonnet set a program record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman in that season. The following year was tougher, as they searched for a competent quarterback, but 2021 has been a revival. The Wolverines are No. 2 in the conference in points per game, and they have two running backs averaging more than 85 rushing yards and a touchdown per game. Michigan also has a prime opportunity to make the College Football Playoff for the first time, after knocking off Ohio State.
Gattis helped three programs get atypical production from their top wide receivers, another school spread the ball more while also allowing one to be an award winner, and completely revamp an offense that appeared to be unfixable under Jim Harbaugh. If you believe Gattis is primarily responsible for these improvements, he probably deserves a chance to lead his own team.
Alex Grinch (41)
- 1998-2001: Player at Mount Union
- 2002-04: Missouri (graduate assistant)
- 2005-06: New Hampshire (cornerbacks)
- 2007-08: New Hampshire (defensive backs and recruiting coordinator)
- 2009-11: Wyoming (defensive backs)
- 2012-14: Missouri (safeties)
- 2015-17: Washington State (defensive coordinator and defensive backs)
- 2018: Ohio State (co-defensive coordinator and safeties)
- 2019-21: Oklahoma (defensive coordinator and safeties)
He’s a good candidate, but I don’t expect him to be a frontrunner at Virginia Tech. He’s drastically improved Oklahoma’s defense, but I think they’ll aim for a flashier name if they look to the defensive side of the ball.
Dan Lanning (36)
- 2004-07: Player at William Jewell College
- 2008-10: High school assistant
- 2011: Pittsburgh (graduate assistant)
- 2012: Arizona State (graduate assistant)
- 2013: Arizona State (recruiting coordinator)
- 2014: Sam Houston State (defensive backs and co-recruiting coordinator)
- 2015: Alabama (graduate assistant)
- 2016-17: Memphis (inside linebackers and recruiting coordinator)
- 2018: Georgia (outside linebackers)
- 2019-21: Georgia (defensive coordinator and outside linebackers)
Lanning’s resume is largely the same as Freeman’s, so it’s strange that his name isn’t mentioned nearly as often. Maybe it’s because he’s the defensive coordinator under a defensive-minded head coach, but maybe that’s part of what makes him so qualified. The school of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart seems like the place to go.
Lanning began his collegiate coaching career by serving three years under Todd Graham at two different schools. He ascended to the role of recruiting coordinator in 2013, which foreshadowed what was to come during the rest of his career. That year, he guided the Sun Devils to a top-20 recruiting class.
He spent one year as an FCS assistant, during which Sam Houston State won the Southland Conference. Then he joined the Alabama staff, where the defense finished in the top 10 and the Crimson Tide won a National Championship.
After a pit stop at Memphis, Lanning was selected to Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia. He coached outside linebacker D’Andre Walker second-team All-SEC selection and into the NFL. Then he was promoted to defensive coordinator, and his unit took off. The defense led the nation in points per game and rushing touchdowns allowed in 2019, topped the country in rushing yards per game in 2019 and 2020, and is set to shatter the program’s record books this year.
Lanning’s star pupil (until this season) was Azeez Ojulari, who led the SEC in sacks and forced fumbles in 2020 before being selected in the second round of the draft. This year’s defense boasts multiple future first-rounders up front and numerous other NFL prospects on the back end.
Georgia’s defense is becoming what most college football fans have thought Alabama’s was, it starts on the recruiting trail, and Lanning is a huge part of that. He could also probably put together a strong group of assistants.
Jeff Lebby (38)
- 2002-06: Oklahoma (student assistant)
- 2007: High school assistant
- 2008-11: Baylor (offensive quality control)
- 2012-14: Baylor (running backs)
- 2015-16: Baylor (passing game coordinator, running backs and offensive recruiting coordinator)
- 2017: Southeastern (offensive coordinator)
- 2018: UCF (quarterbacks)
- 2019: UCF (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2020-21: Ole Miss (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
Somewhere between Art Briles, Josh Heupel and Lane Kiffin, there’s a young offensive mind named Jeff Lebby. If you’re looking for somebody who can keep the ball moving and the scoreboard lighting up, he’s worth considering.
In Lebby’s five years coaching running backs at Baylor, five backs gained at least 1,000 yards on the ground. His unit finished No. 2 in the nation in rushing in 2015. He also helped quarterback McKenzie Milton to AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors and a sixth-place Heisman finish in 2018. Then he led the offense to a No. 2 finish in total offense and No. 5 in points per game in 2019, pairing with Oklahoma as the only teams to gain 300 yards per game through the air and 200 on the ground that season.
Lebby’s Ole Miss offense in 2020 led the SEC and rushing and finished No. 7 nationally in passing yards per game. They’ll finish in similar territory this season, their first 10-win campaign in program history. Quarterback Matt Corral finds himself as a Heisman Trophy contender and likely first-round pick.
A modified Air Raid offense feels off-brand for the Hokies, but that might be an insult. Rather than letting the modern game pass them by, maybe they should take a swing on a coach who majors in moving the chains.
Joe Moorhead (48)
- 1992-95: Player at Fordham
- 1998-99: Pittsburgh (graduate assistant)
- 2000: Georgetown (running backs)
- 2001-02: Georgetown (quarterbacks)
- 2003: Georgetown (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2004: Akron (wide receivers and recruiting coordinator)
- 2005: Akron (associate head coach, passing game coordinator, wide receivers and recruiting coordinator)
- 2006-08: Akron (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2009-10: UConn (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2011: UConn (quarterbacks)
- 2012-15: Fordham (head coach)
- 2016-17: Penn State (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2018-19: Mississippi State (head coach)
- 2020-21: Oregon (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
Moorhead broke ground at Akron. He led the Zips to their first conference championship and bowl game in 2005, and they were the most improved offense in total yards in 2008. Then he led the No. 2 offense in the Big East in 2010, en route to a conference title and Fiesta Bowl bid. Running back Jordan Todman was also named Big East Offensive Player of the Year and a second-team All-American.
Moorhead led his alma mater to a 38-13 record from 2012-15, including FCS playoff bids in each of his last three seasons at the helm, and his teams set 16 school records in 2013 and 2014.
When Moorhead took over Penn State’s offense, they immediately added 14.4 points per game to their output from the prior year; they broke program records for total offense, passing yards, and points scored; and they won the Big Ten championship outright for the first time in two decades. Then they broke two of those records the following year, finishing in the top 25 nationally in every major offensive category (including No. 7 in points per game), and they produced their most 50-point games since 1994. In 2017, Saquon Barkley won his second consecutive Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award; Trace McSorely became the school’s first player with multiple seasons of 3,000 passing yards (both under Moorhead); and Moorhead was named National Offensive Coordinator of the Year.
Although winning games at Mississippi State isn’t easy, Moorhead scuffled to a 14-12 record in Starkville. However, his offenses posted more 200-yard rushing games than any SEC school during his two-year tenure. The Bulldogs also produced three 2019 first-round draft picks on defense.
At Oregon in 2020, Moorhead helped seven players on offense earn All-Pac 12 recognition. The Ducks also earned a Fiesta Bowl invitation. This year, they’re once again among the conference’s best in every offensive category. With a win over Utah in the Pac-12 Championship next weekend, Oregon would earn another New Years Six bowl bid.
If Tech wants to be defined by having a strong running game – as the program did throughout the 2000s, there might not be a better choice than Moorhead. Plus, the ACC would be a safer environment for him than the star-studded SEC.
Bill O’Brien (52)
- 1990-92: Player at Brown
- 1993: Brown (tight ends)
- 1994: Brown (inside linebackers)
- 1995-97: Georgia Tech (graduate assistants)
- 1998-2000: Georgia Tech (running backs)
- 2001-02: Georgia Tech (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2003-04: Maryland (running backs)
- 2005-06: Duke (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2007: New England Patriots (offensive assistant)
- 2008: New England Patriots (wide receivers)
- 2009-10: New England Patriots (quarterbacks)
- 2011: New England Patriots (offensive coordinator)
- 2012-13: Penn State (head coach)
- 2014-20: Houston Texans (head coach)
- 2021: Alabama (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
I get it; O’Brien is a retread coach who had a sour ending with the Texans last season. However, there are three reasons why I don’t think that matters: 1) he attended the Nick Saban rehabilitation center; 2) he’s coached two of the best NFL quarterbacks of this era – Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson; 3) he did an exemplary job of “getting more out of less” at Penn State, when the program was under intense scholarship reductions.
Frankly, O’Brien’s experience recruits itself. I can find plenty of data that supports him as a good coach, but it really doesn’t matter. He’s had success as a head coach at the pro and collegiate levels, and he’s been an assistant under arguably the best coach at each of those levels. He also made two Super Bowl appearances in a five-year span, and he could be on his way to a College Football Playoff run this year. If that happens, he’s getting a head coach job somewhere. Why not in Blacksburg?
Jerry Kill (60)
- 1979-82: Player at Southwestern
- 1985-87: Pittsburg State (defensive coordinator)
- 1988-90: High school assistant
- 1991-93: Pittsburg State (offensive coordinator)
- 1994-98: Saginaw Valley State (head coach)
- 1999-2000: Emporia State (head coach)
- 2001-07: Southern Illinois (head coach)
- 2008-10: Northern Illinois (head coach)
- 2011-15: Minnesota (head coach)
- 2017: Rutgers (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2019: Virginia Tech (assistant to the head coach)
- 2020-21: TCU (assistant to the head coach)
- 2021: TCU (interim head coach)
Kill isn’t an inspiring option, and he might not even be interested in a full-time role, but he’s worth throwing out there. He’s been a successful coach, and he already proved in 2019 that he can be a stabilizing force for the Hokies.
The biggest obstacle with Kill is his health – no pun intended. He has previously been diagnosed with kidney cancer, although it’s in remission. Still, he’s had frequent struggles with seizures, which is likely why he’s taken a much more hands-off role as a coach in recent years.
There’s some irony to Kill’s current gig. He was the best man at Gary Patterson’s wedding, which played a major part in Kill being hired by Justin Fuente in 2019. Fuente was once Patterson’s offensive coordinator at TCU, and Kill was recommended by Patterson to Fuente. Kill then left Blacksburg to reunite with Patterson in the offseason, but when he mutually agreed to part ways from the program recently, Kill took over for him.
There are better options, but he’s someone Tech might be able to talk themselves into if things break the wrong way – which they admittedly are starting to, considering how many coaches are signing extensions at other schools.
Dan Mullen (49)
- 1992-93: Player at Ursinus
- 1994-95: Wagner (wide receivers)
- 1996-97: Columbia (wide receivers)
- 1998: Syracuse (graduate assistant)
- 1999-2000: Notre Dame (graduate assistant)
- 2001-02: Bowling Green (quarterbacks)
- 2003-04: Utah (quarterbacks)
- 2005-08: Florida (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- 2009-17: Mississippi State (head coach)
- 2018-21: Florida (head coach)
It’s crazy what one bad year can do for a coach at a high-profile school. As recently as last year, Mullen was viewed as one of the best coaches in the conference with the best coaches. Now he’s unemployed and we’re wondering whether the Hokies would even want him.
It’s probably wise to avoid such recency bias. The reality is that the SEC is a gauntlet. Mullen’s defense let him down, but he’s consistently pumped out talented players to the NFL and boasted one of the better offenses in the country.
It’s fair to wonder whether Mullen’s personality is a fit in Blacksburg, but the Hokies should try to secure an interview with him. If he says no, it wasn’t meant to be, but they need to try. They won’t get many chances at this caliber of coach.
Ed Orgeron (60)
- 1979: Player at LSU
- 1980-83: Player at Northwestern State
- 1984: Northwestern State (graduate assistant)
- 1985: McNeese State (graduate assistant)
- 1986-87: Arkansas (assistant strength)
- 1988-92: Miami (defensive line)
- 1994: Nicholls State (linebackers)
- 1995-97: Syracuse (defensive line)
- 1998-2004: USC (assistant head coach, defensive line and recruiting coordinator)
- 2005-07: Ole Miss (head coach)
- 2008: New Orleans Saints (defensive line)
- 2009: Tennessee (assistant head coach, defensive line and recruiting coordinator)
- 2010-13: USC (defensive coordinator, defensive line and recruiting coordinator)
- 2013: USC (interim head coach)
- 2015-16: LSU (defensive line)
- 2016-21: LSU (head coach)
I’m really only including Orgeron because his name is mentioned a lot. I think he’s an overrated coach, I mostly attribute his National Championship at LSU to Joe Brady and the players, and he has a ton of off-field baggage now. Unless someone takes a major risk, he’ll have to rebuild his image at a Group of Five school.
Gary Patterson (62)
- 1978-79: Player at Dodge City Community College
- 1980-81: Player at Kansas State
- 1982: Kansas State (graduate assistant)
- 1983-84: Tennessee Tech (linebackers)
- 1986: UC Davis (linebackers)
- 1987: Cal Lutheran (defensive coordinator)
- 1988: Pittsburg State (linebackers)
- 1989-91: Sonoma State (defensive coordinator)
- 1992-94: Utah State (defensive backs)
- 1995: Navy (defensive backs)
- 1996-97: New Mexico (defensive coordinator and safeties)
- 1998-2000: TCU (defensive coordinator and safeties)
- 2000-21: TCU (head coach)
Shy of Mullen, this is the recently-fired coach that merits the most attention, and the Hokies would be more likely to pursue Patterson than the SEC veteran.
Patterson is a two-time national Coach of the Year (most recently in 2014). He’s won over 100 more games than he’s lost in his 20-plus year career as a head coach. He also runs a self-named charity with the goal of providing fair educational opportunities for children in the Fort Worth, Texas area.
The trouble with Patterson is that he has a Fuente-like stench. Not only as Fuente a product of Patterson, but the latter has a 21-22 record since pushing for a Playoff bid in 2017. TCU also went through a similarly-timed recruiting downturn – No. 53 in 2021 and No. 101 in 2022 after typically finishing in the range of Nos. 20-30. Sometimes coaches need a change of scenery, but Patterson could easily be viewed as more of the same.