Gameplan: Texas’ Christmas Eve coaching wishlist

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In the last Scoop, everyone got to hear the names of some targets Texas will be investigating in the pursuit of replacing Tom Herman. Most of the names were already established or obvious with one significant addition, the “scenario 3.5” in which Texas hires a splashy coach with a major resume but nothing quite so magnificent as Urban Meyer’s three National Championship rings.

That was Notre Dame’s head man Brian Kelly, who’s about to play for a National Championship for the third time since taking over in South Bend back in 2009. The other two major candidates at the top of the list included Matt Campbell, who just narrowly missed beating Oklahoma twice in the same season and winning Iowa State’s first conference title since 1912, and four-time Super Bowl winner Gary Kubiak.

There isn’t currently a consensus on which of these guys is at the top of the Longhorn Christmas wishlist, and Texas fans still hope to be on the “nice” list, but here’s an overview of some of the qualifications and strategies we’ve seen from each of these candidates.

Gary Kubiak

We’ve discussed him before. Kubiak is well known for running the closest thing the NFL has to a college-style offense, the “wide zone” offense. Kubiak’s system marries the run and pass together by play-action in a fashion akin to the Big 12’s RPO/play-action spread offenses that tie together chunks of the passing game with run schemes like inside zone and counter.

Kubiak’s offense is sort of similar to what Chip Kelly designed at Oregon (or what BYU is running with Zach Wilson), but without the tempo, nearly as much shotgun, and is devoid of option-elements. Texas installed a comparable system this season and finally got it rolling against the beaten up Kansas State Wildcats after reconfiguring the offensive line.

Ideally, Kubiak would hire assistants to help translate the system to the college game, mixing in shotgun or pistol alignments more familiar to quarterbacks like Hudson Card and Casey Thompson and making use of zone-option dimensions. It’s possible Mike Yurcich could even be a fit here. He did bring wide zone to the Texas offense this year after all and likely has more in the playbook Texas didn’t get to in year one.

Picturing Kubiak as a college head coach certainly requires some imagination but there are a few traits and skills Texas could be confident in. One interesting quirk to Kubiak’s career is the period from 2017 to 2019 in between stepping down as head coach of the Denver Broncos for health reasons (yeah…) and becoming the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. In that time Kubiak helped the Broncos analyze college prospects ahead of the draft and, by all accounts, was very good at it.

Personnel evaluation has often been a strong suit of Kubiak’s and while his offense is famous for the wide zone components, he’s built his career on adjusting the system for different quarterbacks. He coached Steve Young, John Elway, Matt Schaub, and Joe Flacco to seasons throwing for 3900 yards or more and also helped a nearly finished Peyton Manning win the Super Bowl.

It’s not unreasonable to imagine Kubiak having success evaluating prospects or adjusting his system for the talent at Texas.

As a head coach and staff manager, his record is solid. For the most part he’d work alongside the offensive staff and hire Wade Phillips to run the defense with very little oversight on his own part. This is more or less what Tom Herman has done and what Charlie Strong did in reverse, the problem for those coaches was their own side of the ball couldn’t carry water for the program when the other side struggled. The hope in a Gary Kubiak hire would be that his offensive acumen, responsible for multiple Super Bowls and helping stir the “is Joe Flacco elite?” conversation, would not allow the offense to fail.

On the other hand, he’s been away from the college game for nearly 30 years and has had two health scares that threatened to derail his career. He might imagine the Texas head coach job as a place where he could take a step back and oversee with less pressure but that’s not how it works. Coaching a college blueblood program is an intense grind. There is less margin for error facing Big 12 teams everyone expects you to beat who are throwing deep every other play in order to up the variance in possible outcomes.

Upside: Really hard to gauge. It’s very rare for a longtime NFL head coach known for pioneering an NFL system of X’s and O’s to step down to the college game late in his career, normally the opposite occurs. X’s and O’s coaches prefer the NFL game because professionals can focus on tactics and not recruiting visits and managing the emotions of 19-year olds. Nick Saban is the exception and Saban preferred the college game because he could exercise tighter control over the entire organization in a way he couldn’t in the NFL. Is that what Kubiak wants? Perhaps Pete Carroll is another comparison but Pete was younger and much more energetic. Herm Edwards is the obvious reference but he’s another example of a coach who’s more of an energetic leader than a tactician.

Downside: One of the closer examples would be Mike Sherman, who had more college coaching experience than Kubiak but came to Texas A&M after a fairly long stint with the pros. Sherman recruited all of the talent responsible for Kevin Sumlin’s initial success at Texas A&M, including five eventual first-rounders on offense. However, Sherman didn’t taste that success because he tried to fit the roster to his own system, notoriously refusing to use Ryan Tannehill’s athleticism in the spread. Kubiak is a better coach and more flexible than Sherman and possibly a similarly good evaluator as well.

Verdict: It’d be interesting to see this play out and such a move could foreshadow an increase in NFL coaches coming to the college game in order to have more overall control of the program (and more money in many instances). NFL jobs are increasingly getting snatched up by up and coming college coaches, perhaps we’ll see some reverse flow as well. Anyways, before seeing what a Kubiak staff looked like, it’s hard to say this would be a sure thing.

Matt Campbell

There’s a case to be made Matt Campbell is the next Urban Meyer. Campbell got his start at Bowling Green literally the very next year after Urban Meyer left, hired by the leftover staff to learn some of the cutting edge tricks Meyer had brought in (stolen from Bill Snyder). After those two years were up, he had a chance to go work for the New England Patriots but opted to return to Mount Union, where he played a few years prior under the legendary Larry Kehres (11 D3 National Championships at Mount Union). Campbell served as the offensive coordinator while helping to update their offense with spread principles.

He’s always hung out in the Midwest. He loves it there for whatever reason (I like it too, Matt), and has always been rumored to be biding his time before taking over at one of the major Midwestern powers. Those definitely include Ohio State and Notre Dame and then potentially Michigan or Penn State depending on who you ask. Texas is not on that list, obviously, and whether he’d be convinced to come coach diva blue chips and manage boosters in Austin after a career built in small town Ohio is unclear.

Campbell is a great coach who’s helped Iowa State ascend to the annual role of “top antagonist” to the Lincoln Riley Sooners. The Cyclones this season were powered by the following players, all of whom might be drafted.

Brock “pump fake” Purdy: A 3-star from Arizona (holla at ya boy @Scipio Tex) who everyone missed on because he had mono as a junior and played weak and underweight before recovering and breaking out as a senior. Texas A&M, UCF, Boise State, and Alabama got on him late but he stayed true to Campbell.

Breece Hall: The rare 4-star signee for the Cyclones, plucked out of Wichita, Kansas over the local powers and despite (less) interest from some out of state programs like Baylor and Tennessee. Hall was arguably the best skill player in the Big 12 this season and was awarded OPOY on the All-Big 12 team.

JaQuan Bailey: A 3-star from Florida Campbell snuck into his transition signing class despite attention from some other big schools. Bailey enabled their three-man pass-rush to work with his ability to play the edge, duck inside, and then rush the passer on third downs.

Will McDonald IV: An even more explosive and natural edge-rusher than Bailey who Campbell unearthed up in Wisconsin and convinced to come down to Ames. McDonald may be the best pass-rusher in the Big 12 before he’s done.

Charlie Kolar: Matt Campbell found a 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end with some route-running savvy and wiggle and great hands who will play in the NFL some day and he found him in Norman, Oklahoma and convinced him to come to Iowa State. Oklahoma didn’t offer…but still.

Greg Eisworth: The most athletic defensive back in the Cyclones’ three-safety system for three years running now. A former 3-star from Grand Prairie (4-star by some metrics), Eisworth started at Ole Miss but he kept having hamstring issues he felt the staff was mishandling. So he went to a JUCO for a year and then from there to Iowa State.

Xavier Hutchinson: A highly talented, 3-star JUCO wide receiver who started two years at Blinn coming out of Jacksonville, FL. He was solid as a freshman in Brenham, then was snatched up by Campbell and his staff who were desperate for impact wide receivers to help replace Hakeem Butler. ISU fended off late charges from Oklahoma and Nebraska to secure his commitment. The start of the season was a bit shaky when he struggled with press-man coverage as the focal point of opposing defenses… so Campbell adjusted the offense to help him get a release off the line either outside or moving into the slot while one of his three quality tight ends flexed out.

Dylan Soehner: A 6-foot-7, 260-pound 3-star tight end I always had pegged for offensive line who Campbell kept at tight end because of his blocking prowess and good hands. Soehner allowed the Cyclones to cover for a shaky offensive line by essentially alternating between being a sixth offensive linemen and a legitimate (and sizable) target up the seam. He tortured Texas in Austin performing both of those tasks.

Mike Rose: The Big 12’s DPOY was a 3-star out of the Cleveland suburbs who’s next best offer was Ball State. He’s started every year since coming to Iowa State and has been one of the best linebackers in the league all three seasons.

Campbell has shown tremendous creativity and capacity for both finding talent and then adjusting to maximize it. The list above simply includes major figures on the 2020 team. Texas fans may vaguely recall Campbell beating Texas with Joel Lanning at quarterback and then turning him into a star linebacker the following season. As a pure football coach he’s as good as you’ll find in the league or arguably the country.

Upside: There’s some Bill Snyder and maybe some Dan Mullen or Chip Kelly to Campbell as a head coach. He’s extremely intense, maybe too intense if you’ve ever seen him react to a call he didn’t like, and highly devoted to his craft. I’m not sure if Texas has ever had a coach quite like him. Campbell knows how to build really good football teams and foster an intense, winning culture.

Downside: I’m not sure if the best fit at Texas is a coach like Campbell, who’s first and foremost a phenomenal steward of intense football culture and strategy. How would he manage the egos and massive resources at Texas? On the other hand, you’ll struggle to find many head coaches that were successful as head coaches at multiple stops before failing to pan out at “the big job.” Is convincing Iowa State they are a legitimate Big 12 contender easier than doing so in Austin?

Verdict: He strikes me as the sort who is most easily optimized at a pure football factory like Ohio State and it seems he thinks the same. In fact, his penchant for finding and developing elite talents while battling recruiting limitations would make him a really good fit at Notre Dame…

However, he’s unquestionably one of the best pure football coaches in the country right now and it’s usually a great idea to hire such people.

Brian Kelly

If Kelly is interested in building up one more college program before he wraps up his career, then this hire would probably make the most sense both for Kelly and for Texas.

Kelly has a pretty long and clear record as a head coach now, in some sense he’s Matt Campbell in 10 years after Campbell lands his blue blood job. Coming out of Cincinnati after the 2009 season in which his Bearcats were 12-0 (before the bowl game against Florida where he was absent for the drubbing), Kelly had been a coach known for being ahead in using the spread offense. Go watch their Big East Championship Game comeback against Pittsburgh, it’s endless 5-wide offense with Kelly manipulating matchups so they could isolate top receivers.

Since then at Notre Dame, Kelly’s teams have been defined by their ability to recruit NFL offensive linemen and tight ends, then having ebbs and flows based on the ability of their quarterback to consistently hit the typically one standout NFL wide receiver on the roster.

The biggest selling point for Kelly is his tenure as a head coach which spans over 30 seasons at four different programs. He started at Grand Valley State (a Division II team in Michigan) on defense (pure football coach, he’s now known for offense) and took over as head coach in 1991. They won consecutive National Championships in 2002 and 2003, leading Central Michigan to hire him. By year three he turned that program around and they were 9-4. Then he left again for Cincinnati to replace Mark Dantonio, who was off to Michigan State. Kelly was 34-6 at Cincinnati with three consecutive 10-win seasons before heading off to Notre Dame.

From 2010 to 2014 the Irish had a solid run with one really great season in 2012 in which they were undefeated (with a road win against Oklahoma) until getting clobbered by Alabama in the BCS Title game. Everything seemed to be going off the rails in 2016, starting with a road defeat against Charlie Strong’s Longhorns, but Kelly hired Chip Long as offensive coordinator and Mike Elko as defensive coordinator the following offseason (both now gone) and the Irish have won at least 10 games in all four seasons since.

Kelly has shown a knack for understanding the programs he’s coaching and effectively running the machine, which is what makes him an attractive option for Texas. They recruit between 10th and 20th in the nation every year and send about five players into the draft every year, often offensive linemen. He’s familiar with both a national recruiting strategy, which is the established Notre Dame method, and yet also loves to focus on different regions for different types of players. Their defense has often been powered by Islanders in the backfield, southerners along the defensive line, and then usually (but not always) Midwesterners at tight end and offensive line.

At Texas he’d probably maintain some of the national strategy but also emphasize the state. National recruiting was likely as much of a “here’s how you win at Notre Dame” emphasis as it was an approach particular to Kelly. While at Cincinnati he focused on Ohio and local areas. Recruiting good players and making the most of them is more or less the Kelly approach, his track record is as someone who ensures high level quality control and vision. This past season the Irish have been much more sophisticated with their offensive strategy and quite different from the 2009 Bearcats, because instead of having multiple good receivers they have multi-year starters at quarterback, all five offensive line spots, and then a lack of a single brilliant wideout.

As a staff manager he’s been pretty solid. His first defensive coordinator was Bob Diaco, who was effective at Notre Dame and left to be the head coach at UCONN. Then he hired Brian VanGorder, which went poorly, but he also fired him four games into 2016 and replaced him with Elko. The Irish only got one year from Elko before he bailed for the Aggie payday and Kelly just promoted linebacker coach Clark Lea. This move seemed overly comfortable and convenient up until the Irish continued to play great defense under Lea, at which point it became obvious Kelly knew what he had in the assistant. Lea is now taking the head coach job at Vanderbilt.

Upside: Kelly is a proven overseer of high level football at a program with big time resources. For Texas to hire him would be similar to when they snagged Mack Brown from UNC (158-48), when Washington hired Chris Peterson from Boise State (55-26), or when Texas A&M pulled Jimbo Fisher from Florida State (25-10). It’s hard to imagine him coming to Texas and failing to win a large number of games, likely setting a floor of 9-10 wins every season with a ceiling of a National Championship once he has things rolling. The limiting factor for Kelly at Notre Dame has always been skill talent, particularly wide receiver and cornerback. They’ve had some NFL wide receivers, although this year they’re in a rebuild mode there, and cornerback has been tough. One of the big sells for Texas would be to never lack for access to NFL talent in those essential positions where Clemson keeps whipping him.

A championship ceiling would be exciting for Texas, but to simply be a team that typically wins 10 games and rolls over the less privileged schools within the league would be a significant step up for Longhorn football. Kelly offers that security.

Downside: It’s hard to see a Kelly hire going too poorly. It is notable he prefers a careful rebuild and might potentially take longer to build up Texas than fans would prefer and would likely have his contract structured in such a way that complaints would be useless until he’d had time to survey the lay of the land and make some adjustments after years one, two, and even three.

So the downside is perhaps Jimbo Fisher, who has yet to really win many big games at A&M or seize the day yet has managed to get the Aggies playing good football and has been building the program up for a strong run over the next half-decade.

Who’s on your Christmas wish list?

Cover photo courtesy of Jay Bonvouloir

History major, football theorist.