Quick thoughts on Pete Kwiatkowski

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Pete Kwiatkowski has caught my eye many times over the years for what he’s done as a defensive coordinator out west. One of his initial wins was serving as the D-line coach for the 2006 Boise State Broncos when they stopped up the Adrian Peterson Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl. Everyone remembers those dominant Boise State teams that followed in the late 2000s and early 2010s for the dynamic offenses, particularly the Kellen Moore units (Titus Young and Austin Pettis never got their due, those teams had NFL-verified space forces), but the defenses were choking offenses out. The 2009 Broncos, arguably their finest team, sandwiched their season by shutting down Oregon 19-8 in the season opener and stuffing the Andy-Dalton TCU Frogs 17-10 in the Fiesta Bowl to conclude the season.

Kwiatkowski took over as Chris Petersen’s defensive coordinator the following year and posted this resume in the seasons since:

What about Jimmy Lake?

This is a great time to discuss the dynamic between Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski up in Seattle. Jimmy Lake could easily be perceived to have been the mastermind behind the Washington defense given:

A) Lake took over as coordinator and play-caller (unless Mike Leach is to be believed) after the 2017 season. The reason coming out of the program was they desired to keep Lake and not allow him to be poached so Kwiatkowski offered to be demoted to non-playcaller in order to give Lake a reason to stay. Obviously Lake was later made head coach when Chris Petersen retired.

B) The defense technically slipped in 2020 after Lake moved up to head coach and Kwiatkowski became sole DC. I’ll note here that Washington got hit by COVID and volunteered their place in the Pac-12 Championship game because they couldn’t field a team.

C) Lake is an unmistakable witch when it comes to identifying, recruiting, and developing defensive backs. A fair number of the 17 players drafted above were his defensive backs.

Here’s the counter.

A) The Washington defense was very effective under Kwiatkowski before Lake was promoted and didn’t really change in structure or tendency after Lake was promoted.

B) 10 of the defenders drafted from our table above were defensive linemen coached by Kwiatkowski. Those players include some Boise State defensive lines with absolutely unreal talent along with a host of really good defensive tackles and outside linebackers from Washington such as Danny Shelton, Vita Vea, Greg Gaines, and Travis Feeney.

Check out this 2011 Boise State starting defensive line:
Defensive end: Shea McClellin. 2-star Idahoan turned 1st round draft pick.
Defensive tackle: Chase Baker. 2-star Californian turned UDFA.
Nose tackle: Billy Winn. 3-star Nevadan turned 6th round pick.
Defensive end: Tyrone Crawford: 3-star Californian turned 3rd round pick.

After losing those guys, Kwiatkowski reloaded with a 3-star Kansan named DeMarcus Lawrence he helped mold into a 2nd round pick and eventual Hall of Famer.

All that to say, it wasn’t just Lake doing work in the eval and development game up in Washington. There’s a reason Kwiatkowski was going to make $1.1 million to coordinate the Huskies this season.

Lake was beloved for his recruiting chops and masterful coaching but the schematic heavy lifting appears to have been done by Kwiatkowski, who is obviously no slouch as an evaluator and coach in his own right. We’ll see how things shake out but it’s reasonable to suppose he’ll continue to coach the EDGE positions, let Bo Davis handle the tackles and the recruiting, and likely bring a linebacker coach while leaving Blake Gideon and Terry Joseph to handle the secondary.

The Pete Kwiatkowski approach

The reason I’ve known about Kwiatkowski for some time now is due to his approach in defending the spread. He’s been good at it, to say the least. He was ahead of the curve in Boise State running quarters from the 4-2-5 and at Washington was using multiple fronts, including 2-4-5 looks and 3-down tite fronts while they played just a few single-high coverages on the back end.

This raises the big question for a Kwiatkowski defense at Texas. Is he married to the single-high defensive approach or to what Washington was doing up front? As it happens, I think what the Huskies were doing up front was the most impressive component to their approach, on the back end they “just” executed really well and relied on deep safeties playing 15 yards off the ball at the snap to erase mistakes.

My man is already backpedaling from 15-deep at the snap. Elsewhere, they’re matching up pretty tight. #WeUseDeepSafetyLikeNFL

So at Texas, will Blake Gideon be charged with explaining to the Texas safeties the art of staying on top of everything? Or will they mix things up with more quarters?

Speaking of deep safeties, here’s what I’ve loved about the Kwiatkowski defenses I’ve watched over the years. First, they defer stress to the box and prioritize coverage. When they were locking up the Gardner Minshew/Mike Leach Cougars they did so without playing anyone heavier than 221 pounds off the ball.

They used a 3-2-6 in that game and based year to year from a multiple 3-3-5/4-2-5 approach with a hybrid jack linebacker who could be a defensive end or outside linebacker. At nickel? They played a cornerback. At middle linebacker, that position I’ve been noting gets put through the ringer every year in the Big 12? They essentially played a box safety. The best middle linebacker they’ve fielded was unquestionably Ben Burr-Kirven, a 220 pounder who logged 176 freaking tackles as a senior in 2018. BBK had the athleticism to drop, cover, and then close and tackle guys around the line of scrimmage.

There are defensive coordinators who want to design the defense to orient around their unit and there are those who ask their unit to shoulder the heavier loads, Kwiatkowski is the latter. Washington was flooding their defensive backfield with speed and versatility at the expense of having loads of big guys up front to help his defensive line.

The other aspect of his defenses I love is how they pressure. With disguise, multiplicity, and MINIMAL numbers. Here’s a typical Kwiatkowski zone blitz:

At the snap they have a 46 front with the inside linebackers mugged up on the line to hold the attention of offensive linemen. After the snap? They rush three, get immediate pressure, and the quarterback has to make something throwing against a drop eight coverage with those linebackers in position to spy and shadow his movements.

Before any of you recruitniks panic, yes they do get sacks and some numbers for their good edge rushers. Also remember what I said above about Kwiatkowski putting multiple NFL D-linemen in the league. You won’t watch Husky film and come away thinking they aren’t a team that pressures the quarterback much or effectively. In fact, you’ll watch the film and be shocked to learn they usually rush the passer in groups of three or four only. It doesn’t look that way.

Kwiatkowski understands how you beat the spread and how to do so from a school with good players. You flood the backfield with speed, defer stress to your defensive line, and then you make sure you field some war daddies who can be Atlas up front.

Yellow light

Here’s the part where I give you reasons to slow down in believing Steve Sarkisian’s just landed the ultimate hiring coup. I mean, he might be, I hope that’s clear. This was a fantastic hire. Still, you never know for sure.

Here are the issues I see coming out of the gate.

The first is that while I’d downplay the notion Jimmy Lake was responsible for the success of Washington’s defenses, it’s not like he wasn’t a factor. To go from having Jimmy Lake overseeing defensive back recruiting and development to relying on Terry Joseph and Blake Gideon isn’t an obvious home run. Texas theoretically shouldn’t have any trouble recruiting elite athletes to fill out the secondary and I’d say Joseph and Gideon are highly unlikely to be total duds. Notre Dame played good football last year. However, it could be a downgrade from what Kwiatkowski is accustomed to.

The second is the fit to the roster. Kwiatkowski is going to have to do some serious thinking about whether he wants to maintain the single-high coverage approach they utilized at Washington, which can be RPO’d to some extent, in order to make it easy to play 4-man fronts. Or if they want to move to 3-down fronts more akin to what Iowa State or (occasionally) TCU utilizes.

If you ran back the recent Washington Husky schemes with Texas’ current personnel you’d likely land on a configuration like this:

D’Shawn Jamison is baby shark over there at left cornerback, Darion Dunn from McNeese State would be the call at right cornerback in my estimation with physical Josh Thompson playing the nickel. Ideally they could move those guys around and just match Thompson on the biggest receiver whether that’s inside or outside. Chris Adimora slides inside to strong safety and spends his time either shadowing tight ends around the box or dropping deep, ditto B.J. Foster at free safety. DeMarvion Overshown slides to middle linebacker and Juwan Mitchell is covered up more playing in the box and with edge Ray Thornton helping drop now and again to eliminate how much space he needs to cover.

You know, now that I look at this… the fit looks pretty good. Don’t sweat too much, Pete, but be wary, there are some in your profession who have referred to the Big 12 as “the defensive coordinator graveyard.”

History major, football theorist.