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New SEC Coordinators: The West

There are nine new coordinators in the SEC West in 2018. Will they make their teams better or worse?

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The SEC West has nine new coordinators this year! How will they impact their teams? Let’s take a look.

Mike Locksley (Alabama-Offense)

For the first time in Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, he was able to promote from within his offensive staff.

While Mike Locksley is Saban’s seventh offensive coordinator, he might, also, be the easiest transition for him. When 2017 offensive coordinator Brian Daboll left to take the same position with the Buffalo Bills, ‘Bama players went to bat for the then-wide receivers coach to be made permanent OC and it worked.

Last year’s Tide squad finished in the Top 30 in 3 out of the 4 statistical categories, except for passing where they finished 91st with 193.4 yards per game. They still won a national title off this paltry stat, but that was based on the big-time play of 2nd string QB Tua Tagovailoa in the 2nd half of the UGA game.

As Tagovailoa and incumbent starter Jalen Hurts battle for the starting position, the ease of Locksley’s job in 2018 will most likely depend on who ends up being chosen as permanent starter.

Hurts, while a competent passer, is your prototypical single wing, RPO-style QB. Tagovailoa, who’s probably not as conscientious with the ball as Hurts to this, is still the more effective passer. And even with the loss of Calvin Ridley, Alabama has some seriously talented young receivers to get the ball to in space.

At the end of the day, Locksley is going to run the offense Nick Saban wants him to and much of it will probably look the same as it did last season. However, if Tagovailoa gets the starting nod after the Louisville game, you can see Locksley running a more wide open offense. And with nary a former 3-star on that side of the ball, it could be one of the more fun offenses they’ve had under Saban.

Prediction: Better

Tosh Lupoi (Alabama-Defense)

Another first at the Capstone under Nick Saban: replacing both coordinators in the same season.

Tosh Lupoi, who’s primarily been known as an ace recruiter and dynamic pass rushing coach, is taking the reins of an entire defense for the first time in his career.

Like Locksley, Lupoi was promoted and if history has taught us anything, Saban promoting a young defensive assistant to coordinator means his utmost trust in them. It happened with Will Muschamp at LSU and Kirby Smart at ‘Bama and they both turned out okay.

Now, that doesn’t mean Lupoi, who unlike Muschamp and Smart, has a playing background in the front seven and not the secondary, won’t experience some growing pains in his first season. There are several offenses that may do some damage to the Tide defense this year regardless of who the coach is.

That tends to happen when you lose 11 guys from a championship defense, 8 of whom were drafted. Players like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da’Ron Payne, Rashaan Evans and Ronnie Harrison are not easily replaced and Lupoi has a helluva task in getting the next ones up to perform at a fraction of the level those men did.

The 2017 Alabama defense finished 1st in the FBS in three out of the four statistical categories and 6th in the other. The 2016 defense was just as good. No matter the coordinator, it was never going to be the same in 2018, which is why Saban recently stated that the offense may have to win some games for the team this year.

Personnel is going to make Lupoi’s job much more difficult than it was Smart and Jeremy Pruitt’s first years on the job. They’ll still look like an Alabama defense, though. Just maybe not as suffocating.

Prediction: Worse

Joe Craddock (Arkansas-Offense)

Bret Bielema tried to outmuscle his opponents during his tenure in Fayetteville, but against superior talent in the SEC West, he rarely succeeded. “11-29 conference record” kinda not succeeding.

The Razorbacks wisely went in a completely different direction for his successor, Chad Morris. Morris, a Texas high school coaching legend, slowly worked his way up the ladder of the college ranks, reaching the Arkansas job by leading prolific offenses at Tulsa and Clemson, before landing the head coaching job at SMU.

While his record won’t show it, he did very good things while with the Mustangs, including a 7-5 record in 2017.

His protégé and OC, Joe Craddock, is the one trusted to execute Morris’ up-tempo spread offense. So far, Craddock has done a good job, averaging 429.5 yards and 31 points per game in three seasons in Dallas.

Those three years of experience are enough for Craddock to take over not a completely depleted Razorback squad, which just announced Cole Kelley as its starter for the team’s first game against Eastern Illinois, although Ty Storey will most likely play, as well.

Past that, they bring back 3 out of their 5 offensive linemen from last year and their top two running backs. Morris and Craddock will be able to slowly assimilate this offense into one that will exceed expectations and, at the very least, a 2017 Arkansas offense that finished 83rd in passing (205.4 yards per game), 61st in rushing (168 yards per game), 94th in total offense (373.4 yards per game) and 62nd in scoring offense (28.8 points per game).

This will be one of the more intriguing transitions in the league this year.

Prediction: Better

John Chavis (Arkansas-Defense)

John Chavis and the SEC are evergreen. Nothing will break them apart.

No matter the team, since 1995 Chavis has held the defensive coordinator position in the Southeastern Conference, which I’m fairly sure is a record. At this point, there might be a SEC bylaw stating that John Chavis has to be a coordinator somewhere in the conference.

This is Chavis’ fourth SEC team and third in the West, where his 23 total defensive squads averaged 198.5 passing yards, 125 rushing yards, 323.5 total yards and 21 points per game. His 2011 LSU (for which he won the Broyles Award) and late-90s Tennessee defenses remain canon in SEC history.

While he certainly improved upon Texas A&M’s 2014 defense in his first season with the Aggies the following year, personnel losses made his final defense in College Station his worst in the way of total and scoring defense. Still, there’s no way Chad Morris would pass up on having as sound a practitioner at the college level coach his defense every day.

The best thing about getting Chavis is that it can’t really get much worse for a defense that finished 92nd in passing (242.2 yards per game), 97th in rushing (196.1 yards per game), 101st in total defense (438.3 yards per game) and 114th in scoring defense (36.2 yards per game) in 2017.

Just from that standpoint alone, the Razorback defense will be worlds better under Chavis. Still, the biggest concern is the lack of elite talent on that side of the ball right now.

At Tennessee and LSU, Chavis was able to implement his game plans so effectively because he had an embarrassment of riches on that side of the ball. Think Al Wilson, John Henderson, Eric Berry, Kiki Mingo and Tyrann Mathieu. Those types of players dwindled at A&M and are mostly non-existent at Arkansas.

Strictly from a fundamental standpoint, though, this squad will be improved in 2018.

Prediction: Better

Steve Ensminger (LSU-Offense)

I’ll never understand why the Matt Canada experiment didn’t go beyond a season at LSU. It seemed like such an inspired hire by Tiger head coach Ed Orgeron.

At the end of the day, though, quarterback play didn’t improve as LSU’s passing game finished 84th in the FBS and the squad overall averaged 27.2 points per game. The hope for Orgeron by promoting Steve Ensminger to full-time OC is that they’re able to effectively play well at every position on that side of the ball, including quarterback.

Ensminger, a well-traveled assistant since the 1980s, has a handle on the kind of offense Orgeron would like to employ. He’s been with the team in some capacity since 2010 and has seen the very good and the very bad that the Tiger offense had to offer.

The best way to look at this hire is to see the job he did in 2016 when he was given the interim OC tag after Les Miles and Cam Cameron were fired after the Auburn game. The first four games that year, LSU’s offense averaged 352 yards and 21 points per game. After Ensminger took over, the Tigers averaged 433 yards and 32 points per game.

If they can finally get above average quarterback play, LSU will be fine. The receivers are always good, the running backs are elite and the offensive line does its job. With the announcement of grad transfer Joe Burrow as its starter against Miami this Saturday, Ensminger needs big-time play for he and his boss to see another year in Baton Rouge.

Both are on very short leashes from an understandably-frustrated fanbase and with little proven talent at the skill positions, Burrow playing smart but effective football could be the key to a trip to Atlanta. Especially since UGA and Alabama both come to Baton Rouge this year.

Prediction: Push

Luke Getsy (Mississippi State-Offense)

Mississippi State’s hiring of former Penn State OC Joe Moorhead is easily the most exciting, outside-the-box hire of the season.

With as much talent as the Bulldogs bring back from 2017, there’s no reason not to think this team couldn’t win 9 or 10 games in 2018. While it was announced on Monday that Nick Fitzgerald would be suspended for MSU’s opener against Stephen F. Austin, this team is still loaded on the offensive side of the ball.

First-time offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has Fitzgerald (for eleven games anyway) and 1,000-yard rusher Aeris Williams to work with in the backfield and a slew of young, but talented receivers, including former 4-star JUCO transfer Stephen Guidry.

While Getsy’s FBS experience is limited to one year at Western Michigan as the Broncos’ receivers coach, this offense belongs to Moorhead. All Getsy has to do is help him execute it on game day. This article from Bill Connelly is all you need to know about Moorhead’s philosophy and how he will do his best to confound SEC defenses the way he did at Penn State.

There weren’t too many disparities in the FBS than the Bulldogs’ run and pass offenses in 2017. The run game finished 11th in the country with 251.7 yards per game while the passing game finished 112th with 166.9 yards per game. Moorhead’s going to work to improve both.

Getsy is an experiment that will most likely work because he had one of the most innovative coaches in the game believe in his abilities to execute the plan. This Mississippi State offense will be a blast to watch.

Prediction: Better

Bob Shoop (Mississippi State-Offense)

The James Franklin pipeline makes its way down to Starkville.

One of the strangest anomalies in 2017 belonged to Bob Shoop’s Tennessee defense. His 2nd year with the Vols saw the defense finish 3rd in the FBS in passing (161.7 yards per game) and 125th in rushing (251.3 yards per game). I had to look at it twice and I laughed hysterically both times.

Strangely enough, he had one of the best rushing defenses in the country at Penn State in 2014. Basically, there are no real patterns to how his defenses perform in the seven years he’s been a defensive coordinator.

Still, Moorhead was smart to acquire Shoop after the Volunteer staff was overhauled even though the two never overlapped under Franklin. There’s a familiarity with a certain program philosophy and both have done well under it.

Shoop defenses have averaged 353.8 yards and 23.3 points per game and with MSU playmakers like Jeffery Simmons and Leo Lewis in the front seven alone, there is much with which to work.

Don’t expect the same type of defense the Bulldogs’ deployed in 2017 under former DC Todd Grantham. As we previously discussed, that was a high risk/high reward, blitz-heavy defense. Shoop will be more measure and by extension, maybe not quite as effective.

Don’t expect the falloff, here, to be anywhere but statistical.

Prediction: Push

Darrell Dickey (Texas A&M-Offense)

Leave it to Jimbo Fisher to find a 93-year-old assistant coach to run his first offense at Texas A&M.

It’s probably just as well. Fisher’s so ensconced in that side of the ball, he’d probably make David Crosby his OC if it meant he could be involved with game day play calling.

In actuality, new A&M offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey oversaw a Memphis squad in 2017 that finished 4th in the FBS in total offense, averaging 532 yards per game and 2nd in scoring offense with 45.5 points per game. Some would say that it was Mike Norvell’s offense, but Dickey was retained by Norvell after serving in the same capacity with now-Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente.

Most likely, Fisher appreciates the camaraderie in having an OC who was once a head coach. During Dickey’s tenure at North Texas, the Mean Green won four straight conference titles. While his offenses didn’t necessarily light up scoreboards, they did enough to win and given Fisher’s tendency towards autocratic offensive coaching, it shouldn’t matter much in relation to Dickey’s ability to do his job.

He did it very well the last several years in Memphis and with quarterback Kellen Mond being named the starter along with the return of Trayveon Williams at running back, there should be enough with which to work.

The 2017 A&M offense in Kevin Sumlin’s last season wasn’t bad, but it, obviously wasn’t enough, finishing 56th in total offense (406.8 yards per game) and 34th in scoring offense (32.7 points per game).

The transition from any staff to Fisher’s is daunting for a program and one should expect some growing pains in their first year in College Station. Going out on a limb, but I expect to see slight regression for this squad.

Prediction: Worse

Mike Elko (Texas A&M-Defense)

After having Charles Kelly as his defensive coordinator for the last four seasons, it’s nice to see Fisher go after an up-and-coming assistant in the FBS.

Mike Elko’s Notre Dame defense wasn’t necessarily the best in the country last season, but it was an improvement from the year before. His three defenses at Wake Forest improved with each season, as well.

One can assume that as Fisher continues to bring in four and five-star talent to College Station, Elko will have much to work with over the next few years.

While John Chavis’ final defense was not one his best, allowing 408.6 yards per and 30.7, Elko still has four of A&M’s top tacklers from last year in linebackers Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka, defensive back Derrick Tucker and defensive end Landis Durham with which to work and that should be enough to see little regression.

While the A&M struggle, expect the numbers on the defensive side of the ball to improve, solely based on the personnel retention.

Prediction: Better