MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban and his staff always devote some offseason time to studying new offensive and defensive coordinators, just perhaps not quite this much.
There are 14 new coordinators — seven on each side of the ball — in the Southeastern Conference. That includes Vanderbilt coach/defensive coordinator Derek Mason, and the number creates extra homework for staffs around the league leading up to the season.
Head coaches aren’t the only ones making huge bucks either, considering the seven-figure salaries of new defensive coordinators Will Muschamp (Auburn) and John Chavis (Texas A&M).
The offseason study of new coordinators involves trying “to figure out how much they will impact their particular program that they’re representing, and that’s always challenging,” Saban said.
“You can pretty much assume that they’re going to do their whole scheme, and you’re going to see a lot of the same things,” he said. “But I think we continue to add a lot of quality people, from a coaching standpoint, to our league, and I think that’s important to playing real quality football. I think there’s a lot of proven coordinators that have come into the league that are going to improve their areas.”
Just because Florida’s Jim McElwain, who replaced Muschamp, is the only new head coach doesn’t mean it was a quiet offseason.
Muschamp and Chavis will both make at least $5 million over the next three seasons. They’ll draw bigger paychecks than dozens of FBS head coaches last season, including McElwain at Colorado State ($1.5 million). South Carolina is paying co-defensive coordinators Jon Hoke and Lorenzo Ward a combined $1.5 million, or $750,000 apiece.
The Auburn and Texas A&M hires were certainly the most eye-catching since Muschamp is returning to his roots as a defensive coach after an up-and-down tenure as the Gators’ head man and Chavis swapped SEC West schools after six seasons with LSU.
In most cases, there won’t be wholesale changes in philosophy or schemes. Muschamp, however, is switching up from Ellis Johnson’s system that often employed only two linebackers and five defensive backs. Ditto for South Carolina, one of Johnson’s previous stops.
Muschamp and Chavis are trying to bolster defenses that had been regarded as the weaker links opposite the up-tempo offenses of Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn said Muschamp is “the best defensive mind in all of football” but also has high praise for the quality of the league’s other coaches.
“I think there are some of the best minds in all of college football in our league, and you’ve got to prepare for that,” the Auburn coach said. “You can’t just prepare for that that week you play them. You’ve got to prepare in the offseason, already be thinking ahead because each defensive coordinator is going to be a little bit different.
“They’re going to have their personnel, and you’ve got to project how they’re going to use that particular personnel that they have.”
In a league packed with head coaches making $4 million or more — including all seven in the Western Division — it’s no surprise that some assistants are raking in seven-figure salaries or close to it. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was already making $1.385 million annually.
Now, that places him third among league defensive bosses not counting Mason, who’s taking on the second role this season.
Kevin Steele, who replaced Chavis at LSU, is making $2 million over two years. Two new offensive coordinators — Georgia’s Brian Schottenheimer and Florida’s Doug Nussmeier — are also approaching seven-figure salaries.
There are some common denominators among the coordinators.
A number of them, including Mississippi State’s Manny Diaz — on his second stint in Starkville — Steele, Nussmeier, Muschamp, Chavis and Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, have SEC experience as coordinators.
Others including Schottenheimer, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and South Carolina’s Hoke have significant experience as NFL assistants.
The last jobs for Muschamp and Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos (Central Michigan) were as head men. Saban already had some familiarity with the newbies since Muschamp, McElwain, Nussmeier, Collins and Steele have all worked for him.
New coordinators can make have a huge impact on a team.
Malzahn ran the offense for quarterback Cam Newton and Auburn during the 2010 national championship season. In 2014, Arkansas ranked in the Top 10 in both scoring and total defense under first-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith. That’s the first time the Razorbacks have been that high in either category since joining the SEC in 1992.
“Whatever lightning I captured in a bottle with Robb,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said, “my early indicators are that we can do that with Dan as well.”