Mountain West Football: Examining The Conference’s New Coordinator Hires
The conference’s five new head coaches have already made crucial hires, but those aren’t the only new coordinators in the Mountain West.
New faces in new spaces.
When Zak Hill departed for greener pastures in Tempe, the Broncos decided to promote from within, elevating Eric Kiesau from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator. His history in that position is, to be charitable, checkered.
Since 2009, Kiesau has spent parts of six seasons as a coordinator at Colorado, Washington, Kansas, and Fresno State. By Offensive SP+, just one of his offenses, the 2013 Washington Huskies, finished ranked better than 66th. His most recent turn at the helm was his most disastrous, as well, as the 2016 Fresno State Bulldogs finished next to last nationally by SP+, 123rd in yards per play, and 120th in points per drive.
The caveats, at least compared to his most recent history, is that Kiesau will be working with a higher level of talent across the board and also with an offensive-minded head coach, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how things will turn out if the responsibility for calling plays falls to him. Bryan Harsin wasn’t forthcoming about that after the team’s Las Vegas Bowl flop, so it might have given him pause.
Steve Addazio didn’t waste a lot of time filling out his new staff and his coordinator choices make for some fascinating contrasts to the Mike Bobo era. On offense, Joey Lynch arrives in Fort Collins from Muncie, Indiana and his alma mater, Ball State. His six-year tenure had its ups and downs, which is certainly reflective of the MAC at large: The 2019 Cardinals finished 60th by Offensive SP+, a high water mark, but three times they finished in the triple digits.
What will be most interesting is how closely the new CSU offense hews to what we’re accustomed to seeing from Addazio. Ball State ran the ball 58.1% of the time last fall and finished as the MAC’s highest-scoring team, but they threw it 54% of the time back in 2018.
The defense, meanwhile, has an old hand in charge with Chuck Heater. His career, which stretches back to 1976, has too many stops to list but Rams fans can be encouraged by his most recent work. In five years as Marshall’s defensive coordinator from 2013-17, the Thundering Herd finished outside the top 20 by yards per play just once.
New head coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb have an extensive history of working together, having done so at NAIA Sioux Falls and Eastern Michigan before arriving in the Central Valley together, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise that Grubb was retained for 2020. The offense, which averaged a respectable 2.39 points per drive after averaging 2.69 the year before, was hardly the problem last year.
The defense missed its star power and regressed in 2019, so DeBoer turned back to Indiana and brought in William Inge, who coordinated special teams for the Hoosiers in 2018 and 2019. His career has been something of a winding road but, for the most part, it’s hard to argue the results: He worked with Khalil Mack during his time at Buffalo in 2010-11, for example, and shepherded breakouts from Tegray Scales at Indiana and Alex Daniels at Cincinnati (for good measure, IU also finished in the top 50 by Special Teams SP+ in 2018 and 2019).
Todd Graham reached into the Warriors past, and into the depths of college footballl, for an inspired hire on defense, bringing Victor Santa Cruz back to the islands after a prolonged stint at Division II Azusa Pacific. 2019 was something of an off year for the Cougars defense because they finished third out of four teams in the Great Northwestern Athletic Conference in yards per play allow, but they allowed under 5.5 yards per play every other season since joining the GNAC in 2012.
Graham’s choice to coordinate the offense is just as inspired, albeit a little more risky. If G.J. Kinne‘s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember his successful stint as a quarterback at Tulsa, under Graham, where his career passing yards rank third in program history. In the years since, he worked as a graduate assistant at SMU and an offensive analyst at Arkansas before jumping to the NFL ranks to join Doug Pederson’s staff in Philadelphia.
It is his first time in a coordinator role, however, so the hire is still something of a roll of the dice. Learning from an offensive mind like Pederson, however, is a plus, and his background suggests a wide-open passing attack that will feel right at home in a Warriors program that’s long developed high-flying offenses.
The ousting of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel was a mild surprise, which could make Brian Ward‘s arrival one of the most important in the Mountain West. Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray has a detailed summary of Ward’s background but, depending on your perspective, some of the red flags noted could be overblown.
On a per-play basis, Syracuse’s drop-off from 2018 (5.83 YPP allowed) to 2019 (6.07 YPPA) is not as drastic as you might expect. This bears out in Defensive SP+, where the Orange dipped from 60th to 75th but still outperformed a reloading offense, and in other measures like sack rate (8.3% to 6.8%, the latter of which was still 51st nationally). And despite getting the axe in November, Syracuse was bested in the ACC by only Clemson in takeaways.