Selecting the ACC's top assistant coach hires for 2017.
The ACC’s coordinator carousel was relatively light on changes for the 2017 season. Five of the league’s 14 teams had some sort of switch in title or coordinator calling the plays. Louisville was the only team to make a change on both sides of the ball, as veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers was named co-offensive coordinator, and Peter Sirmon replaces Todd Grantham as the defensive play-caller. At Pitt, Shawn Watson replaces Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator, and John Papuchis was promoted to defensive coordinator at North Carolina after Gene Chizik retired. Mike Elko left Winston-Salem for Notre Dame, allowing coach Dave Clawson to hire Jay Sawvel as the program’s new defensive coordinator. The only other move in the coordinator carousel for the ACC was Clemson dropping the co-defensive coordinator tag with Brent Venables after Marion Hobby left for the NFL.
Which team made the best coordinator hire in the ACC for 2017? Here are five hires ranked based on impact for 2017, followed by a handful of assistant coach hires to watch.
Ranking the ACC's Top Coordinator Hires for 2017
1. Jay Sawvel, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
Sawvel replaces Mike Elko, who left Winston-Salem for South Bend and an opportunity to coordinate Notre Dame’s defense. Elko was one of the ACC’s most underrated coordinators and will be missed. However, coach Dave Clawson found an excellent replacement in Sawvel. The Ohio native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky in 1994 and remained in that role for two seasons. He later worked from 1996-99 as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame and also coached defensive backs at Ferris State (1999-00), Southern Illinois (2001-07) and Northern Illinois (2008-10). Sawvel followed Jerry Kill to Minnesota following the 2010 season and coached defensive backs from 2011-15, before he was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016 under Tracy Claeys. In Sawvel’s only year as the play-caller, the Golden Gophers finished third in the Big Ten in fewest yards per play allowed (4.8), fifth in scoring defense (22.1 ppg), second in the conference against the run (117.9 ypg) and tied for third in turnovers generated (25). Wake Forest finished 2016 ranked third in the ACC in scoring defense (22.2 ppg). Look for Sawvel to keep this defense near the top of the ACC in his first year calling the plays.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2017
2. Mike Summers, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Louisville
Summers is listed as a co-offensive coordinator, but the play-calling duties at Louisville will remain with coach Bobby Petrino. However, the return of Summers to Louisville is a key addition for a program that struggled up front in 2016. The Cardinals allowed a whopping 47 sacks last year. The totals from the previous two seasons aren’t pretty either, as Louisville gave up 44 sacks in 2015 and allowed 40 in 2014. While the personnel and depth is still a work in progress for 2017, there should be some improvement with Summers directing this group. He previously worked under Petrino at Louisville from 2003-06, with the Falcons in 2007 and again at Arkansas from 2008-09. Summers also has stops on his resume from stints at Oregon State, Northern Illinois, Kentucky and USC. He’s a veteran and proven assistant that should help turn around Louisville’s offensive line over the next few seasons.
3. Peter Sirmon, Defensive Coordinator, Louisville
Sirmon comes to Louisville after spending one season as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State. The former Oregon standout has moved quickly through the coaching ranks since his playing career ended in the NFL in 2006. Sirmon spent one season at Central Washington as a linebackers coach in 2008, followed by one-year stints at Oregon (2009) and Tennessee (2010) as a graduate assistant. He was promoted to linebackers coach with the Volunteers in 2011 and joined Steve Sarkisian’s staff at Washington in 2012 in the same capacity. After two seasons with the Huskies, Sirmon followed Sarkisian to USC, where he worked for two years as a linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. In his only season as Mississippi State’s defensive play-caller, Sirmon had an up-and-down 2016 campaign. The Bulldogs allowed 31.8 points per game and surrendered 6.2 yards per play. Of course, it’s worth noting Mississippi State was transitioning schemes in Sirmon’s first year and had to replace a couple of standouts from the previous year. Sirmon is tasked with simplifying a Louisville defense that limited opponents to 23.8 points per game last fall.
4. Shawn Watson, Offensive Coordinator, Pitt
Matt Canada’s one season in the Steel City brought marked improvement to Pitt’s offense last fall, as the Panthers finished second in the ACC in scoring (40.9 ppg) and yards per play (6.7). But coach Pat Narduzzi was forced to hire his third play-caller in three years this offseason after Canada was named the offensive coordinator at LSU. Narduzzi turned to an old colleague in Watson to handle the play-calling duties, as these two coaches previously worked together at Miami (Ohio) from 1990-93. Watson has a wealth of experience as an assistant from stints at Illinois, Northwestern, Colorado, Nebraska, Louisville, Texas and Indiana. Additionally, he was a head coach at Southern Illinois from 1994-96. While Watson has a vast array of experience from different jobs, he’s had a mixed bag of success. He was fired at Texas and Nebraska after sluggish performances by the offense. However, Watson was instrumental in developing Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville, and his 2001 offense at Colorado was a big reason why the Buffaloes finished 10-2 and won the Big 12 title.
5. John Papuchis, Defensive Coordinator, North Carolina
Gene Chizik’s retirement forced coach Larry Fedora to overhaul his defensive staff this offseason. Deke Adams returned to Chapel Hill to oversee the defensive linemen, Mike Ekeler was hired to coach linebackers, and Terry Joseph was brought in as the defensive backs coach. Additionally, Papuchis was promoted from linebackers coach to coordinator. Papuchis came to North Carolina after working at Nebraska from 2008-14, including the final three seasons as defensive coordinator. However, Bo Pelini was prominently involved in the game planning and play-calling responsibilities. This will be Papuchis’ first opportunity to handle the defensive play-calling on a full-time basis.
Key Assistant Hires for 2017
Deke Adams, Defensive Line Coach, North Carolina
Todd Bates, Defensive Line Coach, Clemson
Craig Candeto, QBs/B-Backs Coach, Georgia Tech
Mike Ekeler, Linebackers Coach, North Carolina
Aaron Henry, Safeties Coach, NC State
Terry Joseph, Defensive Backs Coach, North Carolina
Charlie Partridge, Defensive Line Coach, Pitt
Kevin Patrick, Defensive Line, NC State
Vic So’oto, Defensive Line, Virginia
Lorenzo Ward, Secondary Coach, Louisville