A chance meeting with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin in Atlanta in 2014 presented Keary Colbert with a tough decision.
Colbert, a standout receiver at USC from 2000-03 and an NFL wideout from 2004-11, was then the wide receivers coach at Georgia State when he attended a Georgia high school coaches’ luncheon and bumped into Kiffin, a familiar face from his days with the Trojans.
Kiffin mentioned the possibility of Colbert joining Alabama as an “analyst.” For Colbert, taking the position would mean leaving a full-time assistant coach job with a program that had just moved up to the FBS and the Sun Belt.
One path was traditional for a young assistant — a position coach with a fledgling program. The other was an off-field role with the premier power in the sport and the nation’s top coach in Nick Saban.
Colbert chose Alabama, where he spent the 2014 and ’15 seasons as an offensive analyst on a coaching and support staff that has grown to include eight analysts who work with nine position coaches and four graduate assistants.
“I had to make a decision to leave a full-time job and go to Alabama and learn from Coach Saban and learn from his program and people on his staff,” Colbert says. “It was a growth opportunity for me to get underneath that umbrella and to use those experiences going forward.”
Many programs have expanded their own support staffs in recent seasons. Colbert, for example, left Alabama to be an offensive administrative assistant at USC, one of four total administrative assistants on Clay Helton’s staff.
Auburn had six analysts last season, including one hired away from Alabama. Jim Harbaugh’s first staff at Michigan included five aides with some variation of the title “analyst.” Florida State’s staff last season included 12 assistants with the words “quality control” in their titles.
Whether teams call them analysts, quality control coaches or administrative assistants, the poster child of the practice is Alabama.
The Crimson Tide first had three members of their staff listed as analysts in 2010, then six in 2011 and 10 in 2012 before settling on eight in each of the last three seasons.
Their roles are a blend between graduate assistant and advance scout. Unlike a quality control position in the NFL or a graduate assistant in college, analysts are not among the group of coaches the NCAA allows to instruct players. Analysts and quality control coaches, like GAs, are not permitted to recruit. By NCAA rules, GAs also must be enrolled as graduate students, as the name suggests. Analysts do not need to be enrolled in classes.
“It’s kind of taken to the pro format,” Helton says of his staffing at USC. “When you look at the NFL, you have the first assistant and second assistant. You have a full-time coach who is actually coaching the position and a quality control that’s getting a lot of the work done for the coach from a cut-up standpoint or computer standpoint. It’s almost like he has his own assistant for meeting preparation.”
Many former and current analysts at Alabama are similar to Colbert — young coaches looking to move up in the profession. Since 2010, most of Alabama’s analysts have been previously graduate assistants or video coordinators in Tuscaloosa or elsewhere. Others were full-time assistants at the FCS level or high school coaches.
“The fact that we can have a few extra guys now to be analysts, to break down film, to do quality control-type work, I think as an entry level that is beneficial to some guys that can move on maybe to be graduate assistants, get on the field and get some coaching experience,” Saban said during his team’s preparations for the National Championship Game against Clemson.
Dan O’Brien joined the Alabama staff in 2007 as a graduate assistant after serving one season as scouting assistant intern with the New England Patriots and one season as a safeties coach at Harvard. When O’Brien, the son of former Boston College and NC State coach Tom O’Brien, finished his graduate work, Alabama wanted to keep him on the staff. The Tide added him in their first wave of analyst hires in 2010.
O’Brien describes the role as the college version of an NFL advance scout, reporting tendencies noticed on film.
“It saved the full-time coaches from doing a lot of extra stuff,” says O’Brien, who is now the secondary coach at Navy. “You try to take a little off their plate and allow them to focus on the game-planning aspects of things.”
Only three analysts were on the Alabama staff when O’Brien was there — he left Tuscaloosa to become the defensive backs coach at Elon — but the role of analysts as extensions of the coaching staff was clear. O’Brien worked in conjunction with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who is now the head coach at Georgia.
“For my four years there I was Kirby’s shadow, other than the on-the-field stuff,” O’Brien says. “If Kirby needed something, I’d make sure it got done.”
During his time as a high school coach in Mobile, former Alabama cornerback Kelvin Sigler had been trying to break into college coaching, and specifically with the Crimson Tide. He went after director of player development positions that were eventually filled by Jeremy Pruitt (now the defensive coordinator at Alabama) and Kevin Sherrer (now the outside linebackers coach at Georgia). Sigler’s foot in the door was an analyst position in 2012. His job was to work closely with Pruitt, who by then had been promoted to defensive backs coach, on breaking down film and installing game plans.
“It doesn’t put a lot on one GA or intern to break down film because you have so many guys who can do those things,” says Sigler, who has been the linebackers coach at Northern Illinois and South Alabama since leaving his analyst position. “It speeds up the process with so many people you can depend on.”
When Sigler was hired, he brought with him his longtime friend and assistant at Blount High School, Chris Samuels. An Outland Trophy winner at Alabama and a Pro Bowl tackle with the Washington Redskins, Samuels also was looking to break into coaching.
He took a graduate assistant position for two seasons, working on the sideline, holding up cards and signaling plays. After earning a degree, he moved to an analyst role installing the offense for the scout team.
Having a connection to Alabama or the coaching staff is a good way to get an analyst position, but old-fashioned hard work (and being cordial) landed Samuels as a graduate assistant and then as an analyst.
Samuels left college coaching to become the coach at Manassas (Va.) Osbourn High School.
Jules Montinar, a former player at Eastern Kentucky and graduate assistant at Purdue, didn’t have any connection to Alabama other than seeing a job open up on FootballScoop.com. He sent a résumé and followed up several times and left a positive impression with Saban’s administrative assistant Linda Leoni. When Smart and then-director of player of development Glenn Schumann were down to the final candidates, Leoni mentioned Montinar.
“Kirby called me and two days later I was on the plane interviewing,” Montinar says. “The rest is history.”
Montinar, who is now the cornerbacks coach at Texas State, ended up working closely with Saban. As other analysts worked side-by-side with assistants, Montinar drew the assignment of coaching cornerbacks with Saban.
“You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every time,” Montinar says. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
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Jake Peetz, a former walk-on at Nebraska who worked with the Jaguars and Redskins in quality control roles, also believes he got the job on hustle.
After Peetz was part of a staff that was fired in Jacksonville, he got clearance to visit from Smart. Peetz worked under Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville. Mularkey, the current coach for the Tennessee Titans, had been Saban’s offensive coordinator for a year with the Miami Dolphins.
That shared connection, though, isn’t the only reason Peetz believes he earned a spot working with Alabama’s then-offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier in 2013.
“I hope that he saw that I drove from Jacksonville to Alabama because I wanted to be there,” says Peetz, who is now assistant quarterbacks coach with the Raiders. “I was a young guy who had a lot of energy and enthusiasm and wanted to learn the right way to do things.”
Not all of Alabama’s analysts have been up-and-coming head coaches. Some have been brought in for a specific purpose.
When Alabama wanted to refine the no-huddle, up-tempo elements of the offense in 2015, Saban and Kiffin approached Eric Kiesau, who had helped install tempo offenses at Washington and Cal. Kiesau had been the wide receivers coach at Kansas in 2014 and had intended on taking some time off before Alabama contacted him. Like some other analysts Alabama has hired, Kiesau could afford to take a pay cut from what he would make as a full-time assistant to be an analyst because he was still receiving buyout payments from Kansas. (CBSSports.com reported in January that analysts’ salaries range from $23,462 to $47,409.)
Instead of serving as a quality control staffer or an assistant to a position coach, Kiesau described his role as a consultant.
Normally, coaches looking to tweak an offensive or defensive system would hire an outside coach full-time or would visit with another coaching staff for a teaching session.
In Kiesau, Alabama hired someone on staff to work on the transition in real time.
“If you wanted to [tweak an offense], you’d send your coordinator in the offseason to a team in the spring and visit for a couple of days, and they would take a bunch of notes and then take it back and incorporate that into their own system,” Kiesau says. “That’s why it was so invaluable for me to be there all day, every day, all year long because when things came up, it was ‘How did you handle this?’”
Kiesau helped Alabama trim its playbook for an up-tempo system and work on play-call sheets. And like many analysts at Alabama, he used his position to learn about Saban’s organization and system to apply it to future work. Kiesau returned to a full-time assistant role when he was hired as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator this season.
The analyst role also has been a valuable training ground for eventual full-time assistants at Alabama.
In 2014, Alabama hired former Cal and Washington defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi as an analyst. Lupoi was a highly regarded recruiter in the Pac-12 before he was at the center of an NCAA investigation that he paid for a recruit’s tutoring. Neither Lupoi nor Washington was penalized, but the inquiry meant that he couldn’t join Sarkisian at USC or stay with the Huskies.
Lupoi found a home at Alabama and was eventually promoted to serve as the Tide’s outside linebackers coach.
Billy Napier served as offensive coordinator and other roles at Clemson until he was fired in 2010. He landed as an analyst at Alabama in 2011 and followed former Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain to Colorado State. Napier returned to Alabama as wide receivers coach in 2013.
The expanded coaching staff gives Alabama, in some ways, a minor league or training system for eventual assistants.
“Regardless of where they need to start professionally, I think this is a great thing for our profession, to be able to help develop coaches,” Saban said in January. “And I think those guys now have created a role and a niche for themselves that’s very important to every program because we all depend on them.”