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College Football's Coaches on the Rise

Jim McElwain

Jim McElwain

Coaching is a hot topic in any sport, but college football seems to bring out the most discussion when it comes to hot seat chatter and finding the next wave of rising stars. With job vacancies and hot seat rumblings only going to increase over the next month, it’s time to take a look at some of the rising stars in the coaching ranks for 2014.

Memphis’ Justin Fuente inherited a mess from former coach Larry Porter but engineered a quick turnaround in just three years with the Tigers. Fuente has Memphis in contention for the American Athletic Conference title this season and will be a name to remember in coaching searches this offseason. In addition to Fuente, some of the other rising stars in coaching ranks include Georgia Southern’s Willie Fritz, UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth and Colorado State’s Jim McElwain.

Who are some of the coaches doing a noteworthy job outside of the Power 5 leagues? Athlon tackles that question below and provides a few coordinators to watch as well.

Head Coaches on the Rise

Dino Babers, Bowling Green
Babers was a well-traveled assistant prior to taking the top job at Eastern Illinois, and the 53-year-old coach has been on a quick rise over the last three years. From 2012-13, Babers went 19-7 at Eastern Illinois and is 6-3 during his first year at Bowling Green. Babers worked under Art Briles at Baylor and runs a similar up-tempo offense, which is averaging 32.9 points per game this season.

Craig Bohl, Wyoming
Bohl is in his first season at Wyoming after a very successful stint at North Dakota State. From 2003-13, Bohl guided the Bison to a 104-32 record and three consecutive FCS Championships. The Nebraska native is 4-6 through 10 games with the Cowboys, which includes losses against top 25 teams in Oregon, Michigan State and Colorado State. Wyoming also has two losses in conference play by 10 points or less. Bohl is a proven winner and is a good fit at Wyoming. Considering his track record of success, Bohl could be the top coach in the Mountain West and just needs time to recruit to his style of play to turn the program into a consistent bowl contender.

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Matt Campbell, Toledo
At 33 years old, Campbell is one of college football’s youngest coaches. The Ohio native was promoted to head coach after Tim Beckman left for Illinois, and the Rockets are 23-13 under his direction. Campbell led Toledo to a bowl game in 2012 but missed out on the postseason despite a 7-5 mark last year. The Rockets are one of the top teams in the MAC West this year and should return to a bowl in 2014. Prior to taking over as Toledo’s head coach, Campbell spent three years as an assistant with the Rockets and worked from 2006-08 at Bowling Green. The Ohio native was a standout defensive lineman in his playing career at Mount Union.

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Bill Clark, UAB
The future of UAB’s football program is uncertain, but whether he’s in Birmingham or moves on to another school, Clark has a bright future in the coaching industry. After a 5-19 mark in two seasons under Garrick McGee, the Blazers are 5-5 this season and should have a good shot at playing in a bowl. Prior to taking over at UAB, Clark spent one season as Jacksonville State’s head coach (2013) and recorded an 11-4 record. Clark also has a stint as South Alabama’s defensive coordinator (2008-12) and spent several years as a high school coach in Alabama.

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Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern
Fritz has been a huge success in his first year at Georgia Southern. The Eagles are ineligible to play in a bowl game this season since they are transitioning from the FCS ranks, but that hasn’t slowed this team. Georgia Southern has won seven in a row and boasts an 8-2 record heading into Week 12. The Eagles' only losses? By one to NC State and by four to Georgia Tech. Prior to taking over at Georgia Southern, Fritz was very successful at three different jobs. He recorded a 40-15 mark at Sam Houston State, a 97-47 record at Central Missouri and went 39-5-1 at Blinn College. Fritz is a proven winner and has successfully blended his desired style of play to the returning talent at Georgia Southern. The Kansas native could be a name to watch for the opening at Kansas this offseason.

Justin Fuente, Memphis

Fuente inherited a roster and program in need of significant repair. Three years later, Memphis is one of the front-runners to win the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers went 3-21 in the two seasons prior to Fuente’s arrival but improved to 4-8 in his first year and 3-9 in 2013. In his third year, Fuente already has Memphis bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008. Considering how far the program has progressed in three seasons, Fuente should be a hot commodity for Power 5 openings this offseason.

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Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette

Hudspeth is a name to keep on the radar for any SEC openings this offseason. The former Mississippi State assistant is 33-15 in four years at UL Lafayette and has the Ragin’ Cajuns are on track to earn their fourth consecutive bowl appearance. Prior to his current stint at UL Lafayette and two years at Mississippi State, Hudspeth went 66-21 from 2002-08 at North Alabama. Hudspeth signed a six-year contract extension in June, but his track record of success, energetic personality and ability to recruit will no doubt be attractive to any Power 5 program with an opening.

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Pete Lembo, Ball State

Lembo is 28-19 through four seasons at Ball State and received a five-year contract extension in March. The Cardinals went to back-to-back bowl games in 2012-13 after going 6-6 in Lembo’s first year. Ball State lost a handful of key players from last season’s team and is off to a 3-6 start. Even though the Cardinals are likely to finish with a losing record for the first time under Lembo, the New York native is still a rising star in the coaching ranks. Prior to taking over in Muncie, Lembo went 44-14 in five years at Lehigh and 35-22 in five seasons at Elon.

Jim McElwain, Colorado State
McElwain’s stock has skyrocketed this fall. The Rams are 9-1 and ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll after Week 11. The Montana native went 4-8 in his first season in Fort Collins, but went 8-6 with a victory over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. Colorado State has won 13 out of its last 15 games, with its only loss this season coming at Boise State. Prior to taking over at Colorado State in 2012, McElwain worked on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama as the offensive coordinator and has stints at Fresno State, Michigan State, Louisville and in the NFL with the Raiders.

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Matt Rhule, Temple
Last fall, Temple bottomed out with a 2-10 record in Rhule's first season as a head coach, but a deeper look at the Owls’ resume suggests the win-loss mark wasn’t as bad as it first appeared. Temple lost each of its last four games by 10 points or less and carried that momentum into the start of this season. The Owls opened the year with a victory at Vanderbilt and defeated East Carolina on Nov. 1. Temple is 5-4 through nine games and should reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. Rhule returned to Temple after a one-year stint with the Giants. The Pennsylvania native worked on the Owls’ staff from 2006-11 under Al Golden and Steve Addazio.

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Matt Wells, Utah State
Wells inherited a good roster from former coach Gary Andersen, but the former Aggie quarterback has navigated some difficult circumstances in his first two years on the job. Utah State won the Mountain West’s Mountain Division last season even though it lost quarterback Chuckie Keeton to season-ending injury in early October. This season, the Aggies are already on their fourth starter under center, as Keeton, backup Darell Garretson and senior Craig Harrison have been lost due to injuries. True freshman Kent Myers has filled in admirably so far, and Utah State still has a shot at defending its division title. Prior to joining the Utah State staff in 2011, Wells made stops as an assistant at New Mexico, Louisville, Tulsa and Navy. Wells isn’t just benefiting from following Andersen. With the injuries over the last two years, it’s clear Wells knows what he’s doing in Logan.

Other Head Coaches to Know

Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State
DeRuyter went 20-6 in his first two seasons at Fresno State but is just 4-6 this season. The Bulldogs are rebuilding without Derek Carr under center, and barring an upset over Nevada, Fresno State is likely to miss out on a bowl this year.

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Doc Holliday, Marshall
Holliday was always regarded as an excellent recruiter, and his work on the trail has paid dividends for Marshall this fall. The Thundering Herd is 9-0 and poised to grab the Group of 5 bowl spot. Holliday entered this season with a 27-24 record in four years in Huntington.

Curtis Johnson, Tulane
The former NFL assistant and New Orleans native is a perfect fit at Tulane. In 2013, Johnson guided the Green Wave (7-6) to their first winning record since 2002.

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Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina

Moglia might have the most interesting back story of any coach on the FBS or FCS level. Moglia coached from 1968-83 but went into business and became the CEO of Ameritrade in 2001. After seven years in that role, Moglia worked as a voluntary assistant at Nebraska from 2009-10 and spent one year as the AFL's Omaha Nighthawks coach in 2011. Moglia was hired as Coastal Carolina’s coach in 2012 and is 28-8 through three seasons. At 65 years old, Moglia isn’t an up-and-comer, but he would be an interesting (and likely successful) hire for a Group of 5 program.

Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Wilder was the first hire for Old Dominion after the school restarted its football program. The Monarchs are in their first season in the FBS ranks after tranisitioning from the FCS (2009-13), during which they did not record a losing season. Old Dominion also made the FCS playoffs in 2011 and '12. Through 10 games as a full-fledged FCS member, Wilder has led the Monarchs to a 4-6 mark. The staple of Wilder’s teams are a high-scoring offense, which is currently led by standout quarterback Taylor Heinicke.

And Don’t Forget About….

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Greg Schiano, former Rutgers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach
Schiano isn’t technically on the rise, but his name is likely to be associated with vacancies this offseason.

Coordinators on the Rise

Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
Aranda is a relative unknown to most around the nation, but the California native has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive signal-callers over the last two years. Despite replacing eight starters, Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.3 ppg) this season. This coming after Aranda’s 2013 unit ranked second in the conference (16.3 ppg) and limited offenses to just 4.2 yards per play. Prior to joining coach Gary Andersen in Wisconsin, Aranda served as the defensive coordinator at Hawaii (2010-11) and at Utah State (2012). Under Aranda’s direction, the Aggies’ defense allowed just 4.3 yards per play in 2012.

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Geoff Collins, Defensive Coordinator, Mississippi State
The Bulldogs’ offense and quarterback Dak Prescott are garnering most of the attention in Starkville, but don’t overlook the defense. Mississippi State is holding opponents to 5.7 yards per play in SEC games, and led by one of the best defensive fronts in the league, the Bulldogs lead the league with 32 sacks. This is Collins’ fourth year in Starkville, and prior to joining Dan Mullen’s staff, he spent time at FIU (defensive coordinator), UCF and Alabama. Collins also is regarded as an excellent recruiter.

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Scott Frost, Offensive Coordinator, Oregon

Frost has picked up where Chip Kelly left off when he departed for the NFL. Under Frost’s direction, the Ducks are averaging 7.3 yards per play this fall after leading the Pac-12 with a 7.5 mark in 2013. Prior to his promotion to call the plays in Eugene, Frost worked Oregon's receivers coach from 2009-12 and spent two years at Northern Iowa working on the defensive side of the ball. The former Nebraska quarterback will be a name to remember in coaching searches over the next few seasons.

Tom Herman, Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Despite losing quarterback Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury in fall practice, Ohio State’s offense hasn’t missed a beat. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has emerged as the Big Ten’s top quarterback under Herman’s direction, and the Buckeyes are averaging 6.8 yards per play in conference games this year. The Ohio native has worked under coach Urban Meyer since 2012 and called the plays at Texas State (2005-06), Rice (2007-08) and Iowa State (2009-11). Herman also is a member of Mensa International.

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Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
Meacham and fellow co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie are a big reason why TCU is squarely in the mix to earn a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. In 2013, the Horned Frogs ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 by averaging just 5.0 yards per play and 25.1 points per game. One year later, TCU’s offense is among the best in the nation. The Horned Frogs are averaging 47.2 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in Big 12 contests. Meacham and Cumbie also transformed quarterback Trevone Boykin into one of the nation’s most-improved players. Prior to joining the TCU staff, Meacham worked for one season as Houston’s play-caller (2013) and worked from 2005-12 at Oklahoma State.

Chad Morris, Offensive Coordinator, Clemson
Morris is one of the nation’s highest-paid assistants and has coordinated a prolific Clemson offense since 2011. The Tigers averaged 40 points a game in 2012-13 and over 30 points in '11. And so far this fall, Clemson is putting up 32.4 points per contest. Morris has never been a head coach on the FBS level (only high school head-coaching stints), and his only FBS experience prior to Clemson was a stint as Tulsa’s play-caller in 2010. The Texas native could be a candidate to watch at SMU.

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Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi’s is in no hurry to leave East Lansing, but the Ohio native is regarded as one of - if not No. 1 - top assistant coaches in college football. Narduzzi joined coach Mark Dantonio’s staff in 2007 and has developed an elite defense during his tenure in East Lansing. Michigan State led the nation by limiting opponents to just 4.0 yards per play last season, and the Spartans ranked first in the Big Ten in scoring defense from 2012-13. Prior to taking over the controls for Michigan State’s defense, Narduzzi worked on Dantonio’s staff at Cincinnati (2004-06) and had stints as an assistant at Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Rhode Island.   

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Mike Norvell, Offensive Coordinator, Arizona State
Norvell owns one of college football’s best titles, as he’s technically the deputy head coach to Todd Graham at Arizona State. Norvell has worked under Graham for the last eight years, and his three offenses with the Sun Devils have averaged at least 36 points per game.

Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Pruitt has made a quick ascension through the coaching ranks. The Alabama native spent nearly 10 years as a high school assistant in the state, including from 2004-06 as Hoover High School. Pruitt worked in an off-field role from 2007-09 at Alabama and was promoted to defensive backs coach in 2010. After three years in that role, Pruitt was hired to coordinate Florida State’s defense in 2013. The Seminoles had one of the nation’s best units under Pruitt’s direction, allowing just 4.09 yards per play. Defensively, Georgia isn't as stocked talent-wise as the Seminoles were last season, but Pruitt’s arrival has had an impact on a unit that allowed 29 points per game in 2013.

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Lincoln Riley, Offensive Coordinator, East Carolina
is only 31 years old, but the Texas native is ready for a chance to run his own program. After spending 2003-05 as a student assistant coach at Texas Tech, Riley was promoted to a staff assistant on offense in 2006 and wide receivers coach in '07. Riley stayed on staff in Lubbock until 2010 and followed Ruffin McNeill from Texas Tech to East Carolina. The Pirates are leading the American Athletic Conference in yards per play (6.8), as quarterback Shane Carden has thrived under Riley’s tutelage. An Air Raid disciple who learned under Mike Leach, Riley knows how to develop a passing attack. However, East Carolina’s offense has plenty of balance this year, averaging 188.3 yards rushing per game.

Nick Rolovich, Offensive Coordinator, Nevada
The former Hawaii quarterback has quietly built an impressive resume as an assistant. Rolovich started his coaching career in 2003 at Hawaii and made a stop at City College of San Francisco (2006-07) before coming back to Honolulu to call plays in '10. The Warriors led the WAC in yards per play (7.6) that season and averaged 31.5 points per game in 2011. Rolovich joined coach Chris Ault’s staff in Nevada in 2012 and was retained by Brian Polian in '13. The Wolf Pack are averaging 30 points per game this fall. Could Rolovich be a name to remember at Hawaii if Norm Chow doesn’t return in 2015?

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Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Shoop has been under the radar over the last few years, but the Pennsylvania native is one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators. Shoop was hired by James Franklin at Vanderbilt and brought immediate improvement to a defense that allowed 31.2 points per game in 2010. The Commodores did not allow more than 25 points per game in Shoop’s three years and forced 30 turnovers (second in the SEC) in '13. Through six conference games this season, Penn State is holding opponents to just 3.9 yards per play and is allowing only 16.6 points per game.

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Kalani Sitake, Defensive Coordinator, Utah
Sitake could be one of the nation’s most underrated assistant coaches. The former BYU fullback started his coaching career at Eastern Arizona in 2001 and later spent one year at BYU (2002) and two at Southern Utah (2003-04). Sitake joined the Utah staff in 2005 and was promoted to defensive play-caller in 2009. The Utes have never allowed more than 5.4 yards per play in a season under Sitake’s direction and rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense this year. Heading into Week 12, Utah leads the nation with 43 sacks. Sitake is also regarded as a good recruiter.

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Kirby Smart, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
Smart helps coach Nick Saban coordinate the Alabama defense, which has been one of the nation’s most dominant units over the last few years. The Crimson Tide has not allowed more than five yards per play since Smart was promoted to call the defensive signals in 2008. Alabama has also ranked inside of the top five nationally in scoring defense for six consecutive seasons. Smart has a good job now and is well compensated. Don’t expect the former Georgia defensive back to rush into a head coaching job.

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Other Coordinators to Know

Tim Beck, Offensive Coordinator, Nebraska

Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest

Rhett Lashlee, Offensive Coordinator, Auburn

Brian Lindgren, Offensive Coordinator, Colorado

Philip Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Baylor

Scottie Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Duke

Bryant Vincent, Offensive Coordinator, UAB

Justin Wilcox, Defensive Coordinator, USC