One of football’s up-and-coming defensive coordinators got his start in the one of the most unlikely places — playing fullback for a school that was ground zero of the modern spread offense.
Kalani Sitake has been a defensive assistant in major college football for merely a decade, but he’s already one of the most intriguing names in the coaching ranks.
When the time came for the BYU fullback to enter the workforce in 2001, Sitake knew what he wanted to do, just not all the details.
“I just wanted to coach ball,” Sitake said. “I didn’t care where it was or what position.”
His first job was as a secondary and special teams coach at a junior college, not exactly the most logical landing spot for a guy who played offense under LaVell Edwards.
The gig lasted a year before he returned to BYU as a graduate assistant working with linebackers. During the first four years of his career at three stops, Sitake had coached defensive backs, linebackers, running backs, offensive line and tight ends.
That meant a ton of film study and a ton of phone calls to figure out the intricacies of each position.
“I’m kind of a football nerd where I try to watch as much film as I can on different schemes and different philosophies,” Sitake said. “I take a huge interest in learning as much as I can.
“When all your friends are football coaches, you just talk ball. Let’s say you’ve got a new position, it wouldn’t be hard to find a half a dozen guys who are willing to open up and share ideas.”
One of those would be Gary Andersen, who hired Sitake as running backs coach when Andersen was head coach at Southern Utah.
When head coach Kyle Whittingham and coordinator Andersen filled out their defensive staff at Utah following the departure of Urban Meyer to Florida in 2005, Andersen added Sitake as linebackers coach.
As Andersen left for his own head coaching job, Sitake had become one of the key figures in Utah’s transition from a Mountain West power to a solid Pac-12 program. Despite the step up in week-to-week competition, Utah had an above-average defense all four seasons in the Pac-12 under Sitake.
The Utes led the Pac-12 in fewest yards per play in 2011, their first year in the league. They’ve led the league in sacks per game each of the last two seasons. They’ve ranked in the top three in the Pac-12 in fewest yards per carry in each of the last four seasons. Moreover, Sitake was the leader of many of Utah’s critical recruiting efforts.
He’d done enough to enjoy job security at Utah or eventually take a more high-profile coordinator position.
Instead, Sitake rejoined Andersen at Oregon State as defense coordinator. A lateral move was puzzling, particularly since Sitake left an $800,000 per year contract (including bonuses) on the table with Utah. Utes defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki also left for Oregon State.
The move was considered to be indicative of a rift between Whittingham and his athletic director.
Sitake bristles at the episode and the attention he’s received, in part, because of the move to Oregon State.
“Coaching isn’t rocket science,” Sitake said. “There are people that try to sit there and try to blow up their contribution to it. I’m nothing. I’m really nothing. I’ve been lucky to have great people around me and really good players.”
But there’s also good reason why Andersen hired Sitake — for a third time, mind you.
Andersen has called him “a great technician,” and his defenses have been praised for the fundamentals — rarely being out of position and tackling soundly.
This may make sense given his background, but Sitake often takes his defensive cues from effective offense.
Sitake refers to “identity” for his defense the same way he speaks of identity for Edwards’ offense at BYU.
Today’s up-tempo offenses aren’t as complex as traditional pro-style offenses. Sitake wants his defense to be just as focused on execution, not complexity.
“It’s simple but it has a few variables where it could be perceived as difficult,” Sitake said. “There’s a saying that if you keep it simple, it will be clean football. You look at all this fast-tempo offense, there’s not a lot to it. It’s just simple but executed really well.”
At the same time, Sitake spends time teaching offensive concepts to his defensive players.
Maybe it’s old habit for the former fullback, but it’s also part of the grand plan.
“We spend a lot of time on defense teaching what the offense is trying to do,” Sitake said. “I really believe that if you teach them the other side of the ball, you’re not memorizing, you’re understanding.”
Photo courtesy of Karl Maasdam.