Breaking down the SEC's top assistant coach hires for 2016.
Another offseason, another busy year in the SEC’s assistant coach carousel. There’s usually no shortage of movement within the league or changes on staffs each offseason, and 2016 brought several moves to the contenders or teams looking to take a step forward in the standings. LSU’s hire of Dave Aranda as the program’s new defensive coordinator is one of the best by any team in the nation this offseason. On the offensive side, Georgia and Texas A&M are turning to veteran hands to direct improvement. The Bulldogs hired Jim Chaney from Pittsburgh to coordinate their attack, while Noel Mazzone left UCLA for College Station to call the plays for the Aggies. Former Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt returns to Tuscaloosa as the defensive coordinator after Kirby Smart left for Georgia.
Which assistant coach hires could make the biggest impact in the SEC for 2016? Here’s a look at key coordinator and assistant moves to watch this fall:
The SEC's Top 15 Assistant Coach Hires for 2016
Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, LSU
LSU’s defense upgraded when coach Les Miles hired Aranda to replace Kevin Steele. Aranda is one of the rising stars in the assistant ranks and comes to Baton Rouge after three successful seasons at Wisconsin. Under Aranda’s watch, the Badgers finished in the top three in the Big Ten in scoring defense from 2013-15 and finished fourth nationally by limiting opponents to 4.4 yards per play last season. Prior to Wisconsin, Aranda called the defensive signals at Utah State for one year (2012) and at Hawaii from 2010-11. LSU’s defense surprisingly finished 10th in the SEC in points allowed last season. However, with Aranda calling the signals, expect this defense to finish near the top of the league in 2016.
Terrell Buckley, Assistant Secondary Coach, Mississippi State
After a standout career in college at Florida State and a 14-year stint in the NFL, Buckley is working his way through the assistant ranks and lands at Mississippi State after a two-year run at Louisville. Prior to Louisville, Buckley worked as Akron’s cornerback coach from 2012-13 and also spent from 2007-11 as an off-field assistant with Florida State. The Mississippi native returns to his home state tasked with coaching the secondary and leading the program’s recruiting efforts.
Jim Chaney, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia
Chaney is a well-traveled assistant, as his stop in Athens with the Bulldogs is his fourth coordinator position in the last eight seasons. As Pittsburgh’s play-caller in 2015, Chaney helped the Panthers average 28.2 points a game and rank fourth in the ACC (conference-only games) in rushing offense. In addition to recent stops at Arkansas, Tennessee and Pittsburgh, Chaney worked in the NFL with the Rams and also coached at Wyoming and Purdue under Joe Tiller. Having a veteran offensive play-caller like Chaney should be critical for Georgia and new coach Kirby Smart, as the Bulldogs look to develop five-star freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. Additionally, Chaney’s background in spread offenses and pro-style, power-run attacks should provide a nice blend of schemes for the Bulldogs.
Eddie Gran, Offensive Coordinator, Kentucky
Kentucky is looking for a breakthrough year in coach Mark Stoops’ fourth season. After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, the Wildcats are hoping a favorable schedule could lead to the program’s first bowl trip since 2010. Improving the offense was Stoops’ top priority this offseason, as Kentucky averaged only 17.5 points in SEC games last season. Stoops jettisoned first-year coordinator Shannon Dawson after 2015 and hired Eddie Gran away from Cincinnati to call the plays in 2016. Gran is known as a strong recruiter but also proved his ability as a play-caller over the last three seasons with the Bearcats. Under Gran’s direction, Cincinnati averaged at least 30 points a game from 20013-15 and led the American Athletic Conference in yards per play (6.60) in 2016.
Torrian Gray, Defensive Backs Coach, Florida
Even with Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal leaving early for the NFL, Florida’s secondary should be one of the best in the nation in 2016. Additionally, this unit received a boost with Gray’s arrival from Virginia Tech in early February. Gray is a veteran defensive backs coach, spending from 2006-15 at Virginia Tech and 2004-05 with the Bears. Gray was instrumental in developing a handful of standouts in Blacksburg, including cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Brandon Flowers and Jayron Hosley.
Herb Hand, Offensive Line Coach, Auburn
After two seasons at Penn State, Hand is returning to the SEC as Auburn’s new offensive line coach. Hand is also reunited with Gus Malzahn, as the two worked together at Tulsa from 2007-08. Prior to Penn State, Hand worked for three seasons at Vanderbilt (2010-13) and also has stops on his resume from West Virginia (2001-06) and Clemson (1999-00). Not only is Hand a good addition for Auburn’s offensive line, but he’s also one of the best coaches in the nation to follow on Twitter.
Noel Mazzone, Offensive Coordinator, Texas A&M
Offense has been Texas A&M’s strength since joining the SEC in 2012, but this unit’s scoring average has decreased in each of the last four years. Coach Kevin Sumlin is looking for a spark and is handing the keys to the offense to veteran play-caller Noel Mazzone. The New Mexico native has worked as a coordinator for a handful of teams, including stops at Arizona State, UCLA, Ole Miss, NC State and Auburn. Under Mazzone’s direction at UCLA, the Bruins averaged at least 30 points a game in each of the last four years. Mazzone should be a solid addition to Texas A&M’s staff.
Sam Pittman, Offensive Line Coach, Georgia
Pittman is widely regarded as one of the nation’s top offensive line coaches and joins Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia after three successful years at Arkansas. During his tenure with the Razorbacks, Pittman developed standout groups in the trenches, as Arkansas led the SEC in fewest sacks allowed for three consecutive years (2013-15). Prior to his stint in Fayetteville, Pittman spent one year at Tennessee (2012), worked from 2007-11 at North Carolina and also has stops on his resume from Northern Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
Pruitt returns to Tuscaloosa after short stints at Florida State (2013) and Georgia (2014-15). Under Pruitt’s watch, the Seminoles limited opponents to 4.1 yards per play en route to winning the national championship, while the Bulldogs finished third in the SEC in scoring defense last season. Prior to calling the signals for Florida State’s defense in 2013, Pruitt worked as an assistant for Alabama from 2007-12 and was a high school coach from 1998-06. Even though Kirby Smart played a key role in shaping the defense, the Crimson Tide won’t miss a beat with Pruitt calling the signals in 2016.
Paul Rhoads, Defensive Backs Coach, Arkansas
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has a track record of hiring good assistant coaches and his 2016 hires of Rhoads might be one of the best positional coach hires of the offseason. Rhoads worked as Iowa State’s head coach from 2009-15, guiding the Cyclones to a 32-55 record over the last seven years. Prior to his stint in Ames, Rhoads was a successful defense coordinator at Auburn (2008) and Pittsburgh (2000-07). The addition of Rhoads is a huge boost for a unit that ranked 103rd nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. Expect Rhoads to make a big-time impact on Arkansas’ secondary this fall.
Travaris Robinson, Defensive Coordinator, South Carolina
Robinson has worked under Will Muschamp for the last five years and was one of his first hires at South Carolina this offseason. The Miami native is tasked with helping Muschamp coordinate the defense and is also slated to coach defensive backs. Robinson was instrumental in the development of Florida’s defensive backs from 2011-14 and helped Auburn’s secondary finish No. 31 nationally in efficiency defense in 2015. He’s also regarded for his work on the recruiting trail and should help the Gamecocks upgrade the talent on defense over the next few seasons.
Kurt Roper, Co-Offensive Coordinator, South Carolina
South Carolina’s offense is in need of major improvement after averaging only 21.9 points a game last season. And for the second time in Will Muschamp’s head coaching career, he’s turning to Roper to engineer improvement on this side of the ball. In Roper’s only season at Florida, the Gators showed progress on the stat sheet (30.3 points a game), but the staff was dismissed after a 6-5 regular season mark. Roper also has stops on his resume from stints at Ole Miss, Kentucky, Tennessee and Duke and should mix some of the up-tempo/spread approaches with pro-style principles.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Tennessee
Tennessee’s defense wasn’t bad last season, but this unit should take the next step under new coordinator Bob Shoop. The Pennsylvania native is one of the nation’s most underrated assistant coaches and arrives in Knoxville after two seasons at Penn State. Under Shoop’s watch, the Nittany Lions ranked among the best in the nation in fewest points allowed (2014-15) and led the Big Ten in fewest yards per play allowed in 2014 (4.3). Shoop also worked as Vanderbilt’s defensive play-caller from 2011-13, helping the Commodores finish fifth in the SEC in fewest points allowed (18.7) in 2012.
Peter Sirmon, Defensive Coordinator, Mississippi State
Sirmon’s arrival at Mississippi State is one of the league’s most intriguing offseason hires. After Manny Diaz left for Miami, coach Dan Mullen hired Sirmon after a two-year stint as USC’s linebacker coach and interim defensive coordinator in the 2015 Holiday Bowl. Before his two seasons with the Trojans, Sirmon worked at Washington (2012-13), Tennessee (2010-11) and Oregon (2009). Additionally, Sirmon isn’t too far removed from his playing days, as he spent seven years in the NFL with the Titans (2000-06). Sirmon has accumulated a solid overall resume in just a few seasons as an assistant. However, this will be his first full year as a coordinator.
Jim Turner, Offensive Line Coach, Texas A&M
The overall performance of Texas A&M’s line has slipped since Turner left College Station to work with the Miami Dolphins prior to the 2012 season. But improvement could be on the horizon for the Aggies, as Turner is back at Texas A&M and should play a key role in developing some of the team’s young talent in the trenches. While Texas A&M’s hire of Noel Mazzone is getting most of the attention, Turner’s return is just as critical.
Other Key Assistant Hires
Kurt Anderson, Offensive Line Coach, Arkansas
Shane Beamer, Tight Ends/Special Teams, Georgia
Dameyune Craig, Wide Receivers Coach, LSU
DeMontie Cross, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Missouri
Karl Dunbar, Defensive Line Coach, Alabama
Glen Elarbee, Offensive Line Coach, Missouri
Shawn Elliott, Offensive Line Coach, South Carolina
Osia Lewis, Outside Linebackers Coach, Vanderbilt
Bryan McClendon, Co-Offensive Coordinator, South Carolina
Kevin Steele, Defensive Coordinator, Auburn
Mel Tucker, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia