Save for a single program, the Big 12 didn’t budge in the annual offseason coaching carousel. And that’s despite another year of upheaval in the old Southwest: The familiars aren’t as formidable, while two private schools — Baylor and TCU — have leapt up to dominate the league on offense and defense.
But the lack of new names at the top doesn’t mean the Big 12 isn’t riding big changes at the coordinator position: While Texas is still settling in with Charlie Strong, Oklahoma cleaned house after a late-season offensive implosion. And as offense continues to rule this league, Air Raid stalwarts like Texas Tech are at a crossroads to try to moderate their famous shootouts. And at the league’s bottom, Kansas resigned itself to the fate of the modern game: If you can’t beat the Air Raid, join it.
Here are three key coordinator hires to watch in the league this season, each tasked with equally unique and daunting projects.
Meet: Lincoln Riley, offensive coordinator
Formerly: Offensive coordinator, East Carolina
Style: Air Raid
No new hire in the Big 12 will be as scrutinized this season as the 31-year-old Riley, who replaced Jay Norvell and OU legend Josh Heupel after the Sooners’ tumultuous 8–5 season ended with a home loss to Oklahoma State and a 40–6 beatdown by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Sooners averaged 36.4 points per game but faltered when it mattered most. Against Big 12 co-champion Baylor, OU scored twice in the first quarter but failed to score over the final 45 minutes of the game. In the bowl game, the Sooners managed only six points against Clemson (and former OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables).
Riley is a Mike Leach disciple who was promoted to a full-time assistant coach position at the age of 23. He followed former Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil to East Carolina, where his offenses averaged 82 plays per game and posted the four best offensive seasons in school history.
Riley’s offenses at East Carolina had more balance than typical Leach-coached Air Raid attacks. To that end, his scheme leans more toward the Dana Holgorsen branch of the Leach coaching tree, which is just fine with Stoops. After all, the Sooners welcome back Samaje Perine, who rushed for 1,713 yards as a true freshman last season. Running the ball will no doubt be a big part of the OU attack this fall.
In recent years, Riley had the luxury of a veteran quarterback (Shane Carden) to run the show. In Norman, he’ll have to identify a reliable starter. Trevor Knight struggled for much of last season, meaning that Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who played in the Air Raid for one season in Lubbock, could be the favorite.
Unlike Gibbs and Likens, Riley isn’t tasked with a reclamation project. But he still faces a daunting challenge.
The task from Stoops, as stated at Riley’s introductory press conference, is simple: Adapt to the personnel and be successful. Now.
Meet: Rob Likens, offensive coordinator
Formerly: Receivers coach/assistant head coach, California
Style: Up-tempo Air Raid
It’s no shock that Kansas finished dead last in the Big 12 (and 115th nationally) in total offense last season. The death-rattle of the Charlie Weis pro-style era in Manhattan ended with a paltry 17.8 points per game. That number is terrible enough on its own but horrific by comparison with other Big 12 teams: League leaders Baylor (48.2 ppg) and TCU (46.5 ppg) were almost three times more productive. The Jayhawks would’ve needed 10-12 quarters per game to keep pace with the top half of the highest-scoring league in the Power 5.
Enter Likens, an offensive assistant for Sonny Dykes’ Cal and Louisiana Tech offenses. In 2012, Dykes’ Bulldogs led the nation in scoring (51.5 ppg), and in two years at Berkeley, the “Bear Raid” increased output from 23.0 to 38.3 points per game, second only to Oregon last season.
Likens is tasked with installing an attack in Lawrence that’s familiar to almost every conference rival — an aggressive pass-first philosophy that spreads the field at a breakneck pace.
Kansas’ offense could be one of the toughest reclamation projects of 2015: Under Weis the Jayhawks ran a huddled, pro-style attack in the 7-on-7 hellfire of the Big 12. KU averaged 70 plays per game; most Air Raid and hurry-up attacks push for a minimum of 85.
“It’s really frustrating when you first get to a new program and install this offense,” Likens says. “But then next year and the year after, you start to see the players respond faster and faster. Right now we’re just trying to work through mistakes.
“The first day of spring ball, it’s a billion mistakes. You go through and fix those but then you’ve also got to put different plays in, which create more mistakes. You usually skip a day in spring practice, so you’re on a three-day cycle of building, correcting, repeating.”
To Likens, Year 1, Week 1, Day 1 of installing an up-tempo Air Raid is about speed and positivity. Kansas will emphasize tempo to build conditioning, but to also free players from overthinking.
“Repetition builds muscle memory,” Likens says. “Going at our pace allows for as many reps as humanly possible, because this offense is about calling the perfect play, it’s about playing with close to perfect technique.”
Likens and new head coach David Beaty, formerly the receivers coach at Texas A&M, have to identify a starting quarterback. Consistency at the position plagued the Weis and Turner Gill years in Lawrence. KU has entered the season with a new starter in six consecutive years. Junior Montell Cozart and senior Michael Cummings are the front-runners for this season, but two more quarterbacks will join the roster in June.
That’s an immediate concern. Of long-term concern is the fact that Kansas is bringing in an offense that is very familiar to the rest of its Big 12 neighbors. Nowhere in college football is the Air Raid better understood, coached and coached against than Likens’ new league.
“You certainly want to be doing something different. You want to have a kind of uniqueness,” Likens says. “That’s a fine line you have to determine, but right now we’re consumed with understanding the basics. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a player out there right now. You’re going as fast as you can and you’re getting yelled at for mistakes non-stop. So honestly, the toughest task right now is to stay positive with these guys and make them believe.”
Meet: David Gibbs, defensive coordinator
Formerly: Defensive coordinator/interim head coach, Houston
Style: 4-3 Hybrid
Last season, Kliff Kingsbury’s Red Raider offense rolled up the predictably gaudy numbers (504.1 yards and 30.5 points per game) but finished 4–8 thanks largely to a horrific defense that gave up a league-worst 41.3 points per game. Among the grisly moments were games in which Baylor and TCU — the league’s co-champs — rocked the Tech defense for 48 and 82 points, respectively.
To combat years of stigma and to survive in a league dominated by the Air Raid, Texas Tech hired Gibbs, who’s operated with a distinctly Big 12 defensively philosophy for most of his career.
“Don’t worry about total yards allowed,” Gibbs says. “Don’t worry about passing stats. Don’t worry about getting beat on third down, because sometimes that’s going to happen. The goal is to give your offense more opportunities than theirs.”
Gibbs ran a hybrid 4-3 at Houston with a flexible rush end/down lineman who, depending on the call, would stand back as a linebacker or put his hand down as a lineman. This allowed Houston to change looks without huddling, the exact philosophy up-tempo offenses have been using for years.
“Playing good defense is giving your offense the ball back with a chance to win in the fourth (quarter),” Gibbs says. “That’s common sense, but if it’s 49–48 or 27–26 and we can get the ball back for the offense, you’re doing your job.
“Some people see it as craziness, I see it as opportunity.”
Gibbs’ defenses at Houston were wildly opportunistic, forcing an incredible 43 turnovers in 2013 — eight more than any other team in the nation — and 30 last season. The Texas Tech defense forced only 15 turnovers last season.
Turnovers have long been considered uncoachable and “chance opportunities,” but Gibbs increases his defense’s odds of taking the ball away by giving the opposing offense multiple looks as well as encouraging hyper-aggressive ball-strips and allowing his defensive backs to jump routes. It’s a gamble, but Gibbs believes the current offense-centric focus of the game leaves defenses no choice.
“The tempo and point production in this league are unmatched,” he says. “I thought we went fast at Houston, and then I saw Coach Kingsbury’s offense practice. For so many teams in one conference to score this much, wow. As a defensive coach it’s like, ‘Holy cow, man. Good luck.’”
-By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation