Eastern Michigan’s Aaron Keen personifies the makeup of a typical Football Bowl Subdivision offensive coordinator.
Keen, 47, has run the offense in Ypsilanti for three seasons. He had previously served as offensive coordinator at two prior stops, from 2008 to 2010 for the Division II Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks and from 2011 and 2012 for the Minnesota State Mavericks.
Keen is one of the 129 offensive coordinators working currently for 118 FBS teams; 12 teams either don’t have an offensive coordinator position or have a vacancy. There are coordinators who have just begun to drive a rental car without hefty surcharges and others drawing Social Security. Some were promoted without having called a single play, while others held the reins for nearly a quarter century.
The average offensive coordinator is 44.8 years of age, has worked as offensive coordinator for his current employer for 2.4 seasons and was a offensive coordinator for 5.3 seasons prior to being hired at their current position, according to an analysis by One Foot Down.
If the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are looking for a typical hire to replace Chip Long as offensive coordinator, Brian Kelly may tap someone who fits the “average” mold.
Instead, Kelly will reportedly promote quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees to the position for at least one game. The 27-year-old will handle the play-calling responsibility during the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl as a possible audition for the job.
Lance Taylor, the Irish’s 38-year-old running backs coach, may also interview for the open spot, according to Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister.
Neither Taylor nor Rees have even been an offensive coordinator for any college at any level.
THE THREE COMPLAINTS
Notre Dame was 47th in the FBS in total offense this year — 49th in passing, 46th in rushing and 13th in scoring. The Irish were 27th in the Offensive Fremeau Efficiency Index and 19th in SP+, Bill Connelly’s “tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency.”
While Irish fan reaction is mixed on the prospect of Rees taking over and improving performance, the negative feedback is typically one of three points:
- Rees is too young.
- He lacks the requisite experience.
- Hiring an in-house candidate is less preferable than doing a more extensive search with candidates outside the Notre Dame bubble.
IS REES TOO YOUNG?
In making the case for Rees, The Rakes Report’s Chris Wilson argued Thursday: “You can’t swing a stick at the NFL or college coaching ranks without running into some young gun offensive mind doing good work. Joe Brady is 30 and just won the Broyles. Kellen Moore is 31 and the Cowboys offensive coordinator. Former Notre Dame QB coach Matt LaFleur is 40 and head coach of the 10-3 Packers. Age is but a number, Rees has been around the game his entire life and this could absolutely work out.”
While there are 33 offensive coordinators who are Taylor’s age or younger, there is just one in FBS younger than Rees.
Charlie Weis Jr. was 24 when Lane Kiffin hired him to run the FAU Owls’ offense. He’s now 26, having completed his second regular season and helping the 10-3 Owls earn a Boca Raton Bowl bid.
The Owls were coached, until recently, by Lane Kiffin, who earned a reputation as an expert playcaller and landed his first offensive coordinator gig at age 30. They are now coached by Willie Taggart, who was 24 when Jack Harbaugh made him the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers’ co-offensive coordinator in 2001.
This year, the Kiffin and Weis-led Owls were 33rd in total offense, 30th in passing offense, 63rd in rushing offense and 16th in scoring offense. They were 41st in the OFEI, up 19 spots from last year, and 46th in SP+.
Rees isn’t too young by Kiffin’s standards, but what to Rakes’ point that “you can’t swing a stick” without finding a successful youth?
There was one Top 10 SP+ offense run by someone under 40: the Penn State Nittany Lions’ Ricky Rahne, who is 39.
If you look at the Top 20 SP+ offenses, there were six coordinators under 40 — with the Washington Huskies’ Bush Hamdan the youngest at 33.
IS REES TOO INEXPERIENCED?
Youth and experience are similar, but not the same, complaints. A fan who objects to Rees as “too inexperienced” is speaking to his resume, not necessarily his poise.
There are 27 current FBS offensive coordinators who never held that title before being promoted to the position, of which 13 work for a Power 5 school.
“You would think at this point we college football fans would learn to have some humility in their proclamations about who will or will not work as an assistant coach, but we have not yet reached that point,” wrote Wilson Thursday. “The last time Notre Dame promoted a position coach with no play calling experience to be coordinator it worked out pretty well.”
The writer then cited Dabo Swinney’s successful promotion of Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, neither of whom had play-calling experience, to the role of co-offensive coordinators for the Clemson Tigers.
Wilson is right. Elliott, a former running backs coach, and Scott, a former wide receivers coach, have been a smashing success after being promoted at 35 and 33 years of age, respectively.
Here’s the opposite side:
- Tavita Pritchard was 30 when he was promoted at Stanford, his alma mater, from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. The Cardinal were 26th in offensive SP+ in his first year, but plummeted to 74th this year.
- Chad Scott was 37 when West Virginia Coach Neal Brown tabbed him for his first coordinator position. The Mountaineers were 96th in offensive SP+ this year amid a 5-7 season.
- The offensive coordinator tag was added to UCLA’s Justin Frye when the offensive line coach was 35 years old. In 2019, his first season as coordinator, the Bruins finished 4-8 and 66th in offensive SP+.
- Brian Brohm was 32 and JaMarcus Shephard was 34 when they were given their first coordinator positions at Purdue. Brohm started in 2017, while Shephard was elevated in 2018. The Boilermakers were 63rd in offensive SP+ in 2017, 17th in 2018 and 46th this year.
- Garin Justice was hired by UNLV to be their offensive coordinator in 2019 despite no prior experience in that role. The 36-year-old’s offense was 111th in SP+ this year — and the Rebels have a new coach after going 4-8 this year.
SHOULD KELLY LOOK OUTSIDE NOTRE DAME?
For better or worse, Tommy Rees is a Brian Kelly guy.
After the Irish collapsed in 2016, several post-mortems blamed Kelly’s penchant for hiring his “guys” — coaches he’s had established relationships with — over those with no connection to his tree.
Long and Mike Elko assumed the coordinator positions from two Kelly guys, Mike Denbrock and Brian VanGorder. Those were viewed as successful hires, as Kelly’s decision to promote Clark Lea — who came with Elko — to defensive coordinator when his predecessor bolted for Texas A&M. Paul Longo, a lifelong Kelly friend, was replaced by Matt Balis, who had no ties to his new boss, in the weight room.
Kelly went in the opposite direction with his offensive line coach, replacing Harry Hiestand — an outsider, as it were — with Jeff Quinn, a longtime Kelly associate, following the 2017 season.
If Long, Elko, Lea and Balis were successes and Quinn has not been, the prevailing wisdom goes, won’t Rees tank because he’s a Kelly guy?
It makes for a great casual narrative, but it also suffers from a greater problem: Small sample size.
As Wilson writes, “Rees might work or he might not work. A more established name could come in and fail. (What’s Matt Canada up to these days?) The game moves quickly.”
We won’t know unless Rees is hired, which is not a certainty at this point. If he is hired, you were opposed to him and he fails, I’d imagine you’ll revisit one of these three arguments and remind everyone that you are like cursed Cassandra. If he’s hired, you were opposed to him and he succeeds, then, as Wilson says, you’ll surely “enjoy the ride as Rees drives the offense to unparalleled heights.”