Last week, I discussed potential candidates that Rutgers coach Chris Ash could consider for defensive coordinator. Several of those were former head coaches recently fired, including Ash mentors Dan McCarney and Paul Rhoads. I still feel that isn't the direction Ash will go, based on previous comments he has made about his preferred coaching staff. It's also a fact that both of them has millions in buyout money coming to them.
Ash has said he wants to make Rutgers a first class program and build a winning culture. After winning the national championship at Ohio State, Ash certainly brings his own success to the table. Special Teams Coordinator Vince Okruch left Ohio State to join Ash at Rutgers, his fourth Big Ten school in a successful thirty-four year career. While Drew Mehringer is far less experienced, he is the prodigy of Tom Herman, and worked at Ohio State before FCS powerhouse James Madison and Houston.
Just yesterday, Ash hired Kenny Parker as the head strength and conditioning coach. Parker played at Florida before Urban Meyer took over the program and then worked under him as a graduate assistant for several years. Parker then went to work for Meyer again at Ohio State as the assistant strength and conditioning coach the past three years. Parker brings two national championship rings to Rutgers from his time working for Meyer.
Athletic Director Patrick Hobbs directly tied Rutgers football to the Ohio State Buckeyes with one swift move, when he hired Ash less than two weeks ago. The football organization most tied to Rutgers over the years has been of the NFL variety, the New England Patriots. Head Coach Bill Belichick and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, now the Ohio State defensive coordinator, formed a bond over the years. Belichick's son, Steve, played Lacrosse at Rutgers and walked on for Schiano as a long snapper during the 2011 season. It was done primarily to help prepare Steve become a football coach and he is now in his fourth season as an assistant with the Patriots.
The connection between the two programs peaked in the 2013 draft, when Belichick drafted Rutgers alums Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Steve Beauharnais. Currently, the Patriots have Ryan, Harmon, Devin McCourty and Jonathan Freeny on their defense, with all starting at different points this season. Just two days ago, the Patriots signed Kevin Snyder to their practice squad.
It makes you wonder, whoever Ash hires as defensive coordinator, will they be from the Ohio State or Patriots family? In fact, what if Ash actually hires someone who is tied to both championship programs? Imagine the recruiting pitch Ash will have for recruits if he continues to bring in coaches with ties to either the Buckeyes or Patriots. Here are three candidates that would fit the script for Ash and Rutgers based on their championship experiences with these historic football teams.
Super Bowl Rings: One
I included Daly in the pool of candidates to consider last week, as he is a former teammate and colleague of Ash's from their days at Drake University. He has worked at Maryland, Oklahoma State, and Villanova before settling in the NFL since 2006. Daly has worked for the Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams and currently, the New England Patriots.
He was an defensive assistant during last season's Super Bowl championship run and is the defensive line coach this season. While there is no Ohio State link, the fact that Daly played and coached with Ash makes him a serious contender. One issue is that Daly is currently working in a 3-4 defensive philosophy which is different than Ash's 4-3 quarters defense. By no means would that be a deal breaker, as Daly has worked in many systems over the years, but it could be a factor.
Super Bowl Rings: Five
Pepper was a very popular player among New York Giants fans over the years, winning two Super Bowls with them as a linebacker in the nineties. After he retired from his 12 year NFL career, Johnson went to work for Belichick in New England in 2000, who he played under with the Giants. He coached linebackers and the defensive line in New England for 14 seasons, which included three Super Bowl victories. He is currently the defensive line coach with the New York Jets.
He left before the 2014 season and Belichick filled his spot on the staff with....Brendan Daly. Before Pepper starred for the Giants and established himself as a successful position coach in the NFL, he was an all-american linebacker at The Ohio State University. He played under legendary college football coach Earl Bruce. Johnson would bring connections from both storied programs with him on the banks, if Ash were to pursue him.
Super Bowl Rings: three
Vrabel was a defensive end at Ohio State in the mid-nineties, where he became the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year his junior and senior seasons. He also became an all-american his senior season. After putting up modest numbers in four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Vrabel was acquired by the Patriots, as he was valued by Belichick for his versatility. Vrabel starred at linebacker for the Patriots for eight seasons, helping them win three Super Bowls. Vrabel was even used on offense on occasion, catching a touchdown in two different Super Bowls. He is still one of Belichick's favorite players from over the years, as he gushed about him recently here.
After making the NFL all-decade team of the 2000's, Vrabel got into coaching, returning home to Ohio State. After becoming linebacker coach under interim head coach Luke Fickell in 2011, he was retained by Urban Meyer once he took over the program. After moving over to coach the defensive line for two seasons, Vrabel left to become the linebackers coach for new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien. They had a relationship from New England, as O'Brien had coached there during Vrabel's playing days.
Will Ash Hire One of the Three?
Without having any inside information, I can't say with any certainty that he will. However, each one has obvious ties to either Ohio State, Urban Meyer, the Patriots, or Bill Belichick. Daly has the longest relationship with Ash, knowing each other for over 20 years. Johnson has the most NFL coaching experience of the three. Vrabel is the only one of the three to have connections to all four entities.
All three have Super Bowl Rings, with Johnson the only one to win them both as a player and coach. Regardless, if Ash did hire one of the three, he would have a tremendous asset to sell on the recruiting trail. Along with his and Okruch's championship rings from Ohio State, as well as Parker's from both Florida and the Buckeyes, Ash would have a defensive coordinator with a Super Bowl ring. In the case of Vrabel and Johnson, multiple rings. Any of the three would fit into Ash's "winning culture" he is building at Rutgers. While Ash has hired two coordinators already, he explained why he is taking his time hiring the rest of his staff. Ash is quoted here in Dan Duggan's article from yesterday:
"Some people are quick to hire a staff and it might be the right fit. I'm taking a little bit more time, for a couple of reasons," Ash said. "One, I want to make sure the fits are right. Two, I'm trying to hire some people that may be in bowl games or in the NFL, so it's going to take a little bit longer. But I want to make sure it's right for the long-term and not, 'Hey, I can throw nine assistants together, let's go,' and they don't work well together and it's not what I want. I've got all kinds of buddies in this profession that I've worked with that I really think are outstanding people and coaches. But I can't hire them all and they may not be the right fit. I could have slapped nine assistant coaches together on Monday night after I had the (introductory) press conference, but that might not be what's best for Rutgers or what's best for the people in the room."
Two observations from his quote. One, I tend to think Ash is leaning towards hiring someone from the NFL. While he mentions bowl season as a potential reason for the delay, it hasn't stopped him or many other new coaches from hiring assistants from bowl-bound teams this past month. However, it would make perfect sense that there would be a delay if Ash was talking with NFL assistants. With three weeks left in the regular season, it's likely any NFL franchise would request that nothing be finalized or announced until near the completion of the season. If Ash were to hire someone with a Patriots connection, he would put his own mark on the Rutgers-New England gateway. It would be another weapon in his recruiting arsenal.
Two, Ash is doing his due diligence in hiring the entire coaching staff, not just the coordinators. It would be very easy for a first time head coach to rush and fill his staff as soon as possible. By waiting, Ash is displaying a confidence in his plan and taking time to make sure he hires coaches that are the right fit for his program. With all due respect to the Flood regime, the head coach and the three coordinators had worked at the following college football teams before Rutgers: Maine, FIU, Delaware, Columbia and Hofstra. The staff as a whole simply didn't have enough experience with big time college football, and it showed on the field. Ash is filling out his staff with coaches that have championship backgrounds, something that will enable Rutgers to not only compete in the Big Ten, but win in the conference. And if recent trends from the Ash era and recent Rutgers history continue, it will be a coach who has strong ties to Ohio State, the Patriots, or possibly both!