Can Urban Meyer succeed in the NFL? Former players say yes

A few weeks back, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Parris Campbell got a call out of the blue from Urban Meyer, the coach who recruited him and coached him at Ohio State. Meyer didn’t mince words, telling Campbell he had opportunities to coach in the NFL and wanted his opinion on how his coaching style and culture would work on that level.

Campbell told his former coach two things about his transition to the NFL.

“No. 1, I’m worried about his health,” Campbell told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview on Thursday. “As long as his health is in order, he could do whatever he wanted to do.

“No. 2 is that I wanted him to do something that will make him happy. His health and happiness were my two main concerns.

“Can he do it? Obviously, he can do it.”

The most fascinating football question in 2021 will be how Meyer navigates the transition from inevitable college football Hall of Famer to nascent NFL rebuilder. He takes over a Jacksonville Jaguars franchise that has lost more games in the past three seasons (36) than Meyer has in 17 total years as a college head coach (32).

A survey of former Meyer players, many of whom went on to the NFL, reveal a confidence in Meyer’s coaching ability to translate to the NFL. But they all pointed out that there will be necessary evolution, adaption and rewiring required, as his days of decisive talent advantages, undefeated seasons and methodology of breaking players down before building them up are going to need to change.

“The biggest adjustment for him, and was for all of us who came to the NFL from Ohio State, is going to be losing more games than you’re accustomed to,” Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin said in a phone interview. “Losing one game in the NFL isn’t like losing one game in college. Not even if you lose two games. That’s always going to be an adjustment, being a competitive guy like he is.”

The adjustments for Meyer will be significant — they’ll be new schemes to learn, a significant reliance on whoever he brings in as coordinator and learning to work with whoever comes in as general manager. (Former 49ers GM Trent Baalke, who is already in the Jags’ front office, remains the speculative favorite). The players also stressed a necessary evolution in Meyer’s leadership style, as motivating NFL players is fundamentally different than in college.

Meyer’s ability to adjust and adapt will be a key variable for success.

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2016, file photo, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer shouts from the sideline in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. The coaching staff at Rutgers knows the culture of the Ohio State football program as well as any opponent can. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
Urban Meyer's intensity on the sideline is legendary. Will he handle losing, something he didn't do often at the college level? (AP)

Can Urban Meyer handle losing?

“One of the things I’ve been stuck on, really, is that I can’t imagine Urban Meyer being a losing coach,” said Joe Burger, a former Ohio State walk-on turned team captain under Meyer. “That really does stick to me. Urban Meyer simply doesn’t lose. That’s where my gut is.”

Burger played for Meyer from 2012-16, losing six games over five seasons. He said the only time during those five years that he felt like Ohio State had inferior personnel came in his final career game against Clemson when the Buckeyes lost 31-0 in the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinals.

Throughout Meyer’s time at Ohio State, Burger said the Buckeyes exploited their personnel advantage by playing simple and fast. He said the biggest challenge he sees for Meyer is the “entire paradigm” has flipped, and he’ll need to rely much more on scheme than personnel.

“His biggest challenge is going to be that he’s playing on an equal playing field,” Burger said.

Former Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry, who retired after playing two NFL seasons, pointed to a pair of challenges Meyer faces.

He recalled during his time at Ohio State from 2012-15 when Meyer and strength coach Mickey Marotti’s ethos was tearing players down before building them up. That’s a common college tactic that’s going to be one of the biggest shifts for Meyer, as that technique won’t translate to the NFL.

“Dealing with professional players, all the best in world, they don’t need to be broken down,” said Perry, who is now a Big Ten Network analyst. “They need someone they can trust.”

Perry said the second necessary evolution will be for Meyer to adjust his expectations. Meyer won 85% of his career games in 17 years as a head coach, and he enters a league where Bill Belichick is a first-ballot Hall of Famer after winning 67%.

Perry lost four games total in his four seasons, and points out that a four-loss season in the NFL is elite compared to an environment in college where a four-loss season would mean a coach’s job is in jeopardy. He recalled Meyer looking “pale as a ghost” and “dry mouthed” in front of the team after the losses, struggling for words.

Meyer hinted in his opening news conference that he’s open to a change in style, saying he’s “not going to be running around like a nut on the practice field.” But he acknowledged that how he handles losing will be an important variable. “If you’re asking me if I’m going to enjoy losing,” he said, “I think we all know the answer to that.”

Hiring the right assistants

It’s over-simplifying a complicated process to say the most important variable for Meyer’s success will be the coaching staff and front office that ends up surrounding him. Those are complex, multimillion-dollar decisions that determine the fate of every billion-dollar NFL franchise. Meyer will begin his NFL career with pocket aces, as Jacksonville has the No. 1 pick and is expected to select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. (Don’t be surprised to see some quarterback run game, which Meyer helped bring to the mainstream in college. Those spread schemes eventually trickled up to the pros, where they are now commonplace.)

The key for Meyer will be finding comfort and trust in those around him, as he won’t be bringing staple staff members like Marotti, his longtime strength coach wingman, or veteran Ohio State personnel director Mark Pantoni.

He is bringing his former operations director, Fernando Lovo, who confirmed to Yahoo Sports that he’ll be the chief of staff in Jacksonville for Meyer. (Lovo worked with Tom Herman at Houston and Texas.) Sources said Meyer will be taking one person from Ohio State, Jacksonville native Ryan Stamper, who has been the assistant athletic director for player development at Ohio State.

Urban Meyer’s relationship with players

It will be interesting if any players follow. Already on the roster are veteran offensive lineman Andrew Norwell and rookie defensive lineman DaVon Hamilton, who both played for Meyer at Ohio State. A partial list of Buckeye free agents with Meyer ties includes speedster wide receiver Curtis Samuel, linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Darron Lee and offensive linemen Corey Linsley and Pat Elflein.

“I think the biggest component is who he puts around him, who he hires as offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator,” Burger said. “In college, he always had Mickey Marotti. Coach Mick was the guy who had us completely in his hands, and he knew that when he went to sleep at night.

“He was never a micromanager ... he hired guys and let them coach. It’s going to come down to who he hires and how much he trusts them.”

McLaurin pointed out that Meyer got close with many of his players, and that’s something that may have to change in the NFL. He said the cycle of players churning on and off the roster from free agency, cuts and the draft will be an adjustment for Meyer, who has always relied on veteran players to be leaders and uphold the program’s culture.

“You can’t have a personal relationship with every player,” McLaurin said. “It’s kind of hard to do that with every player; you’re going to have to have select guys. Coach Meyer wants you to buy in and guys to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

McLaurin said part of the adjustment moving to the NFL will be the changing dynamics of those relationships, as McLaurin said “he does get close with players and cares about their careers.”

He added: “I’ll be interested to see how player development goes. In college, you are more focused on that. In NFL, it’s more of a business. Guys move on or get cut.”

McLaurin has confidence in Meyer, and he’s fascinated how it will work.

“You can’t deny what he’s done in college,” he said. “It’s not like you can take it to the bank knowing he’s going to win a Super Bowl. But he has a way of going somewhere and leaving it better than before he got there.”

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