For years, Brent Venables has played the loyal lieutenant at Clemson. He’s consistently been one of the country’s elite defensive play callers and recruiters, and the most important staff fixture for Dabo Swinney. He’s also been paid handsomely, as he’s approaching the halfway point of a five-year deal worth more than $11 million.
Since becoming Clemson’s defensive coordinator in 2012, there’s been plenty of interest in Venables as a head coaching candidate. But he’s often been hesitant to reciprocate interest, as the interviews have often conflicted with Clemson’s ACC title runs and preparation for the College Football Playoff.
But there’s been a shift in Venables’ perspective, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Now more than ever, Venables is open to listen to any top-30 caliber jobs.
That’s something that couldn’t always be said for his tenure at Clemson. Venables had long been focused on taking care of the job in front of him, which included turning down multiple chances to interview for head jobs if it interfered with Clemson’s schedule. That included Venables turning down the chance to speak with Florida State last season, as it would have conflicted with Clemson’s ACC run. He also turned down job offers over the years at schools where he didn’t think he could win big enough.
Venables, 49, has long preached loyalty to his players and avoiding distractions, and he’s wanted to live that himself. But he’s also come to the realization that those high-end opportunities are rare. “If he’s going to be a head coach, the time is approaching,” said a source with knowledge of Venables’ thinking.
Venables has loved working for Dabo, raising his family in the area and relished the entire Clemson experience. But he’s also come to realize that if he continues to not interview when people knock on his door, they’re going to eventually stop knocking. (Venables declined comment for this story.)
Leaving Clemson still wouldn’t be easy for Venables. Both of his sons are scholarship players on the Tigers’ team and there’s a strong affinity for Swinney.
But Venables has opened his mind to new opportunities, something that Luke Fickell did a few years back at Ohio State before landing at Cincinnati.
This shift led to Venables joining fellow Clemson coordinator Tony Elliott at the top of this year’s Yahoo Sports assistant coach rankings.
Here are the country’s top Power Five coordinators who’ve emerged as head coach candidates.
1. Tony Elliott, Clemson OC – It will be interesting to see if Elliott, 40, remains as judicious as he has been about jobs. A slew of schools have come calling, but some of the higher-end ones haven’t. The Carolina Panthers expressed interest last year, and with little movement expected in college perhaps NFL interest would be his best chance of leaving this year.
2. Brent Venables, Clemson DC – See column above. There’s a willingness for Venables to explore options that may not have been there in past years.
3. Steve Sarkisian, Alabama OC – He went deep into the process at Mississippi State and could have had the Colorado job. Alabama made him the highest-paid offensive coordinator in college football, which is a sign of how much Nick Saban values him. Sarkisian is 46 and still has a long runway to be a head coach after his dark downfall at USC.
4. Mike Elko, Texas A&M DC – Elko, 42, turned down the Temple job two years ago and interviewed for multiple Power Five jobs the past two years. He also turned down the chance to be a coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals two seasons ago. His $2.1 million salary priced him out of the MAC, and it’s allowed him to be patient.
5. Clark Lea, Notre Dame DC – The cerebral Lea, 38, has been a seamless coordinator fit at Notre Dame since being promoted to replace his mentor, Elko, two seasons ago. Lea finished as the runner-up at Boston College last year and also turned down one FBS job and received strong interest from another. His time will come soon, as the Vanderbilt graduate will be a favorite at all the academic schools.
6. Alex Grinch, Oklahoma DC – Grinch turned down multiple opportunities last season to speak to schools, including Washington State. The Oklahoma gig represented Grinch’s third different job in three years, which led to his reluctance to move. At 40, his time is coming soon.
7. Todd Monken, Georgia OC – Back in college after four years as an NFL OC, Monken has interviewed for three NFL head coaching jobs. That gives him the best shot of jumping to the NFL of anyone on this list. Monken, 54, went 9-5 his final year at Southern Miss (2015), and his three years of head coaching experience will be considered an asset. Georgia sputtered on offense last year (No. 61 nationally), which leaves a long runway for improvement.
8. Andy Avalos, Oregon DC – Prior to his arrival, Oregon finished No. 48 nationally in scoring defense (25.4 ppg). Last season, Avalos’ unit finished No. 9 nationally (16.5). His intangibles and relationships have been as impressive as the performance, as UNLV and UTSA both expressed interest last year. Avalos, 38, is considered a favorite if Bryan Harsin ever decides to leave Boise State.
9. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin DC – It will take a sweetheart offer to get him to leave Madison, as he’s settled into his role as Paul Chryst’s wingman. Leonhard, 37, made nearly $10 million in the NFL, so money doesn’t loom as a huge motivator. Would he listen to NFL overtures?
10. Dan Lanning, Georgia DC – He left a strong impression with the Memphis brass with his interview there last year. He’s worked for Nick Saban, Mike Norvell and Kirby Smart, which gives him an attractive pedigree. He’s just 34, so he may require a few more years of seasoning before an AD is ready to hire him. His upside is as high as anyone on this list.
11. Graham Harrell, USC OC – He helped turn Kedon Slovis into a star in his first season coordinating at USC. The highest compliment to his offensive acumen may be how distinctly North Texas’ offense dipped after his departure.
12. Jay Bateman, UNC DC – His defenses at Army twice finished in the top 10 and he’s been a major linchpin in Mack Brown’s unexpected turnaround since arriving at UNC. His time as Elon’s DC gives him strong ties in North Carolina, which could help with any local jobs.
13. Marcus Freeman, Cincinnati DC – He led our Group of Five list last year, but Cincinnati’s success and his head coaching potential have elevated him to the Power Five list. Freeman turned down a strong run from Michigan State to be Mel Tucker’s defensive coordinator last year. If Luke Fickell ever leaves Cincinnati, Freeman would be a strong candidate.
14. Todd Grantham, Florida DC – He interviewed for the Mississippi State job last season and has drawn NFL interest. Grantham spent 11 years in the NFL, so that’s always an option for him.
15. Jeff Nixon, Carolina Panthers – Baylor’s OC and play caller last season left to work with Matt Rhule in Carolina. He drew interest from Memphis last season and the ties to Rhule and his success at Baylor could land him in the mix for more college jobs this cycle.
16. Tom Manning, Iowa State OC – The Cyclones OC made a strong impression on the brass in Indianapolis during his time with the Colts. If Iowa State can let it rip on offense this year, he’d continue to emerge on the college head coaching radar.
17. Ryan Walters, Missouri DC – He interviewed at Colorado last season about their open job and is considered to have a high ceiling in the long-term. Missouri finished No. 16 nationally in scoring defense, the type of gaudy stat that leads to opportunity.
18. Phil Longo, UNC OC – He’s shown a penchant for gaudy statistics. If the winning follows with Sam Howell and a slew of skill players returning on offense, Longo, 52, will likely garner an opportunity.
19. Mike Yurcich, Texas OC – He’s back calling plays and if he’s able to maximize Sam Ehlinger’s production, he should continue to get chances. He’s been in the mix at MAC schools before, but winning big at Texas could put his trajectory much higher.
20. Brad White, Kentucky DC – He’s a bit green for a head coaching job, as he’s only been at Kentucky for two years after coming from the Colts. But Kentucky’s stout returning defense and his NFL pedigree give him a high ceiling and the chance an NFL team or another Power Five school could poach him. (Think Mike Elko at Wake Forest or Alex Grinch at Washington State).
Group of Five coordinators who loom as head coach candidates
Will Hall, Tulane OC – Hall revitalized the Green Wave offense last season, as it averaged 33.1 ppg. His strong Mississippi ties, where his father is a legendary high school coach, will put him in the Southern Miss mix.
Vince Kehres, Toledo DC – He’s won a pair of national titles as a head coach at Mount Union and put together a record of 95-6. That drew interest from MAC jobs. Fixing Toledo’s broken defense – ranked No. 102 last year – would only increase interest.
Clayton White, Western Kentucky DC – He earned multiple looks for Power Five defensive gigs last season. With star DE DeAngelo Malone rushing the passer, there will likely be more this season.
Joe Sloan, Louisiana Tech OC – One of the most respected assistants in Conference USA, he’s Skip Holtz’s right-hand man. It won’t be long before an SEC school scoops him up for a staff job or a Sun Belt school calls.
Mike Thiessen, Air Force OC – He’s spent 11 seasons as the Air Force OC and has been part of the consistent success. That includes finishing No. 21 nationally in scoring offense last year and consistent top-five appearances in rushing offense.
Kevin Johns, Memphis OC – Few are set up to succeed like Johns, as Memphis returns star QB Brady White and WR Damonte Coxie. With Johns the play caller after Mike Norvell’s departure to Florida State, expect the attention to follow.
Jeff Schmedding, Boise State DC – The Broncos finished with a top 25 scoring defense in his first season. He won a national title and was part of 10 playoff appearances at FCS Eastern Washington, where he also served as special teams coach.
Tyler Stockton, Ball State DC – The former Notre Dame player is viewed as a rising star. He has coordinator experience at Western Illinois prior to Ball State, and this will mark his first year calling it in the MAC. Ball State has 23 seniors, which should help this spring and perhaps next fall if many decide to stick around.
Top non-coordinators who could be factors in job market
Brian Johnson, Florida QB coach – The former star quarterback at Utah has established himself as Florida’s quarterback coach, and he also has play-calling experience from his time at Houston. Only 33, he’s viewed as having a high ceiling.
Shane Beamer, Oklahoma TE and H-backs – A longtime special teams coordinator, the 43-year-old Beamer is now OU’s assistant head coach for offense. He’s been involved in a handful of searches, and his time appears imminent.
Stan Drayton, Texas RB coach – Longtime assistant coach got a long look from ODU last season. He’s Texas’s associate head coach and run game coordinator, who has won three national titles. Ezekiel Elliott credits Drayton for “why I’m the back I am today.”
Dell McGee, Georgia run game coordinator – He’s seen a bountiful stable of tailbacks thrive – Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield. He won a state title as a high school head coach, a role many see him in soon in college.
Charles Huff, Alabama RB coach – Huff serves as Alabama’s associate head coach, and he’s the top-ranked recruiter for 2021. He’s worked for James Franklin, Joe Moorhead, P.J. Fleck and now Saban, giving him plenty of successful blueprints to study. Experience as special teams coordinator at Penn State helps his head coaching cause.
Mo Linguist, Dallas Cowboys DB coach – He’s in his first year in the NFL after a career that has seen him work jump four different spots – Iowa State, Mississippi State, Minnesota and Texas A&M – from 2015 through 2019. Time with Dan Mullen, P.J. Fleck and Jimbo Fisher have helped build his profile.
Kenni Burns, Minnesota RB coach – He impressed the leaders of the 2019 NCAA Champion Forum, run by former NFL executive Charley Casserly. Burns is Fleck’s associate head coach and has drawn interest from multiple Group of Five jobs the past two years, and more should come as hiring from Fleck’s staff will be attractive to schools.
Alex Atkins, Florida State OL coach – He showed promise as a coordinator and play-caller at Charlotte last season, helping the school land its first bowl game in program history. The offensive line has been a weakness at FSU for a half-dozen years, so turning that unit around will be another boost to his résumé.
Joey McGuire, Baylor OLB coach – McGuire is Baylor’s associate head coach who UTSA showed strong interest in during their head coaching search last season. A longtime successful Texas HS coach, McGuire’s name will emerge in any Lone Star job openings.
Donte Williams, USC CB coach – Williams supercharged USC’s recruiting after arriving in February from Oregon, as the Trojans are No. 6 in the latest Rivals.com rankings. He also serves as defensive pass game coordinator in Todd Orlando’s defense.
Brian Hartline, Ohio State WR coach – His receivers room at OSU is one of the most prolific in college football, and his recruiting work indicates it’ll stay that way. Hartline’s NFL experience and high trajectory give him a high ceiling in college and beyond.
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