After 24 seasons, Matt Canada said goodbye to college football in 2018. Although he was offered coordinator positions, Canada chose instead to spend some downtime with his family at their beach house on North Carolina’s Topsail Island.
He did remain active watching and studying game film and visiting college and pro teams before returning to the grind that is football — this time in the NFL.
As one of the first orders of business in 2020, the Steelers hired Canada for his first-ever pro league endeavor.
“I think Mike and I both felt it was an opportunity that we had and good to add somebody to the staff that can help with the young quarterbacks as well as help with the offense,” Rooney said in an announcement. “We’re happy someone like Matt, who we knew from down the hall here [at Pitt] and liked some of the work he’s done. We’re happy to have him on board.”
Canada’s extensive resume includes several roles at Northern Illinois and Indiana, and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Wisconsin, NC State and LSU.
Except for Northern Illinois and Indiana, Canada never remained at any school long enough to get comfortable yet just long enough to make a mark.
In 2012, the Wisconsin Badgers finished No. 12 nationally in rushing, and Canada helped lead them to a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl appearance.
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Pitt Panther fans may remember Canada as the coordinator who installed a record-setting offense in 2016. With a school-record average of 42 points per game, the Panthers had the No. 10 scoring offense in the nation. That offense averaged 448 yards per game and scored 35+ points in all but two games. Canada’s effort earned him a nomination for the Broyles Award, an honor presented annually to the top assistant football coach.
During the 2017 season, under Canada’s guidance, LSU quarterback Danny Etling finished with 16 TD (two interceptions), and the Tigers finished No. 1 nationally with fewest turnovers. The team won six of seven SEC games, posted a 9-4 overall record and made it to the Citrus Bowl.
After LSU, Canada headed northeast to Maryland, where he began as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2018. That fall, he was named Maryland’s interim head coach after the Terps’ head coach, D.J. Durkin, was terminated soon after the heatstroke death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair.
Among the quarterbacks that Canada has developed are former NC State quarterback and New England Patriots third-round NFL Draft pick Jacoby Brissett who threw 42 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in two seasons at NC State, first-team All-MAC quarterback Chandler Harnish (Northern Illinois), two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten quarterback Ben Chappell (Indiana) and second-team All-Big Ten quarterback Kellen Lewis (Indiana). He also coached Pitt’s own Nathan Peterman, who threw for 27 touchdowns to seven interceptions during Canada’s renowned 2016 season.
Canada in Pittsburgh
While Canada is new to the Steelers, he’s surrounded by plenty of familiar faces. Since Pitt shares the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and Heinz Field with the Steelers, Canada got to know Rooney, Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner during his time with the Panthers.
“I knew Randy a little bit when I was at Pitt across the hall there,” said Canada during a press conference last week. “I came over and visited with him a couple times.”
“Certainly, enjoyed getting to know our system, and he has done a great job bringing me up to speed with that,” he said. “It has been great with him and our entire staff.”
Additionally, running backs coach Eddie Faulkner spent five seasons under Canada at three different schools.
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The familiarity continues with players, as well. Canada has coached running backs James Conner (Pitt) and Jaylen Samuels (NC State) and fullback Derek Watt (Wisconsin). The Steelers also drafted Maryland running back Anthony McFarland and safety Antoine Brooks in 2020, as well as offensive lineman Derwin Gray in 2019.
It’s been two seasons since the Steelers had a coach dedicated entirely to the quarterbacks. Fichtner handled dual duties of quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019. With a stable of relatively inexperienced quarterbacks behind Ben Roethlisberger, it was evident that a coach to focus on guiding Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges and Paxton Lynch was sorely needed.
“They don’t have as much helmet time and playing experience,” Canada said. “I am working with everybody, but there is certainly a difference [between Ben and younger guys]… I am just kind of coming in to facilitate what I can in any way with [Ben] and then also with the younger guys.”
“I’m letting Ben — you know, Ben does have way more experience than I could ever imagine in the NFL,” Canada continued. “So, I’m listening. We’ve talked reads, concepts, and those things — how he’s done it and what he’s done.”
Canada understands the distinction between college and the NFL, and he’s embracing it.
“I think football is football, but it is a different game… There are different parts of it that I have tried to learn, and I certainly have a long way to go, and that is why I am excited with where I am at. I am in a position to learn and assist Randy in any way I can, to assist the quarterbacks in any way I can, and just be part of the group.”
Fichtner is looking forward to incorporating some of Canada’s fresh concepts.
“It’s one more opportunity to throw ideas around,” Fichtner said. “It’s a big job. I believe it’s a fun job. It keeps communication at a premium. I also know when it comes to ideas when it comes to thoughts, things you can bring to the table, things he can bring that are different than me, are fun to see and develop. I’m really excited about it.”
What are some of those different things Canada can bring to the table? Canada’s offensive concepts have been called intriguing, creative, and even revolutionary by college football experts. Offenses he’s previously installed manipulate defenses with presnap motions and shifts. His systems have been anchored by fly sweeps, reverses to tackles, shovel passes to tight ends, misdirections, and inverted triple options enough to drive defensive minds mad.
Whether Canada is being groomed to eventually take over as offensive coordinator is something you’d have to be a fly on the wall to know. While Canada maintains the title of quarterbacks coach, it appears he’ll be more than just that.