Scoggins: Edina’s Rallis is youngest NFL coordinator with old football soul

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Nick Rallis is the NFL's youngest coordinator, having been hired to oversee the Arizona Cardinals defense at age 29. He turned 30 in July and has been a football coach at any level for only six full seasons.

To better understand that rocket ascension, Rallis' family finds it instructive to know a few stories.

Start with childhood. The three Rallis boys of Edina — Matt, Mike and Nick — played the "Madden" video game in franchise mode, which allows users to manage a team over multiple seasons.

Nick built his San Diego Chargers offense into a passing juggernaut back when NFL offenses still catered to the running game.

"When we asked him why," older brother Mike said, "he said, 'This is where the game is headed.' "

Even as a kid, Nick knew football was changing.

"I was Air Coryell part two," Nick said with a laugh Thursday after the Cardinals' joint practice with the Vikings ahead of Saturday's preseason finale.

The young coach has an old football soul, versed enough in the game's history to know about Don Coryell's passing offense of the late 1970s and early '80s.

Apparently, he spent his summer nights studying NFL schemes.

"Kids would be running around playing night games, and we're like, 'Nick, why don't you go play with the neighborhood kids?' " his dad, Stew, recalled. "He didn't want to. He'd be watching the NFC playoffs from seven years earlier, just breaking down film. At times we were like, 'Hey, son, you don't have to be so serious about this.' "

Now skip ahead a few years. Mike was a senior linebacker for the Gophers in 2012. Nick was a redshirt freshman. The Gophers faced Texas Tech in a bowl game.

Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville resigned to take the Cincinnati job before the bowl game. The Gophers weren't sure what to expect from the Red Raiders offense with their coaching staff in flux.

Nick, who wasn't even playing in the game, decided to study videotape of everything. The details are a little fuzzy, but somewhere in his prep work, Nick made a mental note about a trick play.

Sometime in the first half of the game, Texas Tech broke the huddle and lined up in a certain formation.

"Nick started yelling, 'Run left,' from the sidelines because he had seen this exact formation during his extensive film scouting," Mike said. "Sure enough, it was a run left, and we stopped it thanks to Nick."

Asked about that story, Nick downplayed it. He never wants to make a story about him. This column included.

Youngest coordinator in the NFL?

"It just reminds me of all the great people I've been around," he said. "The game is all about the players and all about serving the players."

Yeah, but this is an opportunity to run his system.

"It's not my system. It's the Cardinals system," he said. "We used everybody's brain and made it our own."

Rallis admits that he's "dedicated my life" to football, so he doesn't feel overwhelmed to run the Cardinals defense under first-year coach Jonathan Gannon.

Gannon previously served as Philadelphia's defensive coordinator. Rallis was his linebackers coach. When the Cardinals hired Gannon as head coach in February, he brought Rallis with him.

The headlines highlighted Rallis' age. Those who know him focus on his football IQ and calming presence.

"Nick was a student of the game and always asked questions," said former Gophers coach Jerry Kill, who recruited Rallis. "He was very, very smart. I knew he would be a good coach. Now, I'm not going to lie to you: 29 years old and being a coordinator, I couldn't have guessed that because that's hard to do."

Rallis says it wouldn't be possible without his mentors. Mike Zimmer gave him a quality control job with the Vikings and "helped form a lot of my philosophies defensively."

Gannon gave him increased responsibility in Philadelphia and "really opened my mind up to some different things defensively."

NFL players don't care about a coach's age. Either the guy can coach, or he can't. It's hard to fool players.

"You can smell it," Cardinals linebacker Josh Woods said.

Woods said Rallis has won over players with his authenticity, his football knowledge and how he treats them.

"Really cool coach," Woods said. "Really smart guy. He definitely knows what he's talking about. He's got it all. There's no secret as to why he's climbing the ranks at such a young age. It's really easy to gain guys' trust and respect when you're honest and you're real."

Rallis knows no other way to coach. Yes, he's the youngest coordinator in the league. He's also ready for it. He's been preparing his entire life.