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Assessing Tennessee's Defensive Position Coaches: A Series Of One

In this "guess who had time during the holiday season?" post, let's look at the position-specific success of each position coach on Tennessee's defense.

I was going to use a picture of Willie Martinez, but the only Willie Martinez in the picture database is a jockey.
I was going to use a picture of Willie Martinez, but the only Willie Martinez in the picture database is a jockey.
(Disclaimer: the author of this post was bored.)

Okay, we know this is the best Tennessee coaching staff money can buy or something along those lines. The problem with that, such as it is, is that talk is cheap. Contain your shock, but I'm not easily swayed. You know what works for me, though? Data!

Contain your shock. Anyway, this is what happens when I have some time on my hands; I go through the annals of the Tennessee coaching staff, look at their previous position work, try and figure out what's relevant, and try and draw what conclusions I can about their coaching acumen for that position. It's an inexact science, of course, especially when it comes to trying to strip out defensive coordinator influence (and in John Jancek's case, his actual DC duties) and head coach influence (see Steve Stripling).

Also, because I know it'll raise questions: I'm not addressing the offensive staff in this post (brevity - ha), the coordinators (again, brevity, but they deserve their own post), or recruiting (which ...well, y'all know how often I post about that; I don't even act like an expert).

So, well, here we go.

Tommy Thigpen, cornerbacks

Thigpen has coached either linebackers or safeties throughout the last decade. I'm not really sure I'd draw a whole lot about his ability to coach CBs based on his stint with Illinois under Ron Turner(!), and everything else is just going to look like the coaching equivalent of translating a foreign language.

In other words, Thigpen just might be spending a lot of his time recruiting. I'd guess someone else will hep with this; the obvious choice would be the next guy on the list, but ...well, I'd rather it be John Jancek than the next guy.

Horrible Simplification of Qualities Into a Letter Grade: incomplete, since he hasn't done this in a decade.

Willie Martinez, safeties

Keep this man away from the DC position. In an ironic twist, was DC and had John Jancek reporting to him. Let's hope the other way around does better than what the Georgia defense turned into. Again, he's not our DC. Be glad.

Auburn, 2012: mediocre improvement over the 2011 version if anything. The secondary was most notable for their complete inability to actually pick anything off, but it was basically the same (crappy) secondary as from 2011 otherwise. The number of tackles among DBs went up, but it's difficult to draw any conclusions about effectiveness of the secondary from that, since both scenarios (DBs improved, LBs regressed) would generally be likely.

Oklahoma, 2010-11: Martinez probably plays some role in the comparative downtick among the Sooner secondary while he was there, if we want to be honest about things (that secondary never made it below good, to be fair). It's not that secondaries were bad, mind you. It's that they weren't as good as the outfits that came before or after them. FWIW, the number of players that made picks for these teams was numerous, which seems neat but may not mean much.

Georgia, 2005-09: Made Jonathan Crompton look competent, which colors my perception of him horribly. There was a slow degradation of defensive yards per play over his tenure (Todd Grantham continued that for another year but reversed the trend in 2011). Other than that, there were mediocre 2008 and 2009 sack numbers (which I won't hold against him) and declining INT totals from 2007 through 2009 (which I will).

Overall Impression of History: Ehhhhhh. There's a lot of mediocre going on at best, and those trend lines don't fill me with warm fuzzy feelings. I find it interesting that this is the first time in nearly two decades he's not coaching the entire secondary, although I suspect in part that's just a title issue.

Verdict: Martinez seems like a wash at best to me. I'm not sure - positionally only, mind you - he does anything that a bunch of other coaches can't do. We'll will likely need other coaches to step up to make up for what he doesn't appear to bring to the table.

Horrible Simplification of Coaching Qualities Into a Letter Grade: D+, I suppose. I could see arguments between C- and D, so let's just split the difference, and I'd lean toward D. Let's hope Martinez doesn't help Thigpen out too much, and hope he can recruit to match the hype surrounding him. I'm a little worried if that's not the case.

Steve Stripling, DL

Note that the UT site still has his Photoshopped tie up, which is both hilarious and fantastic. He's coached done DL and DL-type things for most of the last decade, 2008 excepted. It's worth nothing he's never coached in the SEC, if you're the kind of person who reads into that sort of thing.

Cincinnati, 2010-12: The DL under Stripling did a great job staying in the backfield, especially in 2011 (Derek Wolfe had 21.5 TFL(!)). This seems to indicate the DL will look to pursue past the line of scrimmage leaving the LBs to cover where need be and sweep up (which is borne out based on Jancek's qualities - we'll get there shortly). That pursuit extends to sacks as well as generic TFL.

Beyond that, the run D was rather stout while at Cincinnati although 2011 / 2012 defensive yards per carry exceeded 2010, but at the cost of greatly reduced TDs; I read that as a stronger red zone D, but allowing more yardage in midfield as a trade-off. I like that 2011 run D / DL a lot.

Central Michigan, 2009: Incomplete. CMU's rush D was better in '09 than either '08 or '10, but I'd like a second year to draw conclusions. The lack of a massacre and slight improvement seems to speak well, but beyond that I don't quite know what to say.

Michigan, 2005-07: We're into the Wayback Machine a bit here, but it's worth noting that the DL and rush D were solid and a half (LaMarr Woodley was his, as was the NCAA-leading rush D in '06) under him.

History: Stripling has led strong to excellent defensive lines at enough places where we have enough data to draw conclusions, and has the twin tandem of showing improvement and consistency among the guys he coaches.

Verdict: Plus guy. Been around the block more than a few times, and I like that track record of success elsewhere. I'm not sure how he'd do with a DE-DT-NT-DE type setup (which we seem geared to next year at least), but I don't see a reason to doubt him based on his recent record. This is a track record I like.

Horrible Simplification of Qualities Into a Letter Grade: B+, and I wouldn't sniff at A-. He's good. The only reason to knock him is a) inherent skepticism (I'm good at that) and b) not having SEC chops given 30 years in the trade, which - for him, at least - shouldn't matter too much.

John Jancek, LBs and DC (note: we're only talking about his LB development here, as much as we can)

Oddly, Jancek has spent a large portion of his career hanging around one of Willie Martinez, Butch Jones, and/or Brian Kelly - the last decade has been spent with at least one of them. He's coached LBs in addition to his other duties since going to Georgia (we'll get there).

Cincinnati, 2010-12: He's seemed to favor the one-man-tackling-machine approach (JK Schaeffer in 2010-11, Greg Blair in 2012). It's worth noting that while the DL did a good job of pursuing past the line of scrimmage - remember that he's been with Stripling the last three years - the LBs and DBs ended up raking in large chunks of the tackles, which tells me their main job is sweeping up at the line of scrimmage. As noted under Stripling's section, the rush D was solid.

Blair was also good at pass breakups in 2012, as was Schaeffer when he was there, which indicates that Jancek does a good job teaching awareness. (It's difficult to say how effective the LBs were in coverage, since I don't have access to that data other than anecdotes, which ....well, I like data).

Georgia, 2005-09: See Willie Martinez for some details, but the same basic idea we see with Cincinnati held here (except with Rennie Curran and Dannell Ellerbee). The rush D was good, but not fantastic. I put that back on Martinez a bit, but not so much that I'd discount Jancek having anything to do with it.

Verdict: I don't see anything here that's an indicator things will turn south, but I do see someone turning into a tackling beast. The Georgia tenure is a little worrying, but not so much that I'd really be afraid we're going to see a repeat of the same sets of issues here. It helps that we have recent success under a mostly similar staff to point to. It's a little weird that Martinez will be reporting to him, though.

Horrible Simplification of Qualities Into a Letter Grade: B. At worst, Jancek's seemed to make his group a little better. The success of his feature tackler has been a very positive development. However, I should note that it's a little hard to separate his success from his DL responsibilities, and I don't have a keen eye for discerning where the LBs really come into play other than broadly with the line. I'd be open to sway here.

So what does this mean in total? Between Jancek and Stripling, I feel pretty good about the coaching the front seven will get. Furthermore, we have an idea broadly of what they'll do - DL pursuit with LBs sweeping, likely the MLB at any given time. The secondary is more of a question mark - hopefully Jancek can help Martinez there now that the roles have been reversed, and an effective front seven can help some here. Coaching-wise, the secondary is the obvious question mark to me at least.

Overall grade, position only: B-, or something close to that. I'm giving a bit of credit to Jancek's DC and oversight capabilities here and thinking Martinez will cover the secondary - and hoping he improves some. That being said, based on the coaches alone, I have no reason to think our DL won't be anything but good and soon.

Coming soon: the offensive staff.