-Bumped. BN Eds.
So UCLA finally has their football coaching staff filled out. It is all but confirmed that John Pagano will be hired as Defensive Coordinator before the recruiting dead period ends on Wednesday.
Just as a little bit of background on Pagano:
He's a Colorado guy, graduated in 1988 with a degree in Business Marketing from Mesa State where he was a linebacker on the football team.
After graduating, he went right into coaching, spending a season as an assistant at Mesa State in 1989.
From there he got an Assistant Coach spot at UNLV and stayed there from 1990-1991 under Jim Strong who was Lou Holtz's OC and Assistant Head Coach for nearly the entirety of Holtz's coaching career.
After Strong lost his job at UNLV, Coach Pagano went back to Colorado to become the Defensive Coordinator at Overland High School in Colorado from 1992-1993. Pagano's team managed to win the Colorado 6-A State Championship in 1993. He went back to the college ranks after that, spending a year as a Graduate Assistant at Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss (where those team went 3-8 and 6-5 respectively). I couldn't find any info on what position he coached at either stop, but I assume both were on defense. Ole Miss was a competitive SEC team, only allowing over 30 points to only LSU and Auburn who were both highly ranked at the time.
After that he made the leap to the NFL, spending 1996-1997 with the New Orleans Saints and 1998-2001 with the Colts. In his time with the Saints he spent time under DC Jim Haslett and with Jim Mora coaching the secondary in '96. Despite going 3-13, the Saints actually had the 13th ranked defense in '96 (29th ranked offense out of 31 teams). In '97, Mike Ditka's first season as head coach, Pagano was a part of the 4th ranked defense in the NFL.
After spending three years with the Jim Mora Colts team of the late 90's and early 2000's., whose overall game-plan during that time was basically, "Let Peyton Manning throw and we'll never have to worry about defense." Which ultimately led down the road to the "Playoffs..." outtake from the elder Jim Mora.
This is where Pagano made his trip out West to the San Diego Chargers as a Linebackers Coach in some capacity 2002-2011 as well as Quality Control Coach (which basically means, he was the guy watching more film, game-planning and scouting opponents more than any coach on the staff).
In his time on the Chargers, their defenses have ranked:
30, 27, 18, 13, 10, 14, 25 (the season that Shawne Merriman and Derek Smith were lost early in the season and the first post-Wade Phillips at DC year), 16, 1 and (pending the results of today) 11.
In his time as Linebackers coach for the Chargers, he's coached quite a few All-Pro/Pro Bowl seasons. Junior Seau and Donnie Edwards in 2002, Shawne Merriman in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and Shaun Phillips in 2010.
Now for my personal take on the hire,
I think it is a very solid choice overall, with the potential to be a steal. I don't claim to be an football aficionado or expert; but I thought he was a season or two away from deservedly getting a shot at being an NFL Defensive Coordinator.
Pagano has been coaching an outstanding group of LBs throughout his time in San Diego. He’s mostly responsible for turning a 4th round pick out of Purdue into one of the best OLBs in the NFL (Shaun Phillips) and also has a 3x All-Pro in Shawne Merriman on his resume.
He has certainly had the success in SD to merit becoming a Defensive Coordinator at the NFL level.
Going into a more personal take on Pagano, I took a look at a couple of videos with Pagano:
Needless to say, I do not link videos unless I think they are worth watching, so I recommend both.
What I take away from the first video is that he’s turned down a lot of opportunities to get a pay raise at the NFL level because his family is a So Cal family (son has been here since he was 2 months old) and he loves it here in So Cal. That negates the threat of him bailing for a better job if he is successful here, which is a big deal from my point of view. The way he describes himself as a player is exactly what you want in a coach, "Not the fastest or strongest, but always the smartest one." These are always the type of players who turn into good coaches because they tend to be relentless on getting the absolute best out of every player, regardless of talent level. He isn't going to let a guy like Cassius Marsh or Dietrich Riley or Jordan Zumalt stop improving.
The second video is a breakdown of a drill, that I adore conceptually. So often this year, UCLA's LBs and defensive players in general took on blockers with their bodies instead of their hands and hats (facemasks/helmets). That gets you bottled up and stops pursuit quicker than anything. Sean Westgate, despite my opinion of him being the best LB in coverage and LB who made the fewest mental mistakes, was a huge victim of this due to his size. That is why you'd see him take on lineman aggresively; but be driven out of the play. If Pagano installs fundamentals like this, this defense can improve drastically, very quickly.
My only hesitations from full-on praising this hire are:
1) He is taking this job to escape the impending purge in San Diego. Smart move, but he appears to be the type of guy that is settled down in the area.
2) He has been a 3-4 guy for the last 10 years.
What I am most interested in is whether or not he brings in the 3-4 with him from SD.
This is not a move I am instantly confident or negative about with regard to the personnel on UCLA’s defense being able to fit in a 3-4.
Once it is made clear what he plans to do with respect to defensive scheme at UCLA, I am going to put together an in-detail post on how I see the returners fitting into the scheme. But these are a couple of my initial impressions of a switch to the 3-4.
Datone Jones is a damn near ideal 3-4 end, and, in my opinion, that is probably what he will end up playing in the NFL. Biggest responsibility is plugging gaps in the run game. Think Ngata in Baltimore or Justin Smith up in SF. Obviously he isn't that level of a player, but those are both DT/DE tweeners that flourished once they got to a 3-4.
Cassius Marsh is also a great fit at DE or DT in a 3-4 because he has the size to play a true nose guard, but also has the athleticism to move outside.
This potential 3-4 switch would be big for the younger D-lineman like Seali'i Espensa and Kevin McReynolds, who fit a lot better as 3-4 NG than 4-3 DTs.
My last thought on personnel is that Aramide Olaniyan is a prototype OLB in a 3-4. Would be a great opportunity for him to get a chance to impact games and make his mark early. He has the pass rush ability to get after the QB from the edge and the speed to actually cover outside
From my perspective, out of all the coaching issues UCLA has had during this era, the one position that has been most poorly handled have been the LBs, which is the spot I expect Pagano to take over in addition to DC.
That was the spot that killed UCLA’s defense all year. People expected big things out of the D-Line and they certainly underachieved, but, to me, were the only group that clearly improved throughout the season.
I watch the linebackers more often than anything else while suffering through UCLA games. My overall view on their performance this season was that this group is very undisciplined in gap responsibility, consistent with their poor tackling, and consistently poor communication in pass coverage.
At any level of football, If the LBs on a defense are an issue, then the entire defense is an issue. It is almost impossible to find a defense that is dominant without a solid group of LBs. Not necessarily excellent LBs, but solid, "bring your lunch pale and go to work" type of guys starting and backing up every spot in the 2-deep.
Pagano has consistently has gotten the best out of any LB that comes his way. That group has dealt with a lot of injuries and missed games from their best players over the years and seen very limited drops in level of play.
Finally, a big concern for people looking at this hire might be that Pagano has had limited experience coaching at the collegiate level and recruiting. My feelings on that concern are that having collegiate experience on the defensive side is far less important than it is on offense.
If Mora had hired a NFL WR or O-Line coach as the Offensive Coordinator, I would have had a big issue because offensive schemes in the NFL are so limited and the offenses in the NFL are all ball-control oriented.
"Punting is winning." "Run, Run, Pass." That keeps your job on offense in the NFL. Which is why I was so anti-Mora, Gruden, Herm Edwards to begin with.
In contrast to that, a good Defensive Coordinator or Defensive Position Coach, regardless of the level of play, is determined by a team’s ability to tackle consistently well and having every player bought into the scheme 100%.
A good defensive scheme adjusts to each individual offense it faces and should evolve and change a little every week. That’s the nature of the beast on defense. You can’t bring in a "spread" defensive guru or a "power run" defensive specialist, you need a guy that can motivate, scheme and, most importantly, adjust against anything that is thrown their way.
While he’s been at San Diego, there has been constant buy-in on the defensive side of the ball and consistent improvement, which tells me he can motivate, he can scheme and he can adjust. While he has been at San Diego, the Chargers always seemed to be the team that could beat and/or slow down the elite AFC offenses with guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger in any game.
I'm cautiously optimistic about UCLA football at the moment. There is still a desperate need for a wholesale regime change in UCLA Athletics. The facilities need improvement, they need to be practicing on a full-scale field, fixing the uniform/marketing situation needs to happen.
Despite this, Coach Mora is doing everything he needs to at this point. He has to prove it on the field before I endorse him fully; but I like every move he has made so far. Hope that he keeps making them, to me, the Pagano hire is anther step in the right direction.