Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2021 season and beyond.
Who: Jess Simpson, Miami
Title: Assistant head coach/defensive line coach
Previous stop: Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach (2019-20)
Why he's important: Basically since Mark Richt returned to Coral Gables, Miami has perpetually been Next Year's Team.
Don't take my word for it, believe Bill Connelly, generally regarded as the best in the college football preview industry. 2017: "If Miami has a QB, the 2017 Canes will win their first ACC division title." 2018: "Mark Richt's Miami Hurricanes are the projected favorite in all 12 of their 2018 games." 2019: "Miami can win big with steadiness at QB -- just like it could've last year." 2020: Even with mediocre offensive projections, the chances for a big season are pretty decent. If King + Lashlee = top-30 O, then this is an ACC contender."
Heading into 2021, Miami is third in Connelly's returning production metric. The Canes bring back 95 percent of their offensive output, the most in FBS. Manny Diaz's offensive makeover around coordinator Rhett Lashlee and D'Eriq King worked. Last year's team rated 40th in yards per play, 29th in passing efficiency and 26th in scoring -- significant improvements over years past.
The move worked, largely. The team went 8-3 and finished third in the ACC. And yet as the offense improved, the defense fell off. A unit that finished fourth in yards per play in 2018 and 13th in '19 plummeted to 67th last season. The team was also a spectacularly average 51st in scoring and 59th in passing efficiency.
As a result, the defensive staff is almost wholly different than last year. Coordinators Blake Baker (LSU) and Ephraim Banda (Utah State) now work elsewhere, D-line coach Todd Stroud and cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph moved off the field, and Diaz is now his own play caller. "I will call the defensive plays on game days, which we feel is our best path to maximizing our strengths on that side of the ball,” he said at the time.
Diaz replaced Rumph, a former Cane, with another former Cane DeMarcus Van Dyke. He hired Travis Williams to coach linebackers, then Ishmael Aristide when Williams got the coordinator job at UCF. Former South Carolina coordinator Travaris Robinson was brought in to oversee the secondary, and lastly Diaz bridged old and new with Simpson as his assistant head coach and defensive line coach.
The senior assistant on Diaz's new defense has spent most of his career at the high school level. He was part of a Buford staff that set the Georgia state record with 47 straight wins, then claimed seven titles of his own in 12 seasons as a head coach. Simpson jumped into the college game at Georgia State in 2016, then joined the Falcons staff in 2017. That was enough to land him the D-line job at Miami, a year that saw The U rank 23rd nationally in yards per carry allowed, first in tackles for loss per game, ninth in sacks, and 18th in scoring.
“In our room, what it starts with is playing connected and being together,” Simpson said in April. “I have said that a million times this offseason. It is defensive end to defensive tackle. It is defensive tackle to back-side defensive tackle. It is playing together with great eyes and great technique.”
The Hurricanes tied for 17th nationally with 30 sacks last season, but nearly half those sacks are now on NFL rosters. Meanwhile, the run defense -- a strength in years past -- fell off considerably last fall. Miami allowed 4.55 yards per carry, 81st nationally and a 44 percent increase from 2019.
The ends are mostly new to Simpson, but the Canes return three upperclassmen tackles that were pups on the coach's first turn on the staff.
“When you’re at the University of Miami, it’s about being disruptive. It’s about getting vertical,” he said. “We are vertical penetrators, and we’re going to move a bunch. These guys are going to get to stunt. … We’re looking for guys that can run out of their stance, play with great fundamentals, but we want to tackle a back in the backfield and we want to affect the quarterback.”
Miami has a quarterback in sixth-year senior D'Eriq King. It has an offensive coordinator in Rhett Lashlee. With Diaz calling his own plays and a re-tooled defensive staff behind him, next year is this year.