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: Liam Coen, Kentucky
Title: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Previous stop: Los Angeles Rams assistant wide receivers coach/assistant quarterbacks coach (2018-20)
Why he's important: How does a guy who was last seen in the college game running the 58th best offense in the FCS get a coordinator job in the SEC?
You earn the approval of this guy right here.
"He was a great quarterback at UMass. Has a great feel and understanding of the game from an all-22 perspective," McVay said via text to Joe Tessitore. "Expect him to use motions, formations, tempo as a weapon to apply pressure to the defense. Spent the last three seasons as one of my most trusted coaches who I heavily relied on behind the scenes. Strong communication skills, great ability to connect with the guys."
Coen was indeed a successful quarterback at UMass, a 4-year starter who led the Minutemen to the title game as a sophomore. After a year in the arena league, he returned to the New England FCS scene, where he might still be today if not for McVay.
He was Brown's quarterbacks coach for the 2010 season, then got a passing game coordinator job at Rhode Island in 2011. He returned to Brown for 2012-13, then went back to his alma mater as passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. That was enough to land him the coordinator job at Maine in 2016 where, working alongside then-30-year-old head coach Joe Harsymiak, his offenses finished 88th and 58th in scoring.
He'd agreed to coordinate Holy Cross's offense ahead of the 2018 season when McVay pulled him 3,000 miles away from everything he knew -- literally and figuratively.
Coen replaced Zac Taylor, who was promoted from assistant wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach; a year later, he was the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Coen's rise wasn't quite that fast -- he spent a whole two years as assistant wideouts coach, then one as assistant QBs coach.
Now, this 35-year-old who's never coordinated an offense at the FBS level is the point man of a total makeover in the SEC.
Coen will bring McVay's system with him to Lexington, featuring lots of wide zone and play action that actually looks like a run play, rather than a play-action pass.
"I believe that truly marrying the run and the pass is such an advantage," Coen said. "We've run the football effectively but all of our play-actions, keepers and movements are directly married to the run game. That true marriage, playing around with tempos, in an out of the huddle, making (the defense) defend every blade of grass."
"I believe this system is extremely friendly to the SEC style of play -- run the ball, play action, move the launch spot. I believe so much of the NFL game translates to the SEC," he continued.
Coen not only had to teach the offense to a new set of players, but to his fellow coaches as well. O-line coach Eric Wolford and running backs coach John Settle are also new hires, but both are longtime college guys. For his part, Coen said adapting will be a two-way street. "There are some pieces that I need to fit my system to, not the other way around," he said.
Kentucky's output dropped an even yard per play from 2019 to '20, from 6.15 to 5.15, prompting Mark Stoops's first wholesale change in five years. Sophomore Joey Gatewood, the 4-star recruit once expected to be the second coming of Cam Newton at Auburn, is the presumptive starter after backing up senior Terry Wilson last season. Leading rusher Chris Rodriguez, Jr., is back, and Nebraska transfer Wan'Dale Robinson, if he plays to his paper, is the type of player that can move the offense up a letter grade on his own.
"He's a difference maker," Stoops said. "He's a guy that was electric this spring, and you could feel his presence on the field."
Kentucky is not a program likely to lead the SEC in scoring -- in eight seasons under Stoops they've yet to finish higher than eighth -- but there's enough confidence in Stoops's ability to build a defense that Big Blue doesn't have to be dominant offensively to be really good again. They've just got to threaten, to borrow Coen's phrasing, every blade of grass.
"I felt like this spring we got the ball down the field better than we have in years," Stoops said, "so I feel very good about it."