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: Pete Kwiatkowski
Title: Defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach, Texas
Previous stop: Washington defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach (2014-20)
Why he's important: The way Steve Sarkisian put together his defensive staff wasn't exactly conventional.
Normally a head coach hires his coordinator first, then works his way out from there. Sarkisian hired safeties coach Blake Gideon, passing game coordinator/corners coach Terry Joseph, and D-line coach Bo Davis two weeks before securing Kwitakowski.
And ideally you'd like your new staff to have a base level of familiarity with each other. Save for Kwitakowski and co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jeff Choate's time together at Boise State, none of these guys have ever worked together -- with Sarkisian, with Kwiatkowski, with each other.
Is this an all-star staff? A collection of parts that may or may not fit together? Yes.
Either way, the general consensus is Sarkisian hit a no-doubt home run with his all-important opposite-side-of-the-ball coordinator hire.
It's never a bad thing for a Big 12 defensive coordinator to have mastered the Air Raid, and that's precisely what Kwiatkowski did at Washington. In five Apple Cups against Mike Leach's Washington State, Kwiatkowski's defenses
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That doesn't mean anyone in Austin can kick their feet up and declare Lincoln Riley's offense solved, but it's the best foundational point one can ask for given the circumstances.
"Well, I think Pete, in his time — what he did at Boise State under (former head coach) Chris Petersen as the defensive coordinator and the success he had there, and then going over to the University of Washington, the success they had there — in my competing against him, he's always been a thorn in my side, going against him," Sarkisian said in April. "I think it's a very attacking-natured-style defense, especially up front. I think the secondary plays with a ballhawking mentality. And he stresses fundamentals — he stresses technique. And I think that was something that we needed."
Many moons ago, Kwiatkowski won the Big Sky defensive player of the year award as a 255-pound defensive lineman, collecting 15 sacks and 24 TFLs, so it makes sense that he built a defense that, above all else, specializes in getting the absolute most out of guys like him.
“We’re a big believer in, football’s not that complicated,” Kwiatkowski said told the Seattle Times in 2017. “There’s a lot of nuance and detail that goes into what we do, but at the end of the day it’s about striking blocks, getting off blocks, tackling, covering. We try to keep it that simple with our guys so they can play fast."
His former boss Chris Petersen also praised him as a "no ego" guy -- “He’s one of those few guys that I’ve been around that all he wants to do is do the right thing for the team and the defense" -- ideal for a new staff blending together different ideas born out of disparate experiences.
Previous installments: No. 15: Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech | No. 14: Travis Williams, UCF | No. 13: Liam Coen, Kentucky | No. 12: Jess Simpson, Miami | No. 11: Tim Banks, Tennessee | No. 10: Mike Bobo, Auburn | No. 9: Jeff Grimes, Baylor | No. 8: Mike Tressel, Cincinnati | No. 7: Mike Yurcich, Penn State | No. 6: Deland McCullough, Indiana | No. 5: Bill O'Brien, Alabama | No. 4: The Michigan staff | No. 3: Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame | No. 2: Jake Peetz and DJ Mangas, LSU
The Longhorns defense showed a marked improvement in its one season under Chris Ash, jumping from 98th to 27th in yards per play. The defensive line and secondary project to relative strengths -- Alfred Collins, the defensive tackle who intercepted a screen pass in the Alamo Bowl, projects as a backup right now -- and Kwitakowski and Choate should be able to turn linebacker into a strength as well.
And this defense had better be a strength, because the season, the program, heck, the near-term future of the entire university are highly leveraged around how this defense preforms early in the season.
Allow me to explain.
I've written on this previously, but the expectations on this Texas season begin at 100 miles per hour and never really slow down from there. The 'Horns open with No. 23 Louisiana, an 11-1 team that returns most everyone from last season, and then go to Arkansas for the biggest Hogs home game in years.
Three weeks later, Texas goes to Fort Worth to face an improved TCU team that has, frankly, owned UT since joining the Big 12. (That's sure to be a warm welcome, don't you think?) The week after that is Oklahoma.
Texas can be a top-25 level team and still find itself 3-3 at midseason. Which would be a total disaster.
Recruiting is going okay for the new Sarkisian staff -- not great, not terrible. With 17 commits, the Horns rank 11th in 247Sports rankings, well off the pace of Tom Herman's first full class that finished No. 3 in those same rankings. Sark and co. haven't gotten the new-car-smell that many new coaching staffs get, because it turns out after a decade of mediocrity the best players want to see results on the field.
Two of Texas's top 25 recruits are currently committed to UT -- No. 17 Bryan Allen and No. 22 Jaydon Blue. The staff lost Dallas-area cornerback Terrance Brooks to Ohio State and Beaumont safety Bryce Anderson to Texas A&M. They're still in the running for 5-star corner Denver Harris, 5-star guard Devon Campbell and 5-star receiver Evan Stewart, but if the Longhorns don't win early, each of those players have options -- and all of those options are in the SEC.
In the past, Texas could lose a player to A&M, Alabama or LSU and that player would cease to exist, at least in the burnt orange field of view. Not anymore. The SEC move has upped the ante in recruiting, where losing a recruit not only means you don't have that player, you now to have to play against him.
The SEC move doesn't just up the ante in recruiting, it dials up the volume across the entire university. The consensus across the country ever since the SEC's annexation of the Red River Rivalry is that Oklahoma is joining to compete and Texas is joining to make money, because that's all UT has been good at for the past 11 seasons. Again, a decade of mediocrity has consequences.
If Texas is already one of college football's favorite punching bags -- "Texas is BACK, folks!" -- can you imagine what life will be like if UT joins the SEC and goes 6-6? How do you recruit then?
No, Texas has to be competitive the moment it joins the SEC, which means it has to recruit well, which means it has to win straight out of the gate next month. And considering the offense, at least the passing game, appears to be a work in progress with two quarterbacks competing to be a first-time starter -- "(N)either guy played up to the standard that I that view as acceptable," Sarkisian said after UT's first scrimmage Saturday -- the defense has to carry the team early, with the weight of the entire university on its back.
And that's why Pete Kwiatkowski is the most important assistant coaching hire of the 2021 college football season.