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: Travis Williams, UCF
Title: Defensive coordinator
Previous stop: Auburn linebackers coach (2016-20)
Why he's important: Three different head coaches have led UCF to seasons of 12-1 or better within the past eight seasons, and now the Knights have hired a head coach who was a play away from a national title at Auburn. So if you're looking for why an Orlando reporter can unironically ask Gus Malzahn if he's prepared for expectations to go up in leaving Auburn for UCF, not you know why. Knights fans have seen George O'Leary, Scott Frost and Josh Heupel go undefeated or close to it, so any loss suffered by the Mighty Malzahn will feel like a tragedy.
Malzhan will run his own offense, but manning the defense will be a long time lieutenant, but first-time coordinator, in Travis Williams.
Williams played linebacker on Auburn's 2004 "national champion" team, winning the Pat Dye Leadership Award in '04 and '05. A brief professional career followed, before he returned to the Plains as a graduate assistant in 2009. He helped the Tigers win the real BCS title in 2010, then left again in 2012.
Williams returned to Auburn a second time in 2014 as an off-the-field staffer; by 2016 he was the team's linebackers coach, and in 2019 he added a co-coordinator title. When Malzahn's staff broke up in December, Williams landed a job as Miami's linebackers coach. Two weeks later, Malzahn approached Williams with an opportunity to run his defense.
"We're excited to bring in one of the best young defensive minds in all of college football to be our defensive coordinator," Malzahn said. "Travis was a major reason for the success of our defense at Auburn. He's not only a great coach, but a great person, and he is tremendous at developing relationships with his players. Travis is one of the rising stars in this profession."
Previous installment: No. 15 -- Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech
It's fair to say UCF has fallen off from its self-proclaimed national championship, 25-game winning streak heights of 2017-18, but it's more accurate to say UCF's defense has fallen off. No one in the American gained more yards or scored more points in 2020 than UCF, and no one in American allowed more yards in 2020 than UCF. In fairness, the Knights were a modest ninth in yards per play and eighth in scoring, but the point remains.
UCF lost four games last fall. In those four games, they surrendered 570 yards per game, 7.1 per play, and 42.3 points per game -- including 50 to Memphis, 49 to BYU and 36 to Cincinnati (and the Bearcats were right at the goal line as the clock expired).
True to form as a former linebacker, Williams has stressed tackling and effort above all else.
"We're going to get to the ball like our hair's on fire. That's going to be the main thing you see," he said at his introductory press conference in February.
“You can’t play defense and not tackle," he continued a month later. "Now with so many offenses being spread out and different things like that, you have to be able to tackle in space. We want to be a really great tackling team, we have to get the guy on the ground and stuff like that. That’s just the defensive player in myself.”
"We're going to ask them to do hard things. At the same time, we're going to love them even harder.
It's clear to see why Williams has risen in the profession. His energy and enthusiasm will make him an instant hit among players and fans alike (so long as his defense tackles people).
"I've been around so many coaches that don't like being themselves. I'm very comfortable being Travis Williams."
If Williams is as comfortable coordinating a championship defense as he is piloting a scooter around Orlando, he'll be on the same track Justin Wilcox and Clark Lea successfully completed and the one Mike Elko and Marcus Freeman are on right now -- successful Group of 5 defensive coordinator, to successful Power 5 defensive coordinator, to Power 5 head coach.