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 2020 season and beyond.
No. 20: Zach Arnett, Mississippi State
No. 19: Larry Fedora, Baylor
No. 18: Justin Hamilton, Virginia Tech
No. 17: Sean Gleeson, Rutgers
No. 16: Adam Fuller, Florida State
No. 15: Matt Lubick, Nebraska
No. 14: Mike Bobo, South Carolina
No. 13: Rhett Lashlee, Miami
Who: Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce, Arizona State
Titles: Co-defensive coordinators (Pierce also serves as ASU’s associate head coach, linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator)
Previous stops: Pierce is an original member of Herm Edwards’ ASU staff; he was the head coach at Long Beach Poly from 2014-17. Lewis spent 2019 as a special advisor; he was the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach from 2013-18.
Why they’re important: We’re bending the rules a little bit here. Both Lewis and Pierce were at Arizona State in 2019, but neither coordinated the Sun Devils’ defense. And what a fascinating experiment this will be.
No team in college football has co-coordinators with a longer list of accomplishments at the next level than Arizona State: Lewis won 131 games as the Bengals’ head coach and a Super Bowl as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator; Pierce spent nine seasons as an NFL linebacker and won a Super Bowl with the Giants. Every school can make their own arguments to recruits, few can plop two Super Bowl rings on the table.
“I think it’s an achievement that a lot of guys set on their path, ‘I want to be a pro football player.’ It’s easy to say, hard to do. With the environment that’s created here, with the knowledge in the building, there’s a lot of information in this building,” Herm Edwards told me in April.
To hear the head coach tell it, Lewis essentially hired himself as defensive coordinator.
“When it came up … I had a list, but before I got to the list, Marv walks in the door, and he says, ‘I got you,’” Edwards told Arizona Sports in February. “And I went, ‘What? You have what?’ He said, ‘I got it.’ The next thing I told him, I said, ‘Let me get this right. Have you told Peggy, your wife, that you’re going to do this? Because I’ve got to clear it with her, first.’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m in.’”
With Danny Gonzales now the head coach at New Mexico, Lewis and Pierce will transition Arizona State from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3.
“The direction from Coach Edwards in the offseason was to look at more conventional 4-down stuff to try to utilize our personnel and be able to recruit to it.”
The switch was made, Lewis said, to unlock Arizona State’s defensive line, both in the talent already on campus and in the staff’s ability to bring in future pass rushers.
“More opportunities to get to the quarterback, more 1-on-1 opportunities for them,” Pierce echoed in February.
Lewis has been teaching his scheme for multiple decades (see proof below), and Pierce said much of the staff’s time has been distilling it into bite-sized chunks college players can consume — especially in a world where offense are snapping the ball as fast as the laws of physics allow. “You can’t have this scheme that’s so out there, as far as thinking and trying to adjust and make everything right,” he said.
Arizona State’s 2019 team started 5-1 and rose to No. 17 in the AP poll before dropping four straight — allowing 36 points a game in the final three. But the Sun Devils rebounded by closing the year on a 3-game winning streak, picking Justin Herbert twice in a 31-28 upset of Oregon, then holding Arizona and Florida State to 14 apiece.
The Sun Devils return eight starters — though there’s bound to be positional shuffling with the shift in schemes — from last year’s defense, a group that finished fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring and yards per play.
The schedule is undeniably difficult — USC on the road, trips to Washington State and Oregon in a 2-week span, the latter of which falls on a Friday night. But in the perpetually wide-open Pac-12 South, if Lewis and Pierce can work their magic quickly, it would not be a surprise at all to see the Sun Devils in the Pac-12 title game.