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For at least some in the coaching world, the Iron Bowl felt like a potential early preview of the post-Nick Saban era at Alabama.
That’s how hot Steve Sarkisian’s name is at the moment. Not only is the Crimson Tide offensive coordinator a popular name whenever a new head coaching job comes open, it’s reached a point that others in the coaching world have even begun talking about him as someone that could make sense as Alabama’s eventual heir apparent to Saban whenever it comes time for Saban to retire.
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Either way, it’s safe to say that Sarkisian’s stock is skyrocketing at this point. He’s the leader of the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense among Power Five teams. He’s helped former three-star recruit Mac Jones develop into a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. And, as of Saturday, he’s now essentially the first coach aside from Saban to lead Alabama to a win over Auburn since Dennis Franchione in 2001.
“Based on the body of work, in terms of what our offense has been able to accomplish last year and this year, no one could argue that he’s done a fantastic job,” Saban said. “In terms of developing players, having them well-prepared for the game, inspiring them to play with a lot of effort, toughness discipline, some of the intangible things that it takes … he does a fantastic job and I think the body of work really speaks for itself.”
Sarkisian isn’t alone, though.
There are also other SEC assistant coaches whose stock is very much on the rise since the start of the season.
Who are the others? To find out, AL.com polled different coaches and administrative figures around the conference.
Here’s a rundown of the names that came up most often (listed alphabetically):
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett
While Mike Leach’s teams have always been known more for the offense, the biggest strength of Leach’s first Mississippi State squad has been the defense. It’s a group led by the 34-year old Arnett, who was hired in January after initially signing on to become the defensive coordinator at Syracuse. Although the Bulldogs have lost some key defensive players in recent weeks, including both starting safeties, they’re third in the SEC in run defense and entered last weekend ranked No. 4 in the conference in total defense (366.9 yards per game). In comparison, Mississippi State gave up an average of 419.3 yards in conference games last year. Arnett, a former New Mexico linebacker who runs a unique 3-3-5 defense, was previously the defensive coordinator for two seasons at San Diego State. His 2019 group ranked third nationally in scoring defense.
Arkansas cornerbacks coach Sam Carter
When Barry Odom was hired as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator, he inherited a unit that gave up 450.7 yards per game last year and an average of 39.9 points per game against SEC opponents. Both numbers ranked as the worst in the SEC. Yet, the defense has been significantly better in this first season under Odom, even after losing third-round draft pick McTelvin Agim and All-SEC linebacker De’Jon Harris. Carter, a former All-Big 12 safety at TCU, has helped with that. After working as a defensive analyst under Odom at Missouri from 2016 to 2019, the 30-year old Carter is now earning respect at Arkansas in his first opportunity as an on-field coach. The Razorbacks have held three of their last seven opponents to 21 points or less, are ranked No. 2 nationally with 13 interceptions and are tied for first in the nation with three pick-sixes. Eleven of the 13 interceptions and all three pick-sixes have come from the defensive back group, including six interceptions and two pick-sixes from Carter’s cornerback group.
Kentucky defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale
Even after facing each of the SEC’s top four ranked passing offenses, Kentucky opens December ranked second in the conference in pass defense. Led by Clinkscale’s secondary, the Wildcats’ defense has limited opponents to an average of 232.9 passing yards per game. It’s the latest standout work from Clinkscale, who also led the way for Kentucky’s 2020 recruiting class that ranked 25th-best nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings. Clinkscale, one of five Youngstown, Ohio natives on the Wildcats’ staff, was a lead recruiter on four of the top six ranked players in the Wildcats’ 2020 class. That includes Justin Rogers, a prized defensive tackle recruit from Michigan who was rated as the 52nd-best overall player nationally within that 2020 recruiting class. Prior to Kentucky, Clinkscale was the defensive coordinator under Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati in 2015.
Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko
A year after the Aggies were just eighth in the SEC in total defense, Elko has A&M ranked No. 1 in the conference defensively while yielding 54 fewer yards per game against SEC opponents (328 this season compared to 382 last year). The No. 5 ranked Aggies are also No. 2 in the conference against the run, having limited opponents to an average of just three yards per carry after surrendering an average of 4.4 yards per carry in SEC games last season. In three of A&M’s last four games, Elko’s defense hasn’t allowed a single touchdown through at least the first three quarters and was on the verge of a shutout against LSU this past Saturday until a touchdown in the final minute. It’s a turnaround that’s been achieved despite the Aggies being without two of their top defensive players from last year— defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, a third round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, and linebacker Anthony Hines, who ranked second on the 2019 team in tackles and tackles for a loss. It’s a credit to Elko, who is in his third season at A&M after one season as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. It’s also a credit to assistants like defensive line coach Elijah Robinson and linebackers coach Tyler Santucci, two rising stars in the coaching world. Robinson’s group is arguably the top defensive line unit in the SEC and the feeling among SEC coaches is that Santucci’s linebacker crew has been getting better and better throughout the season.
Texas A&M offensive line coach Josh Henson
It’s not just the defense playing well for A&M. The offense is too, largely thanks to an offensive line that’s improved significantly from last season under the direction of Henson. Last year, the Aggies ranked 107th nationally and last in the SEC in sacks allowed (2.62 per game). This year, A&M has allowed just three sacks total through seven games. That’s the fewest sacks allowed among not only SEC teams but among all Power Five teams that have played at least five games. To go along with that, the line has cleared the way for an Isaiah Spiller-led running game that’s No. 2 in the SEC in rushing and No. 1 in yards per carry (5.3) after the Aggies were just eighth in the conference in rushing offense last season. It’s coming in year two under Henson, a former Oklahoma State offensive lineman who developed into a 37-game starter and All-Big 12 selection after initially joining the program as a walk-on. Henson, the offensive coordinator at Missouri when the team played in the 2013 and 2014 SEC title games, joined the A&M staff after two seasons as the offensive line coach at Oklahoma State.
Alabama running backs coach Charles Huff
In recent months, Huff has not only established himself as the favorite to win national recruiter of the year but has also continued to build on his reputation from a coaching standpoint. Mac data recovery bootable usb. Huff, who is ranked No. 1 nationally in the 247Sports recruiter rankings for 2021, has landed four five-star recruits since the beginning of May and helped Najee Harris take his game to an even greater level following his decision to return to the Crimson Tide for his senior season. Harris’ numbers are up across the board. That includes rushing touchdowns (up to 17 from 13 last year), yards per carry (up to 6.0 from 5.9 last year) and rushing yards per game (up to 111.6 from 94.2 last year). Multiple SEC coaches have mentioned Huff as a potential sleeper candidate for the Vanderbilt head coaching job.
Florida offensive coordinator Brian Johnson
Johnson, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this year after two seasons as Florida’s quarterbacks coach, has been one of the influential figures behind the success of Florida’s highly-ranked offense and the development of quarterback Kyle Trask. Aided by Johnson, Trask has progressed from a quarterback who didn’t even start in high school into the current Heisman Trophy front-runner. Trask leads the country in completions of 15-plus yards (9.1 per game) and ranks first nationally with 34 touchdown passes. Behind figures like Johnson and Trask, the Gators are 7-1 and ranked No. 2 in the SEC in scoring (43.4 points per game). It’s not just that with Johnson, though. The 33-year old is also having success as a recruiter and is up to No. 12 nationally in the 247Sports recruiter rankings after landing five-star cornerback Jason Marshall and four-star safety Corey Collier during the lead-up to the season. “I think Brian, if you look what he’s done, he’s obviously a great coach at his position, extremely smart, extremely involved in game-planning as far as an offensive guy goes as far as the ability to be a great play-caller and to design offenses,” Florida head coach Mullen said. “… He’s going to be a great head coach one of these days if someone gives him his opportunity.”
Missouri offensive line coach Marcus Johnson
Johnson inherited a group that wasn’t great last season, that lost arguably the top three players from that 2019 unit and that ended up getting set back during fall camp because of COVID-19 issues. Simply put, the offensive line was a significant concern for the Mizzou coaching staff heading into the season. Nevertheless, the unit has ended up being a pleasant surprise under Johnson, even with the Tigers having been forced to use four different offensive line combinations through the team’s first seven games. Johnson’s offensive line is fourth-best in the SEC in sacks allowed (1.86 per game) and has assisted running back Larry Rountree in accumulating an average of 92.9 rushing yards per game. That’s fifth-best in the SEC and 20th-best nationally. Johnson, a former All-SEC offensive lineman at Ole Miss and a 2005 second-round NFL draft pick, is in his first season at Missouri after two years as the offensive line coach at Mississippi State. At Mississippi State, he coached two players that have gone on to become Day 2 NFL draft picks — Tyre Jenkins, a third-round pick this year, and Elgton Jenkins, who went in the second round of last year’s draft.
Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby
Lebby, who previously worked at Central Florida and Baylor, has teamed up with Lane Kiffin to construct essentially a new and improved version of the old Baylor system that produced the nation’s top-ranked offenses in 2013, 2014 and 2015. It’s worked out well. This Kiffin-Lebby offense is ranked third-best nationally with an average of 563 yards per game while ranking fifth nationally in passing (356.5 yards per game) and No. 1 in the SEC in rushing (206.5 yards per game). It’s the second straight year that Lebby has had a top-five offense after leading the country’s No. 2 ranked offense in 2019 as the offensive coordinator at Central Florida. Lebby isn’t the only Rebels offensive coach whose stock is on the rise, though. The same could be said about tight ends coach and passing game coordinator Joe Jon Finley, who joined Kiffin’s staff after one season at Texas A&M and three at Missouri. The former Oklahoma tight end is a respected behind the scenes contributor from both a coaching and game-planning standpoint and is on the radar in the coaching world as someone who will likely be an offensive coordinator in the not too distant future. Under Finley, Kenny Yeboah has become one of the SEC’s top pass-catchers among tight ends. Yeboah is first among SEC tight ends with 524 receiving yards and is second with six touchdowns, behind only Florida star Kyle Pitts.
Alabama cornerbacks coach Karl Scott
In the last 4.5 games and 18 quarters, Alabama’s defense has given up just 33 total points. Scott’s cornerback group has been a big part of that. Despite two of the three starters being first-year starters, Scott’s cornerback group has been arguably the strength of the Crimson Tide defense and one of the country’s best overall cornerback groups. Patrick Surtain has continued to establish himself as a top 2021 draft prospect. Josh Jobe has emerged as a potential All-SEC player and possible top three round NFL draft pick. Alabama has also gotten a significant impact from its freshman starter at nickel back, Malachi Moore. The Hewitt-Trussville product has accounted for a takeaway in four of the team’s last seven games, production that’s even more noteworthy considering Moore wasn’t a blue-chip recruit and arrived in Tuscaloosa as just the 16th highest ranked player within the Tide’s 2020 recruiting class. Adding to Scott’s stock being on the rise is his continued success as a recruiter. After finishing No. 3 in the 2020 247Sports recruiter rankings, Scott is No. 2 in the rankings for this cycle, behind only Huff. His latest big recruiting win came in late October when he secured a commitment from five-star cornerback Ga’Quincy McKinstry, the top-ranked player in Alabama within the 2021 recruiting class. While Southern Miss is reportedly set to hire Tulane offensive coordinator Will Hall as its head coach, word is that Scott was at the very least on the school’s preliminary list of names for that job.
Arkansas wide receivers coach Justin Stepp
The only coach from the previous Arkansas staff to be retained by Sam Pittman, Stepp has continued to make an impact for the Razorbacks from both a coaching and recruiting standpoint. Under Stepp, sophomore Treylon Burks has evolved into one of the top wide receivers in the SEC and ranks fourth in the conference in receiving yards per game (85.4). Stepp’s wide receiver group also features Mike Woods, who has developed into one of the SEC’s top deep threats. Woods is second in the conference with an average of 20.5 yards per catch and has six catches for 269 yards with two touchdowns and an average of 44.8 yards per catch in Arkansas’ last two games vs. Florida and LSU. In addition, Stepp is the Razorbacks’ top-ranked recruiter for this cycle after adding a commitment from four-star wide receiver Ketron Jackson in early September. Stepp has now been a lead recruiter on six four-star receivers that Arkansas has landed in its last three classes. Stepp, a former Furman wide receiver, originally arrived at Arkansas with Chad Morris in 2018 after three seasons under Morris at SMU. At SMU, Stepp coached two future NFL draft picks — 2018 second-round pick Courtland Sutton, a 2019 Pro Bowl selection, as well as 2018 seventh-round pick Trey Quinn.
Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters
Texas A&M and Georgia are the top two ranked defenses in the SEC. Can you name the third? Probably not. It’s Missouri. It’s not like it should be a surprise, though. It’s the second straight season that the 34-year old Walters, a former All-Big 12 safety at Colorado, has the Tigers ranked third in the conference in total defense. The play from Walters’ defensive unit has been a big part of Missouri winning four of its last five games after starting 0-2. The Tigers have limited three of their last four opponents to 10 points or less and are No. 1 in the SEC in pass defense after finishing No. 2 in pass defense last season. A current head coach singled Walters out as someone he’s especially high on as an up-and-coming coach.
Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White
Under White, Kentucky has quietly been one of the better defenses in the SEC these last two seasons. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the SEC in scoring defense through six games and did something earlier in the year that had previously never been accomplished. Led by White, who was hired at Kentucky in 2018 after six seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Kentucky held Mississippi State without a single offensive point during a 24-2 win. It was the first time since Mike Leach began coaching at the Power Five level 23 years ago that one of the Air Raid guru’s offenses finished a game without a single offensive point. It was also the first time since 1996 that a Kentucky defense held an SEC opponent without any offensive points. It’s all added to the respect that other coaches have for White and this Kentucky defensive staff that also includes others like Clinkscale and another rising star in inside linebackers coach Jon Sumrall, who finished as the runner-up to Chip Lindsey for the Troy head coaching job in 2019. Sumrall, who turned down at least one Power Five defensive coordinator opportunity this past offseason, is viewed as a right-hand man figure for White and as someone who will be either a defensive coordinator or head coach at some point in the near future.
Others worth mentioning: LSU offensive analyst Russ Callaway, Mississippi State defensive analyst Jamar Chaney, Alabama offensive analyst A.J. Milwee.
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Matt Zenitz is a senior SEC football reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mzenitz.
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