Florida's been without a defensive backs coach for almost a whole week now, which seems like a typically cynical lede I would write, right? Except: This absence — prompted by the announcement of Kirk Callahan's we're-not-calling-it-a-firing-because-we're-Florida-but-well-it-was-a-firing last Friday — is coming just weeks before National Signing Day, and with Florida trying to lock down at least one key defensive back.
Quite frankly, it's simply not a good thing to be down a coach during the most pressure-packed recruiting period of the year, much less when you're trying to sway a five-star prospect like Kristian Fulton, the Louisiana corner that the Gators covet.
So it's not a surprise to see a report from Gridiron Now this Wednesday that suggests Florida is "closing in" on a secondary coach — but it's a bit of a surprise to see the site tab Tim Skipper, Florida's running backs coach, as a leading candidate.
The conventional wisdom after an assistant coach is let go holds that a search will commence for another coach to replace him at the same position, which is what makes "hot boards" and lists of potential candidates such easy content. You can find names like LSU defensive backs coach Corey Raymond, Mississippi State defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend, and Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray on "hot boards" of candidates to replace Callahan at any of many sites at the moment; here's the Gridiron Now stab at one, with those names and some others.
"Conventional" does not mean "only," though.
Skipper makes some sense as a defensive backs coach, in any of the many assistant coaching positions on Florida's staff, because he's served in a variety of them in his coaching career. As we mentioned when Skipper was first hired, he'd been a linebackers coach, a defensive backs coach, and a defensive coordinator prior to reuniting with Jim McElwain at Colorado State; that versatility makes him extremely valuable in a pinch, and Florida's unquestionably in one right now. (Skipper is also a native New Orleanian, something that Florida can leverage with Fulton now and future Pelican State studs on defense.)
Gridiron Now suggests that Skipper sliding from running backs coach to defensive backs coach might also make room for Florida to bring on West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider at the same position. That would be a coup: Seider is renowned as a phenomenal recruiter of South Florida, and has helped Dana Holgorsen mine the area for studs for years. Of course, Seider might not want to leave Morgantown for anything other than an offensive coordinator position, something that wouldn't be available at Florida except perhaps in a co-coordinator role with Doug Nussmeier much like the one Daymeune Craig shares with Rhett Lashlee at Auburn.
But Florida could get something out of moving Skipper to defensive backs coach and shifting other pieces even if it can't get Seider, and Skipper isn't only candidate to switch roles. Speculation has floated in recent weeks about the possibility of moving Greg Nord, Florida's oldest assistant coach (he's two months older than offensive line coach Mike Summers), from his position as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator to an administrative role, and making room for a new face in the Gators' on-field coaching staff and off-campus recruiting rotation.
And with Florida sending quality control coach Marquel Blackwell, a Tampa mainstay, on the road this week, and sending director of player personnel Drew Hughes out in November 2014, when Florida did not have a permanent head coach to send out on recruiting trips, there are two leading candidates to shift from off-field to on-field roles.
Shifting pieces around might make it easier for Florida to have a full staff in the short term, though the argument that the Gators might shortchange a position group by promoting from within is valid. But if Florida can lock down a well-known assistant coach — Seider, or someone like him — by moving Skipper and/or Nord to new roles, it seems clear that McElwain is at least open to the idea.
This principle of getting the best cohesive group of coaches and recruiters possible on staff and making the pieces fit after the fact has helped Nick Saban and Alabama build an imposing staff that, in 2015, featured three former college head coaches (Mario Cristobal, Lane Kiffin, and Bobby Williams), a former NFL defensive coordinator who served as an interim NFL head coach (Mel Tucker), and a renowned defensive line coach who served as a linebackers coach (Tosh Lupoi).
While the wisdom of copying Alabama has come under fire of late, it's also true that the SEC school best suited to emulate some of Alabama's principles is Florida, which has proximity to the most fertile recruiting grounds in the Southeast on its side. And after Florida's first attempt to model itself after Saban's Camelot on the Black Warrior failed when Will Muschamp flamed out, the Gators shifted gears, picking McElwain, a coach whose substantial takeaways from Saban are largely process- and philosophy-based, but whose offensive strategy is different enough to differentiate his team.
Regardless of what choice it does eventually make, it's clear that Florida has a choice to make — and two branching paths to walk.