So ever since the Kevin Steele news, things have been kind of a roller coaster for Tiger fans. The hire was not all that well-received, but things perked up the next day with the announcement that Ed Orgeron would be joining the staff as well.
We know what we're getting with Coach O, so let's focus on Steele for the moment. For a guy that draws such a visceral negative reaction among fans, he sure does seem to be highly regarded by his peers and never really struggles to find a job. He's been hired by a number of coaches, and of course multiple times by Nick Saban at Alabama. He's been a part of a lot of successful college staffs, worked for some NFL legends and even been a head coach. That's come with some pretty high-profile failures as well.
So what's the deal? How does this guy keep getting work? He just know the right people? Why do coaches think so much of him? Is it just the recruiting? Steele would hardly be the first or last coach to be much better at bringing talented players to campus than he is teaching them the proper techniques and fundamental concepts. Do Mrs. Steele's lemon bars just make him a must-have for all the staff barbecues? What?
I thought I'd seek out as many informed opinions as I could to try and learn as much as I could about the guy, good, bad or otherwise. I talked to people with knowledge of Steele's overall career and his most recent stops. I figured that would be most relevant to who he is as a coach and how he might run things here in Baton Rouge. I don't really care that much about his stint at Baylor 15 years ago for the same reason I didn't care about Cam Cameron's stop at Indiana. It was a long time ago (I know I was damn sure a different person back then), and in both cases the jobs involved were infinitely more difficult than they seem now. Oh, and the job one does as a head coach doesn't translate to how he does as a coordinator.
Let's start with what we know: Steele is a native of Dillon, South Carolina, where he grew up with former LSU DC John Chavis. The two were classmates, teammates and later worked together at Tennessee. Steele has mostly coached linebackers, with a little bit of experience at defensive backs. LSU had thought about hiring him as defensive backs coach in 2012, after he'd spent the year observing the program while his son Gordon worked as graduate assistant (Miles chose Corey Raymond instead). They later tried to give him an "administrative intern" position, similar to what is offered to Brick Haley now, but he wound up taking the Director of Player Personnel position at Bama.
He's coached in a variety of styles, from your basic 4-3, rover style, to the Dom Capers zone-blitz 3-4, to Nick Saban's current 3-4 "over" look. At Clemson, he ran a 4-3 "under" look and even worked in some 4-2-5 type stuff. He's known for being very aggressive, particularly in terms of bringing pressure from the edge. Additionally, he's a former Rivals Recruiter of the Year. Reportedly his allure to Les Miles has involved his experience in the league, the aggressive style he favors, and that comfort with different schemes. Steele himself has said he would like to be somewhat multiple and will adjust to how he views the talent on hand:
"It won't just be taking a playbook out, dusting it off and throwing it on and saying this is what we're doing," Steele said. "We have to adapt things to the talent on the field, because I promise you this, I cannot tackle."
So let's hear it all. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
For starters, a lot of what we said about Steele after the hire was made holds up as you talk to people. He's a guy that's been around a long time, worked at a lot of places with a lot of coaches. He's never really had the "guru" or "genius" reputation, just a basic, fundamentals type of coach.
"Les needed somebody that not only knows the SEC, but knows it right now," said Scott Roussel of Footballscoop.com, who is on record as liking the hire. "Nick's hired Steele a bunch of times for a reason, and it should be an easy transition for the team. Steele and Chief are a lot alike, and I wouldn't surprise me if the terminology isn't all that different."
"He's a pure X's and O's guy," said Louisiana scout and football analyst Mike Detillier. "You look at the guys he's worked for -- Nick Saban, Tom Osbourne, Bobby Bowden -- those guys know when they have a guy that knows what he's talking about, and if they're going to keep you around, you better. Or you better be a dynamic recruiter, and guess what, Steele is that too."
Highly organized and detail-oriented, Steele has also developed a reputation as a man with notes on almost every situation, as profiled in this feature from The Advocate. Longtime college and NFL defensive line coach Pete Jenkins also provided some of his thoughts on Steele here to Sonny Shipp of Geaux 247.
"He's really intense and he knows what he wants," said Roussel.
In addition to being from the same home town as Chavis and signing a whole lot like him, Steele shares the Chief's reputation for being a fantastic linebackers coach. He worked with Trev Alberts in his All-American days at Nebraska, the loaded Panthers units of the mid-'90s and Alabama's groups, including last year's Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland.
"Ragland was a first-team all-SEC guy this year," said Trevor Hewett of Bama Online, the Alabama affiliate on the 247 recruiting network. "Steele coached inside linebackers and did a fantastic job with him. He also did a lot of work with Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower in his first stint at Alabama."
Steele obviously has some background in the 3-4 alignment. At Clemson, he used a 4-3 "under" look, which isn't radically different.
It's the style of front preferred by the Monte Kiffin Tampa Bay defenses and Pete Carroll's USC and Seahawks groups. It's mostly defined by the strong side defensive end playing over the tackle, while the strongside linebacker plays over the tight end. A defensive tackle plays in a three-technique on the backside, with the end on the left tackle's outside shoulder. He can easily move out wider in pass-rush situations. With the Mike and Will linebackers aligned over the guards, it's easy to imagine the unit looking more like the 3-4 just by shifting that backside end out a little wider and standing him up.
As to whether LSU will be making a full-on transition, well, Detillier's a bit skeptical.
"LSU is a 4-3 school," he said. "Louisiana is a 4-3 state because that's the talent that's most readily available. I don't think you'll see a change so much as a variation."
At Clemson, Steele trended towards a lot of man-to-man coverage, with cover-one, robber and two-deep safety looks on the back side. His units are also known for pressure. In those three seasons in South Carolina, Steele's defenses averaged 89.6 tackles for loss -- that's actually 4.5 more per year than LSU averaged in Chavis' six seasons (85.1). It's also worth noting that in that time, Chavis produced 15 front-seven players that have made NFL rosters, and that number should increase to 18 this year with Danielle Hunter, Jermauria Rasco and Kwon Alexander all entering the NFL draft. In his three years at Clemson, Steele had seven NFL prospects.
"John [Chavis] was big on the idea of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword,' in terms of how he wanted to blitz and bring pressure," said Detillier. "He wanted to get his pressure with the front four, and kind of funnel guys inside. Steele will want to bring guys from the edge -- when you use that 3-4 look, you can create matchups with that extra linebacker, and you can move people around. That's been Kevin's M.O. when he's been a coordinator."
There's also Steele's reputation as a recruiter. He was named Rivals.com's National Recruiter of the Year in 2005 while at Florida State, and was credited with a number of high-profile Alabama signees in recent years, including current five-star running back prospect Damian Harris.
"Steele is known as an excellent recruiter who can figure out what kids and parents want to hear," said Bud Elliott, editor of SB Nation Recruiting. "That's been true for two decades in the game."
And the addition of arguably the top recruiting assistant in the game, Ed Orgeron, certainly can't hurt.
"Look, every coach I know, especially on defense, looks better when he has beasts out there running around," said Roussel.
So far, we know that Steele has a pretty good coaching and recruiting reputation overall, but position coaching isn't quite the same as coordinating.
"It's a bit of a mixed bag there," said Detilier.
The primary knock on Steele comes from the heat of the moment in gameday situations -- when it's easy for emotions to boil over.
"He's gotten caught up in the emotions of the game," said Detillier. "You can lose focus and let one play affect how you call the next one. A coordinator has to have a level head there."
Dr. B, formerly of the Clemson site Shakin' the Southland, now available here, echoes those sentiments and says that Steele struggled to teach and translate all his knowledge to players.
"I think that Steele's overly complex NFL-style set of adjustments led to his downfall," said Dr. B. "He didn't simplify his system. He just can't pare his stuff back enough to communicate it to a player. I really thought that our defense had too many checks and adjustments to be made on every play, and we suffered paralysis by analysis in every game."
That's discouraging to hear when a lot of the talk going around is of adjusting LSU's current defensive scheme and being "multiple." As important as simplicity can be on offense it is paramount on defense, where players are already forced into reacting to what the offense is trying to do.
One of Les Miles' criteria for this hire was knowledge in defending the spread, but per Dr. B, Steele's units struggled against teams that used mobile QBs, such as spread or option units.
"Against mobile QBs, you have only a few choices in scheme. If you Spy him, you're really forcing yourself into a zone or Cover 1 Robber where the Robber is spying," said Dr. B. "If you watch how Saban played against Manziel, you can see the quandary a coach faces. He chose Robber, and once everyone turns their back on the QB to run with the receivers, and the RB takes away the Robber by running a route, the QB can just run all over you. Most Clemson fans will point to this as a big reason why they hated Steele. Any QB with a pulse could run for 100 yards on us."
It is worth pointing out that once upon a time, defending the spread/mobile quarterback was a frequent knock against Chavis as well. The defensive talent run from 2011 through this season seemed to turn that tide a little.
Ultimately, Steele's failure as the DC at Clemson was from the top down. Even the linebackers looked confused at times, according to Dr. B. We've discussed it quite a bit already, but his units there continued to decline, dropping from 18th in F/+ in 2009 to 59th in his final season in 2011.
That said, talent was likely in play. Clemson's last class prior to Steele taking over ranked 31st in the 247Sports Composite rankings. It also contained just 13 players that made it to campus. Six of which played defense.
"The drop off at Clemson was so sudden and steep that you figure personnel was a major issue," said Football Study Hall's Bill Connelly. "He didn't just become dumb."
Dr. B also noted the talent issues, but says that Steele did very little to address the situation.
"When we hired him, I knew we had hired a guy who was former Rivals Recruiter of the Year and did a great job at FSU," he said. "He didn't do much in recruiting at Clemson. Dabo Swinney prefers to keep his coordinators closer to home (which I don't really agree with), and they never recruit during the season (which I do agree with). Our coaches also recruit assigned territories and not by position. So basically, Steele brought in this great rep and never brought in any great players all by himself. It is fair to point out that our best LB haul in 20 years was under him (2011 class), but he wasn't really doing the recruiting on the road except but one of those. His strong ties in Florida really never materialized, so I'm not optimistic about Steele winning you any battles in Texas or the Gulf Coast or getting players from the other big boys. I hope Miles sends him out and makes him recruit."
That's where Ed Orgeron would hopefully come in. Detillier also suggests that Coach O's presence could possibly help as something of a calming influence in terms of the flow of a game. Sounds a little counterintuitive from the loud, bombastic persona we all know (and love) about Orgeron, doesn't it?
Orgeron has always favored a very defined rotation for his defensive linemen, and under Chavis, d-line coach Brick Haley was responsible for signaling in plays. It's not crazy to speculate that Orgeron would be positioned as Steele's go-between from the booth to the field. Steele coordinated from the sidelines at Clemson.
"Ed's a fiery guy, but he's a focused guy," said Detillier. "You know, at USC, Pete Carroll is a pretty emotional guy, and he was the de facto coordinator there, but Ed was responsible for translating a lot of that to the players. If a coach is up in the booth, that gives him a little bit of distance. But no doubt, the big question will be how (Steele) handles the flow of the game."
There's only one place to go with this one, and that's to the 2012 Orange Bowl. Steele's Clemson defense was torched for 589 yards and 63 points in a 70-33 bloodbath that has been the subject of any number of internet memes that we've all seen a couple dozen times.
In the aftermath, there were a number of reports of Steele suffering a breakdown of sorts. According to Dr. B, he struggled with gameday nerves all season.
"I knew that several times during his tenure that (Steele) did have to have IVs after the game," he said. "He was so nerve-wracked before a game that he'd forget to eat, or puke it up when he did. More than once I did hear a rumor, from dubious sources, mind you, that Steele was calling plays that no one on defense knew."
That could suggest some health problems that go beyond just nerves, something that could also be overcome in the interim. It's also worth pointing out that in that very same season, LSU allowed 533 yards to the same West Virginia team, albeit in a 47-21 win. The Mountaineers also picked up 28 first downs in the game, compared to 31 against Steele's Clemson defense.
Still, if we defined every coach by his worst moment, there wouldn't be that many still employed. Texas A&M damn sure wouldn't be so excited to be acquiring the same coordinator that allowed more than 260 rushing yards four times last season, and 500 or more total yards twice.
Draw your own. My goal with this piece wasn't to spin or put any kind of dressing on this hire; it was to be informative. To get different points of view from different outlets on Steele, a hire that wasn't popular at all when it happened, but seems to be growing on people, mostly because of the addition of Orgeron. I know coordinators are hired to get fired, and they're rarely popular on the way out. I also know that coaches can grow and actually improve.
Is that the case with Steele? I have no idea. And we won't know until we see some results on the field. So that's all we can really do right now.