The way the NFL season is turning out, we can expect multiple head coaching openings when the offseason hits this upcoming winter. From the hot mess that the Oakland Raiders have become to questions about whether Gus Bradley will remain with the Jacksonville Jaguars, there is no reason to believe that there is going to be a shortage of head coaching openings.
Now take into account reports out of San Francisco about Jim Harbaugh’s job security and the way the St. Louis Rams have performed under Jeff Fisher. This could potentially open up two attractive opportunities for college coaches to make the jump to the NFL.
Here are five of the best coaches in the nation who, in the mind of this one scribe, are prepared to make the jump from the college ranks to the NFL.
1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Dating back to his days with Shiloh Christian High School in Arkansas where he won back-to-back state championships in 1998 and 1999, Malzahn has been well known in the south for being an innovative offfensive mind. Utilizing a wide-open offensive attack, the current Auburn coach got his first head coaching gig in college football with Arkansas State in 2012.
But before that, he led Auburn’s offense and quarterback Cam Newton to school record performances from 2009-2011. Once the head coaching gig opened up with the Tigers following the 2012 season, they were quick to bring in the former coordinator. And the results were immediate. Starting the 2013 campaign unranked, Malzahn led Auburn to an 11-1 regular season record before defeating Missouri in the SEC Championship game to earn a title in the BCS title against Florida State. While Auburn fell short on a late touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Kelvin Benjamin, the nation took notice.
Now less than a year removed from an appearance in the National Title game, Malzahn has Auburn right up there with the best teams in the nation. His level of success and experience will not go unnoticed by teams thinking outside the box this upcoming offseason.
2. Steve Sarkisian, USC
Sarkisian could very well be one-and-done in Southern California. He’s among the best quarterback minds in the nation and excels in a pro-style system. These two things are extremely attractive to NFL teams that either have young quarterbacks or will have to groom one in the not-so-distant future.
In terms of previous success, Sarkisian obviously fits the bill there. He was USC’s quarterbacks coach from 2001-2003, helping both Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart turn into top-ranked pro prospects. After spending the 2004 season as the Oakland Raiders quarterback coach where he worked with Kerry Collins, Sark returned to USC from 2005-2008. Over the course of those four seasons, he groomed Mark Sanchez into a top-ranked prospect.
It is, however, his success at Washington that makes Sarkisian a natural fit for a team looking to work in a young quarterback. He turned a winless Huskies team into a five-win unit in his first season with the program. More than that, Sark returned to form as a quarterback guru by helping Jake Locker turn into one of the most dynamic players in the nation.
There is some concern about Sark’s lack of success thus far this year at USC, but there is little doubt that he can be a valuable mentor to a young team and help a franchise rebound from the failure that the past few seasons have brought. This is where the Raiders, who Sarkisian has previous ties with, may come into play. After all, Derek Carr could use his services.
3. David Shaw, Stanford
Shaw is the obvious choice to be the next college football coach to make the transition to the NFL. Taking over for Jim Harbaugh as Stanford’s head coach in 2011, Shaw has enjoyed nearly unparallelled success on the “farm.” He is 37-9 in three-plus seasons with the Cardinal, earning a BCS Bowl bid in each of his first three years.
While Stanford is having a down season in 2014, there is no reason to believe that Shaw’s stock will drop barring a complete meltdown in the final couple months of the campaign. He runs a pro-style offense, learned from the likes of Harbaugh and Greg Roman and has the previous experience that translates to success in the NFL.
Prior to his tenure at Stanford, Shaw was a quarterback coach in the NFL. First with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1997 and then with the Oakland Raiders in 2001. During his tenure with the Raiders, Shaw helped Rich Gannon put up one of the best seasons of his career. After working with the Baltimore Ravens from 2002-2005, he moved to the University of San Diego with Harbaugh. This tells us a story of a coach that has both the talent and experience to be a great head coach at the next level.
4. Art Briles, Baylor
Dating back to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s at Brownwood High School in Texas, Briles has been known as an innovative offensive mind. He won four State championships during his tenure with that school, breaking multiple national records during that span. After moving on from the high school ranks in 2000, Briles served as the running backs coach at Texas Tech for three seasons before getting his first college football head coaching job with Houston in 2003. He led the Cougars to three bowl appearances in four seasons, moving the team to the spread attack.
Outside of that, we already know Briles’ story at Baylor. He took over a downtrodden program in Waco and has led it to national prominence over the past couple seasons. Briles’ biggest claim to fame was the development of Robert Griffin III from an unknown quarterback to a Heisman Trophy winner and top-round NFL draft pick.
With the NFL moving more to the passing game, the idea of a spead-style head coach moving from college to the professional ranks isn’t too far-fetched anymore. Let’s say all these reports about Jim Harbaugh being on the outs in San Francisco are real. The idea of Briles leading Colin Kaepernick in a spread attack moving forward could be enticing to the powers to be in Santa Clara. While that may be a bit far-fetched, Briles should draw some interest from teams looking for a new coach in the offseason. That much is hard to deny.
5. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly’s personality may very well act as a deterrent for NFL teams looking to bring in a college head coach. He is extremely tough on his players, which might not work too well at the professional level. But let’s be honest here for a second, Kelly can coach a football team. What he has done in South Bend after so many coaches failed prior to his arrival in 2010 is nothing short of amazing.
More than that, Kelly has looked over the progression of Everett Golson from a wide-eyed young quarterback in 2012 to a player that is getting first-round buzz this season. Simply put, the Irish head coach gets the most from his players and does well in the schematic aspect of the job.
While Kelly might not necessarily be a good fit for a veteran-laden squad, he would do wonders for some young teams looking to overcome recent failures. That’s where the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars come to mind.
Photo: Fox Sports