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B1G Thoughts: A lesson for Lincoln Riley from Ryan Day

Riley enters 2024 needing to prove himself, and that starts by restructuring his defensive staff.

NCAA Football: Southern California Press Conference Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images

Every week after the Big Ten slate of games, I will bring you some B1G thoughts on everything that happened! This will include analysis, stats, key players, moments, and maybe a joke. With the Big Ten expanding from 14 teams to 18 teams in 2024, this article will also include the newest members: Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Washington. Check out the I-80 Football Show for more in-depth analysis and to preview the next week of B1G games.

Lincoln Riley is regarded as one of the best coaches in college football. He is considered a quarterback guru — a bit over-inflated if you ask me — and a brilliant offensive mind. He is one of a few coaches who can go into any school in the country and recruit a five-star quarterback.

For all intents in purposes, he is a great coach, but he is also an underachieving coach. Despite having Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts and Caleb Williams, he has never won a championship and has yet to see real success since leaving the Big 12. Despite all of his success, he is also the coach who wasted the talents of Williams, a Heisman winner and the odds-on favorite for the first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Despite bringing Williams back for 2023 and loading up in the transfer portal, Riley and the USC Trojans went 8-5, losing five of their last seven to end the season. This collapse was in large part due to Riley continuing to employ Alex Grinch as his defensive coordinator.

While Grinch deserves a lot of blame for seemingly not knowing how to call a game, create a game plan, or get his players to tackle, Riley deserves blame as well. Firstly for continuing to employ him and gaslighting media and fans into thinking their concerns on defense were due to lack of knowledge, but also because it’s clear that he does not value defense.

There have been rumors and media reports that Riley did not put Grinch in the best position to succeed, one area in particular being he does not allow for tackling in practice. We don’t know if that is true, but what we do know is this is Riley’s only chance to get this right.

This is where Ryan Day comes in.

I believe Day is more what people think Lincoln Riley is, and he has had more success in a much harder conference. Day has his flaws as Ohio State fans know, but this is not the article to talk about those.

Day, like Riley, arguably wasted the talents of the best quarterback in his coaching career by maintaining a porous defense. Many believe, myself included, that Ohio State would already have won a championship — maybe two — between Justin Fields and CJ Stroud, but Day made consistent bad hires on defense after losing Jeff Hafley to Boston College. Where I believe Day should be a model for Riley is in the hiring of Jim Knowles.

When Day hit rock bottom, he went out and hired the best defensive mind in football; A coach who made Oklahoma State a top-five defense and made him the highest-paid coordinator in college football. He also went out and hired Tim Walton, a former Buckeye, from the NFL, and Walton has turned into the best defensive recruiter in the country.

Even this season, despite having a top-three defense, Day made changes by firing a safeties coach that most fans didn’t think needed firing and hired Indiana’s co-DC and former OSU analyst Matt Guerrieri. Day so swiftly and forcefully changed his defense, that in 2023 it was the offense that held the team back.

Riley is trying to do that now, but I am not sure he’s doing it correctly. His new defensive staff is filled with big names, but its construction is flawed in my opinion. His current defensive staff is as follows:

  • D’Anton Lyns, Defensive Coordinator
  • Eric Henderson, Co-DC and Defensive Line
  • Matt Entz, Assisatnt Head Coach and Linebackers
  • Doug Belk, Defensive Backs
  • Shaun Nua, Defensive Ends

On paper this staff is impressive. Belk is a former defensive coordinator who ran one of the nation’s top defenses at Houston. Entz is a former defensive coordinator in the FCS and left his job as the head coach of North Dakota State where he won an FCS national championship. Lastly, Henderson was most recently in the NFL working for the Los Angeles Rams. This looks like the all-star team of coaches, but I believe this staff is flawed.

Let’s start with the defensive coordinator. Lynn has one year of experience as a defensive coordinator, and it was last season. When your job is on the line trusting, a coordinator with one year of experience is a risk. On top of that, if you could hire Belk, an experienced coordinator with much more success, why would you ask him to answer to an inexperienced coordinator versus being the coordinator himself?

Same with Entz. You are asking a successful coordinator and national champion head coach to listen to someone who has little experience.

This also feels like a one-year experiment to me. Entz made this jump to become a defensive coordinator or head coach at the FBS level. Belk is most likely going to use this to jump to a new job, and Henderson will probably parlay this into a college or NFL defensive coordinator job. So everyone on the staff has eyes elsewhere and there is no clear line of order.

Belk is the most experienced on the staff, so does he report to the defensive coordinator, co-defensive coordinator, or assistant head coach for defense? Yes, I know that the titles are probably just to soothe egos, but that’s another concern: there are so many outsized egos in that room.

Maybe Riley is a genius. Maybe by hiring so many coaches who want to use this as a springboard he has guaranteed success because they all want this to work. If it works, he will have to start over and do it all over again. This is the antithesis of the route Day took, hiring the brightest defensive mind, who had years of experience, and building a staff around him with a clear line of command.

Day has been rewarded for his success, and if he can fix his offense it will potentially end in a national championship. Riley’s staff feels like it should be the cast of a reality TV show where you make coaches with different personalities live in the same house. This staff feels like a last-ditch effort from a man who genuinely has no idea how defense works. He’s throwing darts at a wall and hoping they stick.

That is not a smart strategy as USC enters the Big Ten in 2024. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but if I’m not it is going to be another tough season for the Trojans.

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