Under-the-radar candidates for USC football’s head coaching job

As USC looks to return to college football dominance, it should seek the best coach rather than the most notable. Here are some of those candidates.

A photo of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard

Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and Penn State’s James Franklin have been strongly linked to USC’s head coaching vacancy since the university parted ways with Clay Helton on Sept. 13. Both could, however, have reasons to say no if USC comes calling.

Fickell has spent the entirety of his 22-year coaching career in Ohio, and a move to California would be a massive shift, especially when Cincinnati has received an invite to the Big 12 that would elevate it to Power 5 status. He has a relationship with USC athletic director Mike Bohn and chief of staff Brandon Sosna, both of whom previously worked at Cincinnati, but the comfort of staying in his home state could keep him from accepting the USC job. James Franklin is already in a comfortable position at Penn State, currently ranked No. 4 in the country. After finding success with a roster he has built, he may not wish to leave either.

Since USC failing to attract either of the aforementioned coaches is not out of the question, here are a few candidates who may be lower on the totem pole at the moment, but could be excellent hires:

Joe Moorhead, offensive coordinator, Oregon

Oregon beat Ohio State in Week 2, and that victory was largely because of Moorhead’s play calling. Moorhead is one of the most creative offensive minds in football and helped Oregon to a Pac-12 Championship upon his arrival in Eugene, despite the loss of quarterback Justin Herbert to the NFL Draft and left tackle Penei Sewell’s decision to opt out.

Moorhead’s time at Penn State under Franklin was incredibly successful, providing two of Franklin’s three career 11-win seasons. In those two seasons, 2016 and 2017, Penn State ranked No. 21 and No. 7 in the nation in points per game.

The Nittany Lions were also a fairly disciplined unit on the field, ranking 28th and eighth in penalty yards committed per game. In those same years, USC’s best under Clay Helton, the Trojans ranked 114th and 122nd in penalty yardage.

Moorhead may not have had a spectacular stint at Mississippi State in 2018 and 2019, with an eight-win season and a six-win season, but the offensive talent was lacking, namely in the passing game, and his defenses were excellent in his time there.

Moorhead’s 14 wins were the most of any Mississippi State head coach in their first two years, and he was the second coach in Mississippi State history to go to a bowl game in each of his first two seasons. Unfortunately for Moorhead, he followed Dan Mullen, who was likely Mississippi State’s most successful coach ever. That excellent start was still not enough for him to keep his job.

Additionally, the discipline Moorhead’s offense showed at Penn State did not carry over to Mississippi State. A major contributing factor to his firing at MSU was a fight that erupted while practicing for their bowl game. The fight cost the team its starting quarterback, Garrett Shrader, for the game, as he suffered an orbital fracture after being punched by linebacker Willie Gay Jr. In a press conference discussing Moorhead’s firing and their subsequent coaching search, Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen said what they’d be looking for in a replacement was “going to have to start with discipline.”

The doubt cast on Moorhead’s ability to lead a disciplined team is certainly not music to the ears of USC fans who watched Helton’s teams give up more penalty yards than over 100 other college teams every year of his tenure, but his offensive system has been successful against multiple very good teams and could help elevate USC football.

It is worth mentioning that during Moorhead’s Mississippi State tenure, the team faced an academic misconduct violation that resulted in sanctions. Those sanctions do not appear to have punished Moorhead, but nothing exonerated him either, and with recent scandals still in the air, USC may opt not to hire a coach with a history of academic misconduct adjacency.

Liam Coen, offensive coordinator, Kentucky

Liam Coen has risen in the coaching ranks very quickly. After spending six years bouncing around FBS and FCS colleges as a quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, Coen was hired by the Los Angeles Rams in 2018. He spent three years with the Rams, two as assistant wide receivers coach and one as assistant quarterbacks coach, before he was hired as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator. While it’s certainly early, Kentucky’s offense has looked excellent at times, with the NCAA’s fifth leading rusher and an inconsistent but often impressive Will Levis at quarterback, who was previously beaten by Sean Clifford for Penn State’s starting job.

An additional perk of hiring Coen, aside from the offensive prowess he has shown to date, is the possibility of hiring away Rams assistant coaches to higher positions. Rams defensive pass game coordinator and secondary coach Ejiro Evero spent three years coaching safeties for the Rams before his recent promotion, starting with the Rams in the same year as Coen. He also interviewed for the Packers defensive coordinator job over the offseason. If Evero is not hired by an NFL team for a DC job, he could be a very appealing candidate for USC’s DC and safeties coach. That would allow interim head coach Donte Williams to be retained as cornerbacks coach and assistant head coach.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest hurdle for Coen is inexperience. It’s early to put his name out there as a coaching candidate because he’s only been a coordinator for an offseason and three games. No matter how good his first two games looked and how complimentary articles written about him have been (both as a coach and in the interview process), it’s very early to claim Coen should be getting a head coaching job. If he continues to look good, he should get an interview, and he has impressed in those situations, according to the Athletic. He does have at least one notable name advocating for him, as Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff tweeted that Coen was a “future head coach in the making” on Sept. 16.

In 2019, Joe Brady was a first-year offensive coordinator who arrived at LSU from the New Orleans Saints and won the national championship. A title is all but impossible for Kentucky’s football team, but the Wildcats are currently 84th in passing yards with the 64th most yards per attempt in all of college football — even after consecutive games in which Levis failed to connect on anything downfield — after three straight years as a bottom-15 passing offense. A continued marked improvement like that should vault Coen into head coaching consideration, and his NFL connections could help land him a job.

Jim Leonhard, defensive coordinator, Wisconsin

Jim Leonhard hasn’t been a coach for very long, seeing as he’s a 38-year-old who spent 10 years playing in the NFL, but he’s already established himself as one of the smartest defensive minds in the game. In three of his four years as defensive coordinator, Wisconsin has had a top-10 defense in points allowed and has been somewhat competitive with teams like Ohio State despite having substantially less talent. He’s respected at the NFL level, evidenced by Green Bay interviewing him for its open DC spot, and he’s had substantial success in minimal time as a college coach.

Tim Kelly, offensive coordinator, Houston Texans

A former graduate assistant with Penn State, Kelly went to the Texans with current Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. He became offensive coordinator in 2019 and has done well to maximize his team’s talent. In Week 1, without Deshaun Watson due to the 22 allegations of sexual assault against the quarterback, Kelly showed a pistol-heavy offense that carved up the Jacksonville Jaguars and made Tyrod Taylor an exciting quarterback. In Week 2, Kelly replicated that success against a much more talented Cleveland Browns team until Taylor went down with a hamstring injury. His coaching has gone largely unnoticed because of his team’s lack of talent, but he could be an interesting option. Football Outsiders writer Derrik Klassen penned an analysis of the game Kelly called against Jacksonville.

Kelly’s offense hasn’t performed well since Taylor went down, but that is more down to backup Davis Mills offering nothing as a runner and failing to look like an NFL quarterback when passing the ball. With even a semblance of competence around him, Kelly led a successful offense. With the talent USC can attract, Kelly would have a lot to work with.

Alex Grinch, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma

Grinch has turned around Oklahoma’s defense since his hiring in 2019. In his first year, the Sooners went from 101st in points allowed per game to 28th and from 114th in yards allowed to 29th. In 2018, he served as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Ohio State, a defense that had 13 eventual draft picks — four first-rounders — with more potentially NFL-bound talent still in college. He’s been mentioned as a coaching candidate for jobs before, but his name hasn’t appeared in relation to USC’s opening.

Bill Bedenbaugh, offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, Oklahoma

Bedenbaugh has been one of the best offensive line coaches in the country in recent years. Every starter and two of Oklahoma’s backups in 2019 were eventually taken in the NFL draft. Bedenbaugh would also be able to bring a variation of Lincoln Riley’s extremely potent offense to USC, and he has experience around the original Air Raid, as he played for its creators, Mike Leach and Hal Mumme, at Iowa Wesleyan. He’s not a likely hire because he doesn’t have significant recruiting ties to California and he isn’t even a full coordinator, but fellow longtime offensive line coach Sam Pittman’s success in Arkansas could help him garner some consideration somewhere if he is interested.