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Kevin Steele will more than likely be the ‘Canes DC in ‘22

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Nothing with college football coaching hires is a sure thing until the ink is dry, but Kevin Steele looks like the name for Mario Cristobal.

Outback Bowl - Minnesota v Auburn Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It looks as though Mario Cristobal’s first defensive coordinator at the University of Miami is none other than Kevin Steele. Steele, a long time coaching veteran of the ACC and SEC, comes to Miami from a brief stop at Maryland.

Steele, a South Carolina native, played his college football for Furman and Tennessee, before serving as a student assistant and then graduate assistant for the Vols from 1980-1981. Steele then coached the Tennessee outside linebackers before starting on a coaching journey that took him to New Mexico State, Oklahoma State (with Larry Coker, I might add), and back to Tennessee, before a six year stint at Nebraska.

While at Nebraska from 1989-1994, Steele faced the ‘Canes twice for the National Championship (‘91, ‘94) as well as a battle against Florida State (‘93)- finishing 1-2 in title games with the Huskers. Steele coached against Mario Cristobal when he was a starting offensive lineman for the ‘Canes in the 1992 Orange Bowl.

Kevin #91

Steele spent the 1995-1998 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Dom Capers while coaching Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, and former Cristobal teammate at The U- Michael Barrow. On that same roster was former ‘Canes DB Bubba McDowell, too.

From 1999-2002, Steele served as the head coach at Baylor. It was an unsuccessful run for Steele who finished with a record of 9-36, including a 1-31 record in conference with the Bears. Steele then coached linebackers at FSU from 2003-2006, before taking the DC job at Alabama under Nick Saban from 2007-2008.

Oklahoma v Baylor Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Steele served as the Clemson DC from 2009-2011, the Crimson Tide Director of Player Personnel in 2013, and Bama linebacker coach in 2014, before heading to rival Auburn. Steele and Cristobal crossed paths again at Bama, where Cristobal and Steele were coaching under Nick Saban.

While at Auburn, Steele served as the DC and eventual interim head coach from 2016-2020. In ‘21, Steele spent two weeks on the Vols staff in a return to Knoxville, before winding up at Maryland before Miami now in ‘22.


The Doppler

Steele has worked under a ton of different types of head coaches and DC’s and in completely different styles and eras of football through five decades of coaching college and pro football. Nick Saban and Dom Capers 3-4, the old Oklahoma State defenses of the 80’s, Mickey Andrews’ 4-4 base defense, the 4-2-5 and the 4-3... you name it, Steele’s coached it.

At Bama, Steele ran Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense. Steele helped Saban set up the defense that moved the needle from 25th to 5th in three seasons. After Steele left Kirby Smart and Saban had the Bama defense at 1st in the nation per the SP+.

At Clemson, Steele bounced around between the 3-4 and 4-3 sometimes from week to week, and it showed. Steele was the victim of the Dabo Swinney purge that saw Billy Napier let go for Chad Morris at OC, a year before Steele was canned for Brent Venables at DC. In Venables second year the defense bounced from 69th to 19th, and we all know the rest.

At LSU, Steele made the defense worse dropping it from 5th to 34th, before leaving and seeing the Tigers defense skyrocket back up to 2nd in SP+ defense.

While at Auburn, Steele found his most success. He took the 40th defense to 16th right away, and eventually 3rd, 6th and 5th ranked SP+ defenses. In the Gus Malzahn final year / booster usurping fiasco the Tigers slipped to 30th in SP+ defense.


The Cons

The cons of Kevin Steele are fairly clear:

1- He’s had struggles as a DC at both LSU and Clemson, places with an unlimited budget and talent supply. Struggles being loosely defined. Coach Steele has coached ONE defense that finished sub-34th in SP+ in 11 seasons as a full-time DC. However, LSU, Clemson and Auburn should always be cooking up top-25 defenses, at a minimum. Also, at Auburn, he thrived with their strong recruiting and run-first approach of Malzahn.

2- Steele has worked under micromanagers before, like Nick Saban, and for HC’s that let their DC run their side of the ball like Les Miles, Swinney, and Malzahn. Mario Cristobal seems to like his hand in all facets of the program as a CEO head coach. Is Steele willing to take orders from Cristobal? I’m sure it’s been discussed.

3- The last two and some change years of his career have been odd. All signs point to Steele attempting to overthrow Malzahn at the end of Gus’s run at Auburn. Then, his two week experience at UT which saw Josh Heupel decided to move in another direction at DC. Steele then started working at Maryland only to leave for the Miami job.

4- He’s old. Steele is in his 60’s and it’s hard to say how much he has left in the tank. Then again I’m glad Cristobal is bringing in someone with head coaching experience, who also has NFL experience, and has put some of the best defenses in the nation on the field in the ACC and SEC.


Iron Bowl ‘20

The ‘20 Iron Bowl was a meltdown for Auburn. Gus Malzahn was all but out the door, Kevin Steele was in (sort of) and Nick Saban’s greatest offense ever in Tuscaloosa rolled. The Tigers gave up over 11 yards per pass attempt to Bama QB Mac Jones, over 5-yards per carry to the Bama offense, all while allowing Jones to throw five TD’s. The Tigers defense logged two sacks, three tackles for loss, two PBU’s a hurry and one fumble recovery.

Above- A very Venables’ian approach here. A safety is at the LOS and runs the deep middle while there’s a 4-man rush that includes edges and DT’s.

What were the silverlinings to a 42-13 blowout? Let’s see:

Above- Let’s just say, compared to what we saw at Miami with Blake Baker and Manny Diaz, this is a whole different game of football. Auburn DE’s wrong-arming kick outs, the S’s are in the picture on the EZ film, and the LB’s are square, working on a chain vs. turning and running. Real defensive football!

Above- Bama with the OODA Loop jacker-upper but Auburn adjusts well. Motion plus a switch concept in traffic. The Tigers DB’s are fluid in the hips on this and recover well. Good eye discipline here that fails at times in other spots when they’re tired from being on the field so much.

Above- Bama runs a cute Pass-Run Option with a screen-toss concept. Auburn’s right side isn’t fooled and they play the run extremely well on a spill technique. Spill is when the defenders are trying to force the runner out of bounds, as opposed to box which is trying to turn the runner back in to the middle of the defense.

A drill interlude:

The reason people harp on the type of drills done when you see practice film is this- are you preparing your athletes for the game? Some cheesy step over bag drill or tackling a stationary bag by diving into it ain’t gonna cut it.

What you see in the drill above is displayed perfectly in the cut below.

Above- The missed tackle and the made tackle are both during contact from blockers. So what do the drills we typically see coaches running even do? Not much. Manny Diaz’s tackling circuit is for U12 players.

Above- Some DC’s, like Michigan State under Dantonio, stay in spill nearly 100% of the time. Geoff Collins, Brent Venables and Kevin Steele will adjust their calls between spill and box. This cut is a box play where the edge is turning it back inside to the middle of the defense.

Above- Gotta love it. A defender who can play in space, cut off the inside, track that near hip, and use the sideline as an extra defender. Compared to some clips from the Miami vs. Michigan State game I tweeted out from ‘21, this is a big improvement.

Above- Again, even in a blowout you can see the quality of coaching. Shoulders square, guys actually know how to scrape to the ball, limited if any ‘turn and run’ which leads to cutback lanes. Clean tackles with 2-3 defenders involved.

Above- Acquisition: the Tigers have the talent to run with Bama. Development and Deployment: when you have elite athletes on defense, just don’t slow them down with piss poor S&C or scheme. Let dudes be dudes and run. You will see the Tigers run with mesh all the way across the field here.

Above- You can tell Steele works on block destruction with his LB’s. The way they fight off the block, even as a long game wore on, shows they’re well prepared technically.

Above- Even late in a blowout loss, the Tigers are still playing aggressive defense for Steele. Here, the CB shreds off the block and makes a big open field tackle in space. No one is turning to block their own man or getting stiff-armed into the turf.

Above- Giving up short field position, the Tigers defense is back out again. Instead of letting their opponent walk in and embarrass them, the defense stands up and strips the Bama RB for a forced fumble and turnover. This isn’t what you saw from the Miami defense in the Pinstripe Bowl or against UNC.

Above- OK so we can’t only show positive plays when the team gets blown out. The 1st TD of the game is a communication issue on coverage, three defenders run down to #3 (TE) leaving #2 (slot) wide open. No bueno especially when it’s DeVonta Smith.

Above- You can see both angles of it here.


The wrap

Is Steele the perfect DC hire everyone expected? Maybe not. But is Steele a guy that, if his head is on right, can acquire, develop and deploy a top-5 SP+ rated defense in a major conference? Yes, sir. In his 60’s, Steele probably saw the Auburn head coaching vacancy as his last chance to be an SEC head coach again. When that coup failed him, and his Vols connections couldn’t bail him out, he went back to Plan B.

Is Steele a long-term answer at DC in Coral Gables? Nah, but who is in ‘22?! Coaches are taking jobs and leaving them (See: Steele, Kevin) at a rapid pace. Former Georgia Tech RB coach Tashard Choice was working at Georgia Tech, USC, and Texas all within weeks of each other. Lincoln Riley was recruiting to USC while still a Sooner... loyalty in college football is dead. Embrace the ‘hire.’

Prediction: Kevin Steele is hired, and is the Miami DC for one season.