Who is the Most Important Assistant Oregon Football Coach for Program Longevity?

Mitchel Simantel Editorials

All the rumors and change-ups in Oregon Football’s coaching staff over the past month had me making mental rankings of staff members and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I was making list after list in my head based on coaching ability, recruiting chops, and yes even program loyalty. Now I admit these lists were mostly meant to make me feel better in case of large losses to a stellar coaching staff, but now that things have become a little clearer I am wondering: if I could only keep one coach who would it be?

The coaching list to be evaluated is as follows:

DC/Linebackers – Jim Leavitt
OC/QBs/TE – Marcus Arroyo
Associate HC/D-line – Joe Salave’a
Safeties – Keith Heyward
Cornerbacks – Charles Clark
Wide Receivers – Michael Johnson

Now let’s look at the criteria. I’ve decided to use the following categories and weights to try and add a little pseudo-science to my madness:

Positional Impact: 10 Points
Recruiting Impact: 10 Points
Scheme Impact: 10 Points
Program Loyalty: 5 Points

So let’s get started…

Jim Leavitt

Jim Leavitt – There is no need for me to regurgitate all the stats and rankings of Oregon’s defense because by now everyone is very much aware of the improvement them by now. Leavitt was responsible for not only the defense as a whole but specifically the inside linebackers, a group that featured Oregon’s best defensive player Troy Dye and a rotating cast of people next to him. The improvement of guys like Kaulana Apelu and Jimmy Swain was easy to see, and played no small part in defenses improved run defense.

The ILBs went from a group that played on their heels and seemed to be let ball carriers/blockers gain five yards before initiating contact in years past to now looking like the heat seeking missiles they should be. In recruiting Leavitt seems to be more of an auxiliary piece, a guy whose scheme the other coaches are selling to recruits more than a relationship builder himself. He was, however, the primary recruiter for Adrian Jackson the No. 1 ranked player in Colorado.

As far as loyalty, it was widely believed that Leavitt was gone once he was passed over for the head coaching job and most likely would have been had he not gotten such a sizable raise. Leavitt reportedly has a clause in his contract waiving his buyout should Kansas State come calling and he also found himself in Eugene after being poached from the University of Colorado where he coached for two seasons after three in the NFL.

Position: 9
Recruiting: 5
Scheme: 10
Loyalty: 2

Marcus Arroyo – Evaluation of Arroyo is a mixed bag. During the season Arroyo served as passing game coordinator and Co-OC, and with a healthy Justin Herbert the passing game was successful. Without Herbert, however, the passing game was non-existent. Some of this has to do with a depleted position group thrusting a true freshman who was obviously not ready into action. That being said the passing game never adjusted for Braxton Burmeister still relying on deeper, longer developing routes (slant routes seemed to be frowned upon in this offense).

There is also the bowl game, enough said. If we start and end the QB group discussion with Justin Herbert, Arroyo would come out smelling like a rose, but how much of Herbert is just natural talent and how much is coaching? Hard to say. When you factor in how much Burmeister struggled when called upon it’s hard to give Arroyo too much credit just yet. Arroyo is a very good recruiter with strong pull in Texas with commits including Tyler Slough, Spencer Webb, and Verone McKinley currently.

Lastly, Arroyo came to Oregon after serving two years as Oklahoma States running backs coach and a one year stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching QBs. There is a lot left for Arroyo to prove.

Position: 6
Recruiting: 9
Scheme: 6
Loyalty: 3

Joe Salave’a

Joe Salave’a – Big Joe is considered to be one of the top defensive line coaches in the country. He has developed talents like Xavier Cooper and Hercules Mata’afa at Washington State and was instrumental in the emergence of Jalen Jelks at Oregon this year. The defensive line may have made the most notable improvement of any position group this year and was a force to reckoned with on every down. Salave’a is listed as the Associate Head Coach and appears to be very well respected by the other members of the staff.

On the recruiting trail Salave’a doesn’t appear to be the guy to land five star national recruits, but he has shown a knack for finding guys who fit his system and recruits very well on the pacific islands which has been a vital recruiting ground for Oregon in the past (and whose recruits are typically underrated by scouting services).

To grade his recruiting you have to ask yourself what you prefer, guys who come in with a lot of accolades or guys who leave with a lot of accolades. Big Joe finds himself in Eugene from Washington State after holding the same position for four years. Joe has also expressed his goal to be a defensive coordinator in the future, and depending on what the future holds for Jim Leavitt, he may get his shot at Oregon (he would at least make the short list).

Position: 10
Recruiting: 7
Scheme: 7
Loyalty: 4

Keith Heyward – Anyone evaluating Keith Heyward would be remiss if they did not start with recruiting. To put it simply, Heyward is one of the premier recruiters in the country and has shown a knack for attracting top tier talent everywhere he’s been, including Jevon Holland and Steve Stephens at Oregon. Over the past year the safeties played well, while also suffering injuries to key players.

We saw improvement from young and older guys alike, and there seemed to be fewer mental errors than we had become accustomed to the past few seasons. There is a lot of reasons for optimism with this group moving forward. Heyward has played a bit of a mercenary roll the past few years, though partly because of the horse he had hitched his wagon to, working as DB coach at Louisville for one season, USC for two season, and Washington for two seasons.

Position: 8
Recruiting: 10
Scheme: 5
Loyalty: 2

Charles Clark

Charles Clark – Coach Clark has shown his ability to develop secondary talent both this past season and his time at University of Colorado. Oregon’s secondary was a mess last year featuring large cushions and blown coverages. This past season we saw a big improvement with the use of press man coverage, even with heavy playing time from two true freshmen. On the recruiting trail Clark has shown an ability to gain the trust of the recruits, but doesn’t have quite the chops of guys like Heyward and Arroyo.

I think his ability to teach the fundamentals of the cornerback position allows Oregon to utilize a more aggressive defensive scheme overall. Coach Clark followed Leavitt to Oregon after spending four years at the University of Colorado. The cornerbacks group appears to have a bright future under Clark.

Position: 9
Recruiting: 7
Scheme: 5
Loyalty: 4

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson – Johnson has a mostly NFL background as a coach having been with four teams following three seasons at Oregon State mostly as either QB or WRs coach. He served as the offensive coordinator at UCLA in 2011. Johnson was tasked with coaching a very thin position group (especially after the best player was dismissed from the team) with very little game experience across the board.

The group fared admirably, and seemed to improve as the season progressed. It is hard to give a fair evaluation of this group considering it was heavily impacted by poor QB play in the middle of the season. As a recruiter Johnson seems to fall in the same category as Clark, being a guy who can build the relationships and get the recruits support, but not the marquee recruiter like others on this staff.

Position: 7
Recruiting: 7
Scheme: 7
Loyalty: 2


Final scores are as follows:
Leavitt: 26
Arroyo: 24
Salave’a: 28
Heyward: 25
Clark: 25
Johnson: 23

So to sum up my criteria produced Joe Salave’a as the most important assistant on the current staff followed by Leavitt, although I could easily be persuaded that Leavitt is the most important member of this staff. That being said Leavitt is a very shaky long term option. We were lucky to keep him this time but he could easily be out the door sooner rather than later due to a number of factors including a higher bidder, HC opportunity, pride, or his age.

In the short term Leavitt was key to retain, but thinking ahead if we could only retain one staff member it would be hard to not choose Salave’a. Disagree?

Mitchel Simantel
Wilmington, North Carolina

Top Photo: Eugene Johnson

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