BOOM or BUST? How Lanning Can Silence the Doubters

Joshua Whitted Editorials

Dan Lanning was a risky hire. The 36-year-old former defensive coordinator has no head coaching experience, and frankly, he has little experience as a coordinator, as well. Aside from spending two years working at Arizona State, he has no ties to the West. And while there are one-off success stories of young, hot-shot coordinators knocking it out of the park in their head coaching debuts, many more have failed.

Now, before you fire up your keyboards and call me a Negative Nancy, bear with me for a minute. I am a huge fan of Oregon hiring Lanning. In fact, given the list of candidates Rob Mullens pursued, I think Lanning was by far the best candidate.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t at least a chance that Lanning goes the way of former high-profile coordinators who couldn’t quite handle everything that comes with coaching at a major college football program.

There’s a fine line between success and failure for any head coach in this sport. Here’s what Lanning needs to do to ensure he’s closer to the next Kirby Smart than the next Jeremy Pruitt.

Prioritize Recruiting

A lack of emphasis on recruiting has doomed countless head coaches of all backgrounds and experience levels. Even in today’s day and age, too many attempt to undersell the importance of accumulating as many highly ranked industry-rated recruits as possible.

Lanning secured a huge commitment from four-star wide receiver Kyler Kasper.

Lanning certainly is not one of those people, and it’s one of the reasons many are confident he will have success at Oregon. Only a few months into the job, Lanning secured two major commitments — one from five-star offensive tackle Josh Conerly and another from four-star wide receiver Kyler Kasper — both of whom reclassified and will be eligible to play in 2022.

As successful as Lanning was as a defensive mind at Georgia, he was arguably more valuable as a recruiter, learning from one of the best in the nation in Smart. Understanding the necessity of acquiring blue-chip prospects is something that cannot be understated. It is essential in building a title-contending team.

Bringing in elite talent will allow Lanning to learn the intricacies of head coaching with a much larger margin for error. With talented players, it’s hard (possible, but hard) for even poor coaches to screw things up!

Lanning’s emphasis on recruiting already puts him a step above plenty of established coaches.

Offense Is King

Lanning’s specialty is the defensive side of the ball, but something that he must embrace is the fact that elite offenses drive championship-winning teams in modern college football. Admittedly, this might seem to ring hollow, as the most recent title winner, Georgia, was fueled by one of the best defenses in recent memory.

Joe Burrow spearheaded LSU’s championship run in 2019.

But the Bulldogs were more of an exception than the rule. Since 2018, every national champion has finished in the top 5 nationally in yards per play. This actually includes Georgia in 2021, which had (and needed) an elite offense to go along with its historic defense.

Defense is hugely important, and a team cannot win a championship with offensive proficiency alone. But of the two, offensive dominance tends to pull just a bit more weight — much more so than it did as little as a decade ago.

Again, Lanning appears to understand this truth, mentioning numerous times his desire for Oregon’s offense to create explosive plays. This can’t be merely coach speak, though. He must commit to a program-wide dedication to high-level offensive football to win consistently.

Lanning’s former boss, Smart, initially struggled to come to the realization that an elite defense isn’t enough on its own to win a championship anymore. While the Bulldogs don’t play at a break-neck pace or use dozens of run-pass options, they have finally evolved into a much more modernized spread offense. As a result, they won their first national title since before this writer was born.

Brock Bowers led a surprisingly explosive offense for UGA in 2021.

There’s no question Lanning’s defenses at Oregon will be formidable. If he can produce an offense that’s good enough to match it, he will become an elite coach sooner than later.

Elite Coaches Build Elite Staffs

A head coach is only as good as the staff he surrounds himself with.

We’ve seen Nick Saban time and time again employ former head coaches to not only offer his expertise, but also to get some of theirs. Lane Kiffin helped him modernize his offense, and Steve Sarkisian took it to the next level. Bob Stoops brought Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma when his offense was sputtering, and all Riley did was develop back-to-back Heisman winners.

Kiffin was instrumental in the evolution of Alabama’s offense.

Hiring elite coordinators, position coaches and recruiters make or break any head coach. But it’s especially important for Lanning to have aced his initial hires, as this staff could possibly determine the trajectory of his career.

Once again, all signs point to Lanning having checked off this box, as offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham had an extensive role in engineering one of the best offenses in college football not too long ago during his time at Memphis. And defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi is a ferocious recruiter; he will fit in well with Lanning’s culture of energy and enthusiasm.

Dan Lanning might not have been a household name at the time of his hire, but he certainly has the attributes of a successful head coach. Many former coordinators before him have tried and failed to take the next step and lead a major program of their own, but that doesn’t mean Lanning will be next in line.

His commitment to recruiting, emphasis on offensive proficiency and ability to bring in top-flight coordinators all suggest that Mullens’ gamble might in fact pay off. The real test will come this fall when toe meets leather, but only a few months into his head coaching debut, Lanning is proving to be more than capable of running the show.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Oregon Athletics

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