Well, folks, it finally happened. After 12 years as Northwestern’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Mick McCall is out after a 3-9 season which saw the ‘Cats’ offense as one of the worst in FBS. McCall’s offense failed to score a touchdown on 37 straight drives in October of this season and averaged less than 7 points per game in its first eight games. Even when the offense was at its rather mediocre peak in seasons’ past, its schemes seemed rather basic and predictable, perhaps bailed out by the talent of Justin Jackson or Clayton Thorson.
Now, Pat Fitzgerald has the opportunity to add a new coordinator to his staff for the first time in over a decade, a decision which will certainly dictate the future of the Wildcats’ offense. We took a look at some candidates for the job here, and I’m circling back to some of those guys as well as some other ones who have emerged as potential candidates to replace McCall:
The Likely Candidates
Tommy Rees (Notre Dame-QB Coach)
North Shore native Tommy Rees seems like a natural candidate to succeed McCall at Northwestern. The son of Northwestern’s coordinator of player personnel and assistant director of football operations and a three-star quarterback out of Lake Forest High School, Rees opted to head to Notre Dame and play under Brian Kelly in 2010. He started two seasons for the Fighting Irish (non-consecutively) before joining Pat Fitzgerald’s staff as a graduate assistant in 2015. While at NU, he worked primarily with wide receivers on that Clayton Thorson led 10-3 squad.
He then went to the NFL as a member of the Chargers’ offensive coaching staff before landing at his alma mater, where he has mentored current Irish quarterback Ian Book to a 22-2 record and a College Football Playoff berth across two seasons. Book was one of two quarterbacks in the FBS to finish with over 2,500 yards passing, 30 passing touchdowns, and 500 yards rushing.
Pat Fitzgerald lauded Rees’s coaching ability despite only working with him for one season. He’s only 27-years-old right now and perhaps has a great future in coaching ahead of him. The upward mobility at his alma mater might be limited for the time being, as Brian Kelly seems to be committed to current offensive coordinator Chip Long. Whether Rees is willing to leave the hallowed shadow of Touchdown Jesus and switch the Fighting Irish for the Fighting Fitzes remains a question, but his connections to Northwestern’s football program make him an early favorite to replace McCall.
Matt Canada (Unemployed)
One of the big surprises at the beginning of the season was Matt Canada’s lack of employment in college football. The offensive guru, whose stint as interim head coach at Maryland saw them drop 51 points on Ohio State, remains jobless headed into the winter. The Indiana alumnus has bounced around some major college programs over the last few years, including Indiana, Wisconsin, NC State, Pitt, and LSU.
He is perhaps famous for his love of pre-snap motions and other wacky play calls which would inject creativity in Northwestern’s predictable schemes. His reputation as a play caller and coach has reached the NFL, as Canada has consulted some franchises on incorporating his offensive schematics.
Some in the industry have characterized that Canada is hard to work with, which might explain his unemployment. A difficult relationship with LSU coach Ed Orgeron led to Canada’s leaving of that program. However, he nearly brought a Maryland team reeling off the death of one of its players to a bowl game as interim coach before the Terps hired Mike Locksley. He’s coached in the Big Ten before and has serious offensive pedigree.
Lou Ayeni (Northwestern running backs coach)
Ayeni is Fitz’s most likely candidate if he were to promote within. The current NU coach is a former Northwestern player and graduate, captaining the ‘Cats in his senior season in 2003. He had a stint in the NFL before returning as a graduate assistant. He was the running backs coach at Toledo, where he groomed Kareem Hunt during his time with the Rockets. Ayeni left the Glass City for Iowa State before eventually being hired by Fitz in 2018.
His first season back in Evanston was certainly challenging with the medical retirement of Jeremy Larkin three games into the season. However, the emergence of true freshman Isaiah Bowser over the course of the 2018 season played a huge role in Northwestern’s first ever Big Ten Championship game berth. Ayeni has a familiarity with the program, Pat Fitzgerald’s coaching style, and the players around him, so he represents a safer, conservative choice that still brings in a hot young coaching prospect.
Coaches Worth Checking Out
Not as likely as the previous category, but certainly coaches on the rise
Mike Kafka (Kansas City Chiefs-QB): The former Wildcat quarterback is currently the quarterbacks coach for the Kansas City Chiefs and has a guy named Patrick Mahomes under his tutelage. The Northwestern job would perhaps be a step down for the 32-year-old, who is rumored to be up for plenty of NFL coordinator or even coaching jobs. Nonetheless, Kafka’s success at the professional level surely should warrant a call from Pat Fitzgerald at the very least, no?
Chad Morris (unemployed): The recently-fired Arkansas coach utilized an up-tempo offense in Fayetteville but ultimately could not save his job, going 4-18 in two seasons. His son is a 4-star quarterback recruit, so there would be an added bonus if the ‘Cats managed to bring Morris in.
Kalen DeBoer (Indiana-OC): Indiana’s current OC reinvented Indiana’s offense and nurtured two capable quarterbacks in Peyton Ramsey and Michael Penix, Jr. The Hoosiers’ passing attack improved from 125th to 36th in the country (with the same guy behind center for most of the season) in DeBoer’s lone season in Bloomington. Whether Fitz would be able to entice DeBoer away from Indiana after only one season remains unlikely.
Kevin Daft (Dartmouth-OC/QB)/Bob Surace (Princeton HC): This Ivy League duo oversaw offenses which scored a lot of points and won a lot of games while using creative schemes and play calling. Are these coaches satisfied with their current jobs and willing to leave the ever prestigious Ivy League? They both might be worth checking out.
These are guys who would be available with the coaching carousel with little to no connection to Coach Fitzgerald or Northwestern’s program but are nonetheless intriguing options.
Clay Helton (USC-HC): Reports are conflicting over whether or not Helton has been fired from USC, but it’s looking more likely by the day. Helton spent nine years as an offensive assistant at Memphis before becoming the offensive coordinator at USC. Helton is probably not the most exciting or reinvigorating choice, but he will be available (and no one else has even mentioned his name anywhere near the Northwestern OC job so I might as well).
Steve Addazio (former Boston College-HC): Addazio was recently canned at Boston College. He served under Urban Meyer at Florida during the Tim Tebow era as assistant head coach and later offensive coordinator. I guess that says something.
Chris Petersen (former Washington-HC): Crazier things have happened!