With the departure of longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, Pat Fitzgerald had a tough decision to make replacing the legend. Fitz knew before the season Hank was retiring, so he was not scrambling to make a hire. He landed on Jim O’Neil, a tenured NFL defensive coach who most recently coached defensive backs for the Las Vegas Raiders. O’Neil was a graduate assistant/defensive backs coach at NU from 2003-04, which is when he met Fitz.
While the reaction to his hiring from many Wildcat fans was mixed at best, citing his recent defenses’ less-than-inspiring performances, there is much more to learn about O’Neil’s time in the pros. To fully understand the new defensive coordinator for Northwestern, let’s take a look back at his coaching career.
Jets (2009, defensive quality control and defensive backs coach)
Arguably the best year of his time with the Jets, O’Neil helped New York rank first in yards allowed per game en route to an AFC Championship appearance. It’s questionable just how much influence he had, as head coach at the time Rex Ryan is known for his defensive schemes, but O’Neil was part of a team that was 29th in total pass yards allowed and 16th in net pass yards per attempt into one that ranked first in both of those categories. Also worth mentioning: Mark Sanchez was the quarterback of the 2009 Jets.
Jets (2010-2012, assistant defensive backs coach)
Though O’Neil took a lesser role for the remaining three years he was with the Jets, the defense remained solid. The Jets slightly regressed from their league-topping numbers in 2009 with a strong 2010 season that put them at sixth in total pass yards allowed and fourth in net passing yards per attempt. They kept up that trajectory in his final two years with the team, finishing fifth in total passing yards allowed and seventh in net passing yards per attempt in 2011, and second in total passing yards allowed and ninth in net passing yards per attempt in 2012.
Bills (2013, linebackers coach)
O’Neil stayed in the AFC East and signed with the Bills in 2013 as a linebackers coach following his stint with the Jets. There is limited information on his time in Buffalo, but in his one year there, opponents trampled the front seven: the Bills finished 28th in the NFL in both rushing attempts against and total rushing yards allowed while ranking 23rd in yards per carry allowed.
Browns (2014-2015, defensive coordinator)
O’Neil followed former Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to Cleveland, this time taking over as Pettine’s DC. His defenses in Cleveland were mixed: they finished eighth in the NFL in pass yards allowed per game and fifth in net pass yards allowed per attempt in 2014 but last in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. 2015 was worse, as the once strong pass defense regressed to second to last in the NFL in net pass yards allowed per attempt. With his defensive woes, O’Neil faced lots of criticism from the media and seemingly threw his players under the bus by calling the NFL “an execution league.”
49ers (2016, defensive coordinator)
O’Neil took the same position in San Francisco in 2016, and his struggles followed him to the Bay Area. His defense ranked last in just about every rushing stat and at the bottom of the pack in most passing metrics. The Chip Kelly-led 49ers finished the year at 2-14, and O’Neil and the 49ers parted ways after just one season. In fairness, that entire operation was a nightmare and he wasn’t working with much.
Raiders (2018, senior defensive assistant)
After taking a year off, O’Neil returned to football as a senior defensive assistant for the Raiders. Oakland struggled without Khalil Mack and the ferocious front seven the it once had, finishing the season as one of the worst groups in the league.
Raiders (2019-2020, defensive backs coach)
O’Neil became Jon Gruden’s defensive backs coach in 2019. Not an especially talented room, the secondary did not fare well under his tutelage. The Raiders finished the 2019 and 2020 seasons in the bottom half of the league in passing yards allowed per game and net passing yards per attempt.
The most crucial thing to remember for Wildcats fans is how little we know about him as a college coach. Jim O’Neil has not coached at the NCAA level since 2008, well before modern principles of college defensive schemes were implemented at the Power Five level. Secondly, O’Neil will be able to help choose the players he gets to coach, meaning he will have more control over who he needs to fit the play types he wants to run.
But there’s also only so much autonomy he will have. It seems unreasonable to think O’Neil would have the same level of freedom that Hankwitz had. Pat Fitzgerald is here for ten more years, and as long as he’s in Evanston, he will certainly have influence over how games are called and what schemes are used, especially on defense.