After Northwestern made official the hiring of new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, he fielded questions from the Northwestern media for the first time last Thursday. Here are three things we learned from that press conference, along with head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s media availability, which preceded it.
His NFL experience will play a major role in his college coaching
After news got out about O’Neil’s hiring last month, many fans wondered whether or not his experience coaching at the professional level — where he’s spent the last 11 years — would translate to success leading a unit of college players. Fitz made it known that O’Neil’s time coaching the pros was viewed as a strength, not a weakness.
“To have that background is something I think that’s really important fundamentally, from a technique standpoint and from a scheme standpoint,” he said in his remarks ahead of O’Neil’s introduction.
When asked about how he planned to incorporate the schemes he developed in the NFL at Northwestern, O’Neil acknowledged how different football looked at the professional and college levels just five years ago, saying that the two levels seemed “like two different sports.” However, he stressed that schematic adaptations on both ends have brought the two levels closer to one another as he discussed his plans to incorporate some pro-style pressure designs, among other NFL-type strategies, into the Wildcats’ defensive playbook.
“In the last five years,” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of pass schemes trickle down to college football, and I’ve seen a lot of the run schemes trickle up to NFL football. So the gap has really closed.”
Aside from the structural aspects of the on-field defensive product that O’Neil plans to roll out this fall, he also noted that he intends to work in some discussion of what life in the NFL is like with his players to help them better understand what’s needed to get to the next level and what will help them excel when they get there.
“Obviously players are always excited to talk about NFL players, and I think that when you talk about NFL guys and how they went about their work, how they handled the offseason, or how they watched tape,” he said. “I think it’s obviously a great opportunity for those guys to learn and grow, and give them an edge before they get to the NFL.”
Defensive coaching will be a team effort
O’Neil has a tall task ahead of him in ensuring that his Northwestern defenses produce at the same incredibly high level that Mike Hankwitz’s did. The press conference seemed to suggest that O’Neil’s willingness to incorporate some of Hank’s principles into the new defense helped him get the job.
Fitz spoke glowingly of O’Neil’s interview, in which O’Neil told him that “this is going to be our defense. This isn’t going to be my defense, this is going to be our defense, collectively.”
In getting his bearings in Evanston, Fitz said that O’Neil has embodied that attitude by incorporating all of the defensive position coaches and graduate assistants in compiling the defensive playbook for the upcoming season.
“It’s not blowing it up and putting in my system or ‘what are we carrying over from Hank’s system’ and the guys who have been on staff,” said O’Neil. “It’s ‘okay, this is what you guys believe strongly in, this is what I come from and what I believe strongly in, so let’s make it ours.”
O’Neil loves Northwestern
Replacing Mike Hankwitz doesn’t just mean continuing his tradition of building formidable NU defenses in the short-run. Indeed, one of O’Neil’s new responsibilities is emulating the stability that Hank provided the Northwestern defense, as he spent the final 13 seasons of his illustrious, 51-year-long coaching career at NU. This might initially be of some concern, given that O’Neil isn’t exactly known for such long tenures. In his 11-year NFL coaching career, he coached for five different teams.
Still, if his introductory press conference is indicative of anything, O’Neil may make more of a home in Evanston than he did at any of his NFL pit stops. He highlighted just how special he considers Northwestern’s program in comparison to other college teams when asked about why he decided to return to coaching at the collegiate level.
“The last four-five years I’ve had interest from Power Five college programs, and I really wasn’t interested,” he said. “And then I talked to Fitz a few times, and the more I thought about it, this was probably the only university that I would make the jump back down to college football to.”
If O’Neil truly holds Northwestern in that high of regard in comparison to its counterparts, then, perhaps, he’ll be able to string together a tenure that rivals Hank’s in terms of length — that is, if his defenses can prove to be of the quality that would keep NU committed to him long-term.