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In the early 2000s, Tony Elliott graduated from Clemson with a degree in engineering and got a job at Michelin North America in Pendleton, South Carolina. He envisioned the American dream – two-to-three kids, a white picket fence and retiring off his 401(k) in 30 years.
Two years into the industrial engineering job, Elliott found himself lacking motivation. He loved his bosses and adored his co-workers, but the corporate scene lacked a greater ideal. “I dreaded going back to work on Mondays. I didn’t feel like I was fulfilling any kind of purpose,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I was just going to a job.”
Elliott entered coaching at age 26 with a position coach job at South Carolina State in 2006. He eventually re-united with his college position coach, Dabo Swinney, at Clemson in 2011. From there, he’s helped fuel Clemson’s meteoric rise to the highest echelon of college football. Since Elliott became co-offensive coordinator and play caller for the 2015 season, the Tigers are 40-4 with a national title and three playoff appearances. He played a critical role in helping develop Deshaun Watson into a likely NFL franchise quarterback, a résumé line that will only look better as the years pass. “I think he will be a great college head coach,” Watson told Yahoo Sports. “He has the ability to relate to players, is a really good teacher and a leader. He’s learned from the best under coach Swinney.”
Along with finding a purpose, Elliott has found tremendous individual success. He won the Broyles Award last season as the nation’s top assistant coach, and with all that success came strong interest from UCF and Mississippi State for their head coach jobs. He declined the chance to meet with both schools because of the timing in both job situations.
To understand why Elliott has been judicious in seeking head coaching jobs is to understand where he comes from. Growing up in Southern California, Elliott had a father in jail and endured the horror of watching his mother die in a car accident. He survived stints of homelessness and ultimately moved east to live with family in Atlanta and South Carolina.
The itinerant childhood has shaped his coaching path, as he has a keen appreciation of the atmosphere that Swinney has fostered at Clemson. “Here, obviously, you have that sense of family, and as a kid when you don’t grow up with a family, that’s one of the biggest things that you desire to have,” he said. “I think when you get to a point where you feel like you’re fulfilling purpose, then it allows you to stay focused on what really matters. That’s why I’m not out looking and scanning at what’s going on [for jobs], just because I know that I was put here for a reason.”
For the first time this offseason, Elliott, 38, said he’s allowed himself to ponder becoming a head coach. When he’s driving by himself, he said he’s started to think of his vision for a program. Elliott spent time developing relationships with agents this offseason but has yet to choose one. Elliott went to the convention for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics to take part in the Champion Forum, a development program for high-performing minority coaches. He also spent time networking with search firms to better understand the interview process and what it entails to become a head coach.
Years removed from punching the clock as an engineer, Elliott retains many of the analytical skills he learned from his degree. When game-planning and making in-game adjustments, his engineering mind can calculate formations and tendencies to come up with the right play call. When looking at his next coaching move, Elliott’s perspective will mesh that analytical outlook with his family one, as his priority is ensuring he can run a program at a level that justifies a staff to entrust their families to join him. “One man can’t run a program,” Elliott said. “It’s the people within a program, so I want to make sure that I’m putting those people in a position to be successful.”
For Swinney, his former player and loyal assistant checks a lot of future head coaching boxes: “What are you looking for in a head coach?” he said of Elliott. “Character? Intelligence? And commitment? And loyalty? Knowledge? Someone who loves players and is going to do things the right way. He’s a pretty good candidate.”
Elliott is at the top of Yahoo Sports’ 2018 list of assistants poised to move up. Here’s a look at the rest of the coaches who’ll be in the mix on this year’s coaching carousel.
20 assistant coaches on the rise
1. Tony Elliott, Clemson – (See above)
2. Ryan Day, Ohio State offensive coordinator – We’ll learn a lot about Day this season, regardless of the fate of Urban Meyer’s paid administrative leave. Day has been the interim coach in Meyer’s absence, a choice that came about because he lacks any morsel of controversy in his background. If Meyer comes back, Day will resume a new role as redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins’ primary play caller. He got that role from co-coordinator Kevin Wilson after Mississippi State (head job) and the Tennessee Titans (coordinator) showed interest in Day last year. More may call, as the early buzz on Haskins is strong.
3. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator – A 10-year NFL veteran, Leonhard is on a rapid ascent through the coaching ranks. He’s only 35 and has already been a Broyles finalist in just his third season in coaching. He went from walk-on to undrafted to NFL mainstay, and his coaching path appears destined for stardom. Could he be the next Mike Vrabel?
4. Greg Schiano, Ohio State DC – Schiano has a perception issue, not a qualification issue. He topped this list last season, but both the fan revolt at Tennessee and OSU picking Day as interim coach loom as potential obstacles. A savvy AD will trade a bad day of public relations for the most vastly over-qualified coach on this list. He’s turned down a handful of jobs in recent years, waiting for the right chance. He’s proven an elite recruiter at Ohio State as well, as an aggregate recruiting service ranked him the No. 2 recruiting coaching in the country last year.
5. Manny Diaz, Miami DC – He’s been a demon on the recruiting trail and authored a definitive turnaround that’s rekindled Miami’s defense into a unit worthy of The U moniker. Miami led the nation in sacks (44) and finished fourth in TFLs (111). As one of the innovators of the Turnover Chain, Diaz will have a nice interview icebreaker.
6. Chip Lindsey, Auburn OC – In a light year for offensive coordinators, Lindsey is poised to showcase himself. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is a Heisman candidate, and the Tigers have a roster to duel with Alabama in the SEC West. He was heavily in the mix for Sun Belt jobs last year, but ultimately decided to stay for a salary of more than $1 million. Does that price him out of lower-tier jobs in this cycle?
7. Dave Aranda, LSU DC – Working for Ed Orgeron has never been a treat, so it will be interesting to see Aranda’s eagerness to find something after this season. He’s got impeccable qualifications and the country’s highest coordinator annual salary ($2.5 million), which essentially limits him to only Power Five jobs.
8. Mike Yurcich, Oklahoma State OC – Bowed out of the Kent State job search last season when it appeared attainable and returned to Oklahoma State to make $800,000. (Much more than was available at Kent.) OSU was in the top five in both scoring and average yards last season, the type of averages that should yield Yurcich another opportunity at the end of 2018.
9. Mike Elko, Texas A&M DC – He proved his value immediately during his lone season at Notre Dame by improving the Irish defense by at least 20 spots in seven different categories. He cashed in to make $1.8 million this season at Texas A&M. Elko and a lot of his defensive coordinator brethren have priced themselves out of many Group of Five jobs. Another stout season will earn him serious head coaching looks.
10. Todd Orlando, Texas DC – The most valuable member of Tom Herman’s coaching staff, Orlando declined early interest from SMU last season. Texas improved 61 spots in scoring defense under Orlando in the staff’s first year in Austin, earning him a pay bump to $1.7 million. If the offense can match the defense’s production, Texas will get rolling and Orlando will be one of the hottest names in college football.
11. Beau Baldwin, Cal OC – Winning the FCS title as a head coach at Eastern Washington in 2010 gives him a jump on the field in terms of experience and success. He had a smooth transition as Cal’s OC last season. Cal is poised for a gangbusters season with quarterback Ross Bowers returning with 17 offensive players who combined for 118 starts. Baldwin knows winning and offense, and that translates to opportunity.
12. Jimmy Lake, Washington DC – Lake will call Washington’s defense for the first time this season, the last box to check on a dynamic résumé that spans through three NFL stints, Boise State and now Washington. He has the recruiting chops, presence and personality to crush a job interview. A big season for the Huskies could quicken his ascent.
13. Brent Venables, Clemson DC – He’s shown little desire to become a head coach other than at the bluest of blue bloods. He’s been one of the choosiest assistants of this generation. (Hence why he’s so low on this list.) He’s expressed publicly in the past he has no desire to go to Kansas State. A five-year, $11.6 million contract coinciding with the arrival of his son, Jake, to play linebacker at Clemson makes any wanderlust unlikely.
14. Walt Bell, Florida State OC – The world saw a glimpse of Bell’s potential when Maryland torched Texas for 51 points and 482 yards to open last season. Willie Taggart will call plays at FSU, but Bell’s influence has already been felt with the quarterbacks and on the recruiting trail.
15. Mel Tucker, Georgia, DC – Tennessee interviewed Tucker last season and came away impressed. He’s worked for Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jim Tressel and also served as an interim head coach in the NFL for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He projects as the most likely Georgia assistant to ride this wave of success under Kirby Smart to a head job.
16. Jake Spavital, West Virginia OC – It’s a season of expectations in Morgantown, which start on offense. With Will Grier returning as a Heisman candidate and potential high-end NFL draft prospect, there are plenty of reasons Spavital could gain traction. Dana Holgorsen handed the play calling duties to Spavital, who can find a groove after bouncing from Texas A&M to Cal with modest success.
17. Marcus Arroyo, Oregon OC – He’s never been in one spot long enough to really establish a reputation and identity. He’s bounced around from Oklahoma State (RBs), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (interim OC), Southern Miss (Co-OC, WRs), Cal (passing game coordinator), Wyoming (Co-OC, QBs) and San Jose (OC, QBs, GA) within the past 15 years. Having Justin Herbert at quarterback is the perfect opportunity to showcase Arroyo, who has been a dynamite recruiter for Mario Cristobal.
18. Eliah Drinkwitz, North Carolina State OC – Got some Sun Belt looks last year, but his most realistic outlook is moving up within the Group of Five. Look for him to be this year’s version of Mike Elko (from Wake Forest in ’16) and Alex Grinch (from Washington State last year), as a coach likely to land at a Power Five school with a more powerful logo.
19. Brian Ferentz, Iowa OC – With a flurry of MAC jobs poised to open, Ferentz would be a safe hire. Great family name, pedigree and extensive experience working for Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots. With spread offenses the norm, pro-style teams have become intriguing outliers.
20. Ricky Rahne, Penn State – He’s unproven as a play caller, but in a position to thrive with Trace McSorley back at quarterback and an experienced offensive line, Rahne should have plenty of toys to help replace Saquon Barkley. If Rahne, 38, can replicate Joe Moorhead’s success, he’ll follow his path to a head job.
Also considered: Sonny Cumbie (TCU), Brian Johnson (Florida), Tee Martin (USC), Alex Grinch (Ohio State), Kerry Cooks (Oklahoma), Harlon Barnett (Florida State), Jim Leavitt (Oregon), Danny Gonzales (Arizona State), Mike Locksley (Alabama), Morgan Scalley (Utah), Warren Ruggiero (Wake Forest), Jeff Scott (Clemson), Joe Craddock (Arkansas), Tosh Lupoi (Alabama).
Top Group of Five assistants
1. Andy Avalos, Boise State DC – Poised to have the best defense Boise has seen in years, as 10 starters return.
2. Ivin Jasper, Navy OC – His option expertise has led to head coach interviews, a natural outgrowth of Navy’s success.
3. Brian Wright, Toledo OC – Whoever replaces Logan Woodside will be throwing to the best Group of Five receiving unit in the country.
4. Kenny Dillingham, Memphis OC – At just 28, he’ll continue to rise through the ranks with Mike Norvell.
5. Jay Bateman, Army DC – Garnered interest from Notre Dame and others last year after Army gave up just 22.0 points per game.
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