Despite finishing on a massive upswing with a show-stealing win against Wake Forest, the 2019 season was one to forget for Syracuse football. Both the offense and defense were middling at best and often times the defense was downright abysmal.
In fact, the defense was so bad that Dino Babers elected to make a change on his coaching staff with just three games remaining on the schedule, firing defensive coordinator Brian Ward and promoting linebackers/defensive coach Steve Stanard to the vacant position.
The defense certainly improved under Stanard and helped the Orange win two of its last three games, but it became pretty obvious that if SU was going to be consistently good instead of occasionally great, a bigger move needed to be made. We knew the search for a new DC was on and SU got its guy on Saturday.
We knew that one was coming sooner or later. What we didn’t necessarily see coming was another change at coordinator that was announced later in the day.
Although the program hasn’t officially confirmed the hire, multiple other reports have corroborated that former McNeese State head coach Sterlin Gilbert is set to become the Orange’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Unlike Arnett’s hiring, this one kind of came out of the blue. Mike Lynch served as the Orange’s offensive coordinator this past season while Kirk Martin has served as the team’s quarterbacks coach in each of the last two seasons. The part that doesn’t really make any sense is that neither Lynch nor Martin has been relieved of his duties.
That means that by technicality, there’s no room for Gilbert at either position. Again, Gilbert’s hire isn’t confirmed and it’s possible that both Lynch and Martin could have their duties altered if Gilbert does indeed join the staff (Lynch is already the running backs coach and previously served as the O-Line coach), but still, it was a surprising move that could be interesting moving forward.
Now that we’ve established the timeline of how everything went down on Saturday afternoon, we can talk a bit more about what both Arnett and Gilbert bring to the table in terms of scheme and experience.
At just 32 years old, Arnett will become by far the youngest coach on Syracuse’s staff, but he’s already established himself as one of the best young defensive minds in the country. He spent the last two years as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at San Diego State under Rocky Long who, after stepping down as the Aztecs head man earlier this month, was also rumored to be a candidate for the DC vacancy at SU. Under Arnett, SDSU ranked sixth in the country in total defense, allowing a paltry 287.8 ypg and was one of just three non-Power 5 teams to rank inside the top ten, including Buffalo and UAB. Arnett’s unit also ranked top ten nationally in rush defense (2nd), scoring defense (3rd), interceptions (4th), first downs allowed (4th), passing efficiency defense (6th) and turnovers gained (8th). Before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2018, Arnett served as SDSU’s linebackers coach from 2014-2017 and was a defensive grad assistant from 2011-2013. That means he’s stayed loyal to the Aztecs program for 9 years.
When he comes to Central New York, Arnett will likely bring the 3-3-5 scheme he ran at SDSU along with him. The 3-3-5 is essentially a hybrid of what the Orange have done over the past couple of years combining some elements of the nickel scheme they insisted they’d be running (five defensive backs) and what they wound up doing a lot of especially during the ten-win season with a three-linebacker set. That’ll put some pressure on a young group of linebackers that has the chance to be great but is still largely unproven while also changing the way SU rushes the quarterback with just three down linemen instead of four. Arnett has proven that he can make the system work in the Mountain West, now it’s just a matter of successfully implementing it in Syracuse and making it work in the ACC.
Unlike Arnett, if Sterlin Gilbert does indeed end up in Central New York he’ll be making a vertical rather than lateral move. Gilbert spent last season as the head coach at McNeese State and led the Cowboys to a 7-5 record, including a 5-4 mark in the Southland Conference. Prior to taking over the Broncos program, Gilbert served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at South Florida for two seasons from 2017-18. He was also the OC/QB coach at Texas in 2016. If you see a pattern emerging, then you’re not alone. Since Gilbert began his coaching career as the running backs coach at Springtown HS in Texas in 2003, he’s never spent more than three years at any individual stop and never more than two at the college level.
Other jobs Gilbert has held at the collegiate level include being the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tulsa in 2015 and serving under Dino Babers as the OC/QB coach at both Eastern Illinois (2012-13 with Jimmy Garoppolo) and Bowling Green (2014).
For the last few years we’ve heard so much about how Dino just needs the right pieces to put in place to make his unique, up-tempo offense operate in the proper manner. In his first year, he didn’t have his guys. In year two, Eric Dungey was hampered by injuries. Year three looked like the beginning of a ton of success while year-four struggles were often attributed to having a first-year quarterback and poor offensive line play. Maybe now with one of his disciples at the helm of the attack, Dino’s offense can live up to the craziness that was promised. The Babers-Gilbert combo worked at both Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green while helping to produce a quarterback that’s about to play for an NFC Championship next weekend so maybe something similar can happen in Syracuse.