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In a Critical Offseason, Aranda Shows His Mettle

Tough choices are tough but often better made quickly.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 03 Baylor at West Virginia Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Impossible First Year

We all know that 2020 was a rough year for Baylor football. It was a nightmare scenario for a first year head coach who was also a first time head coach. Aranda had to put together a staff and try and establish his culture in an environment totally inhospitable to doing so.

Other first year head coaches had success, but few did who were also first time head coaches. One of the drums I was beating this year is that the transition from coordinator to head coach is under-discussed, and most of the discussion around the transition is misplaced. The biggest question/issue for guys making the transition isn’t whether he can handle not siloing in on one side of the ball (you still can, see Briles), it’s whether he can learn to lead and command a coaching staff and establish an overall cultural standard.

There is no one correct way to do this. The HC can be dictatorial, he can be soft-spoken, he can tend more towards micro-managing or he can slant more towards delegating. All that really matters is that there is a known standard, message, and culture that all goes through the head coach. Not everything needs to go through him, but it must have his tacit approval. Every time an assistant coach disciplines a player or a strength coach installs a new drill, it should all be in concordance with what the HC wants from his program. Just as it is unhealthy for a household to have one parent more lenient or strict than the other, assistant coaches and staff must all be on the same page within a program.

This might all sound a little ridiculous or monomaniacal, but it’s the only way to make the unique culture and organization of college football work.

Cleaning House

Aranda’s defensive staff was easy for him to put together. He went with his mentor Ron Roberts as defensive coordinator along with some well renowned defensive assistants such as Brian Stewart as the CB coach.

Baylor v Texas Tech
Ron Roberts had the Baylor defense overperforming in 2020.
Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

The offense was a different story. As a career defensive assistant, Aranda had some exposure to offensive guys but had obviously never worked closely with any of them. Football staffs are extremely collaborative within their respective sides of the ball, but have much less meaningful contact with the opposite side of the ball.

So while there was obligatory mention of Aranda having worked with Jorge Munoz, Baylor’s WR coach and passing game coordinator, at LSU, he had only a cursory understanding of what kind of coach he would be, especially because Munoz was not an on-field coach at LSU. It was total guesswork for Aranda how Munoz would do as an on field coach. Larry Fedora was a pure “look at his resume” type hire, never having coached with Aranda. So the two guys leading Baylor’s 2020 offense, Fedora and Munoz, were guys that Aranda had much less knowledge of than the guys he chose for his defense.

I wont’ spend too much time on this—clearly Baylor’s 2020 offense didn’t work out. There were a myriad of rumors and reports about what was going on, namely that the offensive staff was really butting heads and lacked a coherent identity. It was also obvious to me watching at games that there was a lack of respect from the players towards some of the offensive staff.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Aranda making staff changes this offseason. These coaches contracts were signed pre-COVID, and we know how COVID has wrecked havoc on athletic department budgets around the country. I knew that Aranda had to make changes this offseason, but I wasn’t sure whether they could afford (literally) to make them. Well, they found the money.

I was particularly excited that he got rid of both Fedora and Munoz. I don’t want that to sound too harsh. But, what I was afraid of is that he would get rid of one and just say, “well now that the conflict is gone lets move forward.” But by getting rid of both, what it tells us is that Aranda knew that neither was performing to his standard and he wasn’t going to settle for anything less. Aranda has received some grief from fans for being soft spoken, but his staff decisions demonstrate that he is willing to make the tough decisions with his own staff that are necessary to be successful.

In the same vein, Aranda also replaced the head strength and conditioning coach. S&C is a position that is much more important than might appear from the outside. Players spend more times with the S&C staff than with their position coaches—they work out basically all year. The S&C staff is largely responsible for setting the tone and maintaining a work-hard atmosphere. If the players were at boot camp, the HC is like the general who comes around and performs perfunctory inspections while the S&C staff is the drill sergeant. Thus, leading the strength staff isn’t just about having knowledge, it’s about being a personnel manager.

Aranda Chooses the Replacements

With the dismissal of QB/OC Larry Fedora, WR Coach Jorge Munoz, OL Coach Joe Wickline, and strength & conditioning leader Corey Campbell weeks ago, fans waited with baited breath to see the direction Aranda would go.

The dominoes started falling yesterday. First, the announcement of Jeff Grimes as the new OC and tight ends coach (Shawn Bell, the previous TEs coach, is being promoted to QB coach). Furthermore, SicEm365 is reporting that Baylor is hiring Chansi Stuckey as WR coach and Vic Viloria as S&C coach. This leaves OL as the only vacant position remaining (with Grimes being an OL coach for the majority of his career, this position will assuredly be left to his discretion. OL guys are their own breed). UPDATE: Baylor has hired Troy OC/OL coach Ryan Pugh, an acolyte of Grimes.

Grimes and Aranda overlapped for two years at LSU (2016-17) while Grimes was the OL coach and run game coordinator and Aranda was DC. As said previously, coaches on opposite sides of the ball have little contact with each other, but Aranda was able to see Grimes coach on the field, something he never saw from Munoz. Aranda clearly knows what kind of coach Grimes is and has to feel much more comfortable going with someone he knows heading into 2020.

For new WR coach, Chansi Stuckey, I’m not exactly sure what the connection is. Stuckey was an All-Conference WR at Clemson and then went on to have a good career in the NFL. In 2019 he came back as a GA at Clemson and was then promoted to some sort of opaque position, “offensive assistant,” in 2020. It’s possible that Aranda and Stuckey met in some capacity during the national championship game in 2019. But it may just be that after a disastrous experiment with Munoz, Aranda wanted to go back to a younger guy with experience like previous WR coach Frisman Jackson.

Chansi Stuckey playing in the NFL

I’m very excited about Stuckey. WR is a position where having a youthful, energetic, and technique-savvy guy is a big deal. It’s a position (as we saw in 2020 at Baylor) that you need a lot of buy-in from the group. Guys have to block for one another. They have to take their route running seriously. Frisman Jackson, the WR coach under Rhule, was an ascendant WR coach and one of the best in the college game. His meteoric rise from NFL player —> small school WR coach —> NFL WR coach demonstrated how highly he was thought of. The hope is that Stuckey can be a similarly ascendant type WR coach who commands respect from his group due to his background.

Finally, the new S&C coach. Vic Viloria comes from LSU where he was second in command for the past few years (thus Aranda and him overlapped). Before that he was the head guy at Florida State for the better part of a decade before a DUI in 2016. It seems that this is an instance where he took a step down for a few years to prove that this was a one-off incident, but I won’t speculate too much. Clearly Aranda and Rhoades felt comfortable hiring him.

Aranda knows what Viloria brings to the table. As said previously, a S&C coach isn’t just an expert on lifts and conditioning, he plays a significant role in leading the team. As players come off a down year in 2020, Viloria’s role as the new enforcer will be crucial.

Vic Viloria during his time at FSU.

Setting Up For a Critical 2021

After a 2-7 campaign in 2020, Aranda knows he needs far better results in 2021. The situation he walked into in 2020 was understandably difficult, but clearly there were some staff issues that would’ve reared their heads regardless of COVID. Aranda took the necessary steps to creating a more cohesive and coherent identity in 2021 and I am very hopeful they bear fruit.

He knows this is a critical year, and he’s getting guys he better knows can get the job done. I’m much more excited for 2021 than I was a month ago. I remain very hopeful for the Aranda era, the defense will clearly be dynamite and very interesting as long as he is here. With basically everyone from a surprisingly good 2020 defense coming back, Baylor just needs to move from woeful to average on offense to have a really good team in 2021. These new hires are the first steps in ensuring that.