Ole Miss is that opportunity.
After weeks of speculation, McGriff was formally introduced as the Rebels’ new defensive coordinator Friday morning. McGriff replaced Dave Wommack, who announced his retirement prior to the season-ending loss to in-state rival Mississippi State. McGriff comes to Ole Miss from Auburn, where he was the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach.
“It feels great,” McGriff said. “I tell you what, it’s definitely in line with my career path, and one of the best things about it is I had the opportunity to work there before. I had the opportunity to work under (Ole Miss head) coach (Hugh) Freeze. What a phenomenal leader he is. A great person, and he’s always been the guy that I’ve said if I had the chance to go back and work for anybody I worked for in my career, it’s coach Freeze. To have an opportunity to go back to Ole Miss and work for him as the defensive coordinator, that’s phenomenal. I’m really excited. I can’t wait to get back to Oxford.”
“I had a lot of guys,” Freeze said. “After recruiting ended, I started interviews immediately. A lot of great candidates, but one name just kept coming back to me. The comfort level that I have with Wesley McGriff was very important to me, and the energy that he will bring in reviving our defense, I think, is going to be vital. I love the experiences he’s been able to have. In his interview, he blew us away. We love the energy that he’s going to bring back to Oxford. He’s one of the better recruiters that I have ever faced. We know you’ve got to have great players on the defensive side, and there’s no doubt he’ll assist us on that. The critical areas that I really wanted to look at defensively in making this hire were stopping the run, red zone scoring and not giving up explosive plays. (Auburn defensive coordinator) Kevin Steele highly recommended him. What they’ve done there in those regards, they’re Top 10 in rushing, Top 10 in scoring and gave up very few explosive plays. Those were the three critical areas I thought we had to look closely in hiring the defensive coordinator, and his name kept coming to the top of it.”
McGriff will earn $1 million in the first of a three-year deal, followed by seasons of $1.1 and $1.2 million, respectively. This season, McGriff helped guide Auburn to the Sugar Bowl. He’ll coach in the bowl game, scheduled for Jan. 2.
“I always think the kids come first,” Freeze said. “It’s a dead period (in recruiting) right now. The things we can do right now, he can do when he’s not on the field there. We don’t go back on the road until January the 12th. He’ll be here January the 3rd. We’ll have plenty of time to get caught up on exactly what we’re going to attack. Right now he’ll be working with us to communicate as we can with the guys we need to. But there’s nothing we can do right now as far as going on the road. Put the kids first, and he deserves to finish that run there with his kids.”
McGriff has experience in multiple defensive schemes. Auburn runs a base 4-3, which he says he’ll bring with him to Ole Miss, but he’s also well-versed in the 3-4 concepts of Rob Ryan from his time with the New Orleans Saints, as well as the 4-2-5, the system implemented by Wommack in the previous four seasons at Ole Miss.
“We’re going to run the defense that stops every offense that’s playing football in America,” he said. “We’ll run a 4-3 attacking defense. I have a lot of ideas from my past experience in terms of what we’ll do on defense, but I think it’s all about the guys that’s in the room. You have to formulate a plan based on the talent in the room. You’ve got to do a good assessment of who’s in the building at what position, and then you’ve got to develop a plan your assistant coaches are very comfortable coaching with. I have a philosophy, some parameters. But we’re going to install a defense that can make us successful based on the guys in the building and also with the leadership of coach Freeze.”
McGriff spent one season at Auburn following a three-year stint with the Saints. He worked with the defensive backs, overseeing the development of such players as Rafael Bush, Kenny Vaccaro, Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis. At Auburn, McGriff influenced a defense that went from the bottom third of the SEC in 2015 to top three in the league in 2016 in scoring defense, rushing defense and third-down conversion defense.
“Of course, I’m on the defensive side of the ball, so I faced the offensive side of the ball,” McGriff said, when asked of his evaluation of Ole Miss defensively. “I’m just now starting to look at the personnel and the plays and the things they did well. They did some good things on defense as well, and I’ve known Dave quite a while. I had an opportunity to work with him, so we’re going to build off some of the positives things they did and try to improve in the areas where they need improvement. I’m still in the early stages of dissecting their personnel and who can get where. It’s one thing to have the right guys on the bus, but you’ve got to get them in the right seat. We’re going to be diligent in that. I know one thing for certain: We have a quarterback in the building (Shea Patterson). I don’t want to face him, so I’m glad I’m going to be on his side.”
McGriff said he and Freeze are currently in the process of filling out the rest of the defensive staff. Cornerbacks coach Jason Jones will return, though whether he’ll coach cornerbacks — as he did last season — or safeties is yet to be determined. McGriff said he’s comfortable coaching either, so he’ll allow Jones to stick with the group he’s most comfortable.
However, there are holes at defensive line and linebacker. Wommack coached the Rebel linebackers last season. Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin recently left to join his brother, Lane, as the defensive coordinator at FAU. McGriff didn’t get into specifics about potential candidates, only acknowledging he and Freeze have already put out feelers for both positions and are “in the middle of lining up some visits.” The process is well in motion.
James Willis, current assistant linebackers coach for the Saints, is a rumored candidate to join McGriff in Oxford. The two coached together in McGriff’s time in New Orleans. Willis has coordinator experience and he’s coached in the SEC, both at his alma mater, Auburn, and Alabama. He isn’t the only candidate, to be sure, but he certainly fits the criteria McGriff is looking for.
“The guy you definitely want to look for is an experienced guy who clearly understands the run fits up front, that clearly understands that the linebackers have to play both the run and the pass,” McGriff said. “He’s got to do a tremendous job of not allowing us to develop a scheme that’s going to put those guys in a run-pass conflict. You’re looking for a guy that’s very experienced, that’s very tough. That position, you’ve got to have really thick skin because you’ve got to go down and fight inside the box. You’ve got to have the wherewithal to be able to drop and play in coverage. That guy’s got to be an experienced guy, in my opinion, and I’m sure when we put our minds together and the way coach Freeze is going to lead us, that we’re going to come up with the right guy to help us win ballgames.”
On what he’s looking for in linebackers: “The No. 1 quality you look for in a linebacker is you’ve got to get a guy that’s the girth, the size and the play strength to fit and stop the run. When you talk about a middle linebacker, a mike linebacker, he has to have some abilities outside his physically attributes to kind of be the quarterback of the defense. We’re not going to make many checks, but when there’s situations when we have to make on-the-field adjustments, that mike linebacker has to have enough football I.Q. that he can make checks on the field. He’s kind of like your coach on the field. Those are the two key things you look for in your linebackers. Guys that have the girth, the size, to be able to fit and stop the run, and then your mike linebacker has to have the ability to be the quarterback of your defense in the middle. There will be some adjustments on the grass, but we’re not in the business of having a ton of checks. We want to get them lined up, get their cleats set, and going forward.”
On what he learned from his time in the NFL: “It was a phenomenal experience being in the National Football League at the highest level, being in that room game-planning against some world-class athletes. Guys like Julio Jones, guys like Marshawn Lynch and Matt Ryan. It was phenomenal. I really learned how you break an offense down to prepare in terms of game-planning. When you look at an offense on first and second down, what is their philosophy? Who are they trying to get the football to? Then you advance the next day and you go to your third down and red zone. The biggest thing I learned is you have to be really prepared for situation football. You break those opponents down in segments. Sean Payton and Rob Ryan, I thought those two guys are really top in the business. They really understand football. They probably know more football than I’ll ever learn. It was good to be under those guys not only to work with them, but just to watch them operate. It was a tremendous learning experience for me to have a chance to go to the National Football League, to be with an organization like the New Orleans Saints, to help me improve my learning library to better prepare me for this opportunity I’m going to face here at Ole Miss.”