LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the third time in as many years, Kentucky will embark on a quest for a new offensive coordinator.
After firing Eddie Gran in 2020, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops hired Liam Coen. Following a smashing success of a season in 2021, when the Wildcats went 10-3, Coen left for the same position with the Los Angeles Rams. Rich Scangarello came on board earlier this year, but after a disappointing regular season in 2022 — UK went 7-5 after harboring hopes of potentially challenging Georgia for the SEC East division crown — he's already out of a job.
Who will Stoops turn to next?
Perhaps the most important question Stoops must answer: Does he want another coordinator in the vein of Coen and Scangerello, both of whom had NFL backgrounds and ran pro-style schemes? Does Stoops want to bring in a coach armed with the type of up-tempo attack so many college teams use in the modern game?
Or ... does he want to bring back Coen?
Here are five names to watch, in no specific order:
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Liam Coen, Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator
Coen's return to Lexington is the dream scenario for many Wildcat fans.
During his one-year run as OC, Kentucky averaged 32.2 points and 424.1 yards per game — more than 10 points and nearly 90 yards better than what the Wildcats managed this season (22.1 ppg and 336.3 ypg) as the SEC's most anemic offense. Under Coen, the Wildcats excelled individually. (Notably, wideout Wan'Dale Robinson, a transfer from Nebraska, set single-season school records for receptions and receiving yardage last year.) Under Coen, the Wildcats also excelled as a unit. (UK scored 40 or more points five times in 2021; it didn't reach that mark a single time in 12 games this fall.)
Stoops and Kentucky certainly would be interested in a reunion.
But would Coen?
While he is the Rams' offensive coordinator, on gamedays head coach Sean McVay calls the plays. Coen can offer input, but McVay ultimately sends in the calls. If Coen wants to get back to calling plays, he'll have free rein with the Wildcats.
Don't discount Los Angeles' disappointing season playing a factor, either.
No Super Bowl repeat appears to be in the offing for the Rams, who are 3-8 this season. That's the second-worst record in the NFC, ahead of only the 3-9 Chicago Bears. If McVay is forced to clean house come the end of the season, maybe Coen wants to avoid being on the chopping block and decides to move back to Lexington before that comes to pass.
The Wildcats wouldn't complain.
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Brian Hartline, Ohio State wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator
The 36-year-old is considered one of the brightest young minds in the coaching profession. He's unquestionably one of the best recruiters in the country — whenever Ohio State lands a blue-chip receiver, Hartline plays a key role in the commitment, more often than not — and comes with stellar credentials. That recruiting prowess would come in handy in Lexington given that he's from Ohio, one of the most important states for the Wildcats' roster building during Stoops' tenure. But the recruiting piece isn't all. Hartline also is a developer.
Once those highly touted pass-catchers arrive on campus and suit up for the Buckeyes, they produce. Become All-Americans. And eventually, NFL draft picks. While Hartline hasn't called plays yet, he's learned under some of the best during his time at OSU.
Maybe the biggest obstacle in Kentucky's way? It will be far from the only suitor for Hartline's services. And not just those looking for an offensive coordinator. He's rumored to be in the running to take over as Cincinnati's head coach following Luke Fickell's departure for Wisconsin.
Rob Calabrese, New York Jets quarterbacks coach
Before Scangarello landed the gig last year, it appeared Calabrese was primed to become Kentucky's next offensive coordinator. Calabrese remained in the pros, but might he feel differently now? He's helped the Jets pick up victories with a pair of backup quarterbacks (Joe Flacco and Mike White), as the team is squarely in the AFC playoff picture. He's not a perfect candidate, however. Given that Scangarello is Calabrese's mentor, and that they both are connected to the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, it might give Stoops pause to hire someone with such similar philosophies as the man he just let go.
Timing also is a consideration. If the Jets make the playoffs, Calabrese wouldn't be able to join the Wildcats until the middle of January at the earliest.
Scotty Walden, Austin Peay head coach
If Stoops wants to think outside the box, he can hire one of the nation's youngest head coaches. Though he's just 33 years old, Walden already has 11 years of experience as a college coach. At just 22, he became the offensive coordinator at Division III Sul Ross State (Alpine, Texas) in 2012. That fall, the Lobos had the best offense, at any level of the NCAA, leading the country in points (48.8) and yards (581.9) per game. During the season, they also set single-game marks for points (75) and yards (800).
The following year, he moved across the Lone Star State to become East Texas Baptist's OC. After three successful seasons in that role, including winning the American Southwest Conference championship in 2015, ETBU named him its head coach in 2016. That season, the Tigers led all NCAA teams in points per game (49.9) while finishing second in yards per outing (564.3).
He moved up to the FBS level in 2017 as Southern Mississippi's wide receivers and tight ends coach. He became the Golden Eagles' co-offensive coordinator in 2019, helping receiver Quez Watkins earn first-team All-Conference USA honors.
No, Walden never has coached in a Power 5 league. But it's not without precedent to hire one as an SEC offensive coordinator and enjoy immediate success.
Gus Malzahn had been a high school coach for more than a decade before taking over as Arkansas' OC in 2006. In his only season with the Razorbacks, he coached the Heisman Trophy runner-up (Darren McFadden) for a team that won the SEC West and finished fourth nationally in rushing.
There could be great risk in hiring Walden. But the long-term reward for the Wildcats perhaps could be even greater.
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Garrett Riley, TCU offensive coordinator
Like Walden, Riley is just 33 years old. Unlike Walden, Riley has extensive FBS experience.
He's worked at East Carolina (2013-15 as outside receivers coach), Kansas (2016-18), Appalachian State (2019 as running backs coach) and SMU (2020 and 2021 as OC).
Now in his first season as the Horned Frogs' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Riley is guiding one of the country's most prolific units. TCU's 41.3 points per game ranks fourth in the FBS, while its 473.3 yards per game is 16th, and tops among Big 12 teams.
Stoops' track record shows he places a premium on offensive balance.
The Horned Frogs pull that off, as they're 25th nationally in passing yards per game (274.8) and 27th in rushing yards per game (198.5).
Money won't be an issue, either.
Dipping into its war chest from the SEC's lucrative television contracts, Kentucky would be able to pay whatever is necessary to dislodge Riley from TCU. If Riley wants to coach in the most successful conference in the country since the turn of the millennium, this would be the perfect opportunity.
Oh, and if his last name sounds familiar?
Yes, he's Lincoln Riley's younger brother. Good bloodlines. And one the Wildcats would be eager to utilize if the younger Riley is interested.
If Stoops wants Riley badly enough, he'd be willing to wait until the Horned Frogs complete their season — which possibly could be in the College Football Playoff national championship game Jan. 9. (Think about the recruiting bump hiring a coordinator fresh off a CFP run could do for UK, especially if Riley is wearing a national title ring.) His hire also could help Kentucky begin making inroads in Texas, a state that will start to become even more important for SEC schools than it already is once the Longhorns join the conference later this decade.
Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @RyanABlack.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky football: Liam Coen, 5 candidates for offensive coordinator