CUSA Championship Football

Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Zach Kittley celebrates as his team scores a touchdown against UTSA during the first half in the Conference USA championship game Friday in San Antonio.

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Steven M. Sipple, Parker Gabriel and Chris Basnett talk through the ever-evolving coaching searches that Nebraska football and head coach Scott Frost are currently conducting in this episode.

It’s shaping up to be a critical few days nestled in a critical few weeks for the Nebraska football program.

Coach Scott Frost filled the first of four coaching staff openings Friday when he finalized the hire of Mickey Joseph, who joins the program as the new wide receivers coach, passing game coordinator and associate head coach.

Frost was able to poach the dynamic recruiter and coach away from new LSU coach Brian Kelly after Joseph spent the past five years working for the Tigers.

Now, attention turns to the other three spots.

Frost has entertained the idea of hiring a special teams coordinator and he has options including one in-house (Bill Busch) and at least one external in Virginia special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield. To make matters more interesting, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall pulled a stunner Thursday when he resigned after the Cavs finished up their regular season. More on that below.

The biggest vacancy remaining, of course, is the offensive coordinator position.

Frost has been working on filling spots since he fired four coaches on Nov. 8, and from the very beginning he said the timeline for some of the hires could be based on when teams finish their seasons.

“I think he has a good plan,” athletic director Trev Alberts said of Frost late last week during a radio appearance. “I know he’s been out talking to people. You probably hear about a lot of different rumors. We are talking to a lot of different coaches.

“I’m very confident we’re going to have some really solid additions in terms of teachers for our football team, in terms of recruiters and people that really want to be a part of Husker athletics.”

Several sources have indicated to the Journal Star in recent days that NU is targeting this weekend as a key one in continuing to fill the staff.

Not surprisingly, there are several coaches who are either on the field this weekend with their teams or who have had recent changes in situation — or both — that could well have an impact on Nebraska.

With that, here’s a guide on what (and who) to watch this weekend.

That random late-night Pac-12 tilt

First things first, you might want to plan on a late night Saturday.

Out on the West Coast, California is hosting USC in a makeup game for a contest that was canceled last month due to COVID-19.

The key figure in this one is USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Multiple sources have told the Journal Star that Harrell is among the coordinator candidates Nebraska is interested in.

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Harrell is 36, he’s a Texas native — remember Frost in the days before he fired the four assistants told Fox broadcasters in a production meeting that Nebraska needed to have a better presence in the Lone Star State — and he has Air Raid roots as a coach. That might not seem necessarily like the profile of a Big Ten West coordinator, but Frost is looking for somebody to blend offensive concepts with, and Harrell played for Mike Leach in college and coached with him at Washington State.

At USC, Harrell coaches quarterbacks and calls plays for the Trojans, but those responsibilities will undoubtedly belong to new head coach Lincoln Riley going forward. He could be in the mix for head coaching jobs as the cycle continues to spin forward and the trickle-down from the major moves that have already reshaped the college coaching landscape in recent weeks.

Harrell’s Texas roots, offensive pedigree and potential connection to quarterback recruits and transfers all make it possible that he’s been in consideration all along for Frost, but he’ll also be in demand if he looks to leave Los Angeles.

“Having Scott clearly communicate his vision in terms of how the offense will look and what the terminology is going to be, what the changes are going to be,” Alberts said. “And I think also that Scott is himself trying to be a good listener to some of these individuals that can give him some perspective on what they’ve seen. Coaching is a very tight-knit fraternity. They all know each other. They all watch film as part of the self-scouting process as well, so I think Scott can learn a lot from other coaches he’s talking to as well.

“I know they’re talking to a broad range of individuals. I know the coaches they’re talking to and I think they’re quality human beings.”

If Frost is looking for Air Raid influence in his offense and Harrell goes elsewhere, keep an eye on Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Zach Kittley. In two years, he’s gone from Houston Baptist to overseeing one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The Hilltoppers also played this weekend, losing to UT-San Antonio on Friday night.

Under Kittley’s direction, Houston Baptist transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for 5,542 yards and 56 touchdowns against 11 interceptions this year, averaging 427 passing yards per game in his first season at the FBS level.

Football Scoop reported Saturday that Kittley is a key target in Texas Tech's offensive coordinator search. 

The ACC championship game

Here’s another example of how fortunes can change fast in college football. A year ago, Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi was asked whether his offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple, would return in 2021 after the Panthers and quarterback Kenny Pickett put up middling numbers in 2020.

Now Pickett is a Heisman Trophy candidate, Whipple is directing one of the nation’s top offenses and Pitt is playing for an ACC title.

That’s enough to catch anybody’s attention, and two sources indicated that Nebraska’s interested, though one coach suggested to the Journal Star “there’s no way” the 64-year-old Whipple is leaving Pitt. He’s a Northeast guy and has spent most of his career on the East Coast, including two stints as the head coach at UMass. But when you put up 42.8 points and 513 yards per game, other teams are going to try to reach out. 

On the other sideline is Wake Forest’s Warren Ruggiero. The Journal Star hasn’t linked NU and Ruggiero, but the Demon Deacons offense is awfully fun to watch anyhow. Ruggiero has been with coach Dave Clawson, who just signed an extension, for all eight years at Wake Forest and the pair was together at Bowling Green before that.

One other ACC name to know

Sticking in the ACC, one coach whose situation changed recently is Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae. Two sources indicated last month that NU might have interest in the veteran play-caller, who also has Air Raid roots, but nothing substantial materialized. Then on Thursday, Mendenhall abruptly resigned. Could that rekindle the conversation? Is Nebraska too far down the road with other candidates?

There’s been a wide variety of candidates discussed as potentials for the Nebraska offensive coordinator job — including reporting from Arizona outlets that Arizona State offensive coordinator Zak Hill is on NU’s radar screen and suggestions that Army’s Brent Davis, who still has a game against Navy next weekend, is a potential target — but the unanswered question remains if Frost is just waiting for one top candidate’s season to end or if there are a couple more interviews to be done in the Huskers' broad search.

Either way, the dominoes should start falling not long after the weekend’s games wrap up.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

This article originally ran on journalstar.com.

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