FCS ‘big three’ assistant coaches who could be future head coaches

NCAA Football

(Stats Perform) – Finding the next best thing is an integral part of FCS college football, whether it be a program undercovering a hidden gem in recruiting or an NFL team landing an overlooked value from the lower half of Division I.

All levels also can look to the FCS for coaching prospects – not just the head coaches who are in demand, but assistant coaches who are primed for bigger, higher-paying opportunities.

The days of stale coaching hires appear to be dying. As one head coach of a recent FCS quarterfinalist said, “I think people are getting smarter about it.”

The Big Sky, CAA and Missouri Valley conferences are the big three in the FCS, having produced the last 12 national champions and all but three of the 24 finalists during that time. While the next best thing could come from any FCS conference, the following from the top three conferences are assistant coaches yet to be a head coach (which rules out the likes of New Hampshire’s Rick Santos and Southern Illinois’ Jason Petrino) to keep a close eye on:

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Big Sky Conference

Kane Ioane, Montana State defensive coordinator: Ioane played at Montana State and was the Big Sky’s all-time leading tackler and the conference’s 2003 defensive MVP, and has spent most of his coaching career in Bozeman. He was a defensive analyst on Chris Peterson’s staff at Washington in 2017 and ’18, but Bobcats coach Jeff Choate astutely brought him back in 2019 to guide the defense. In Ioane’s first season back with the Bobcats, they reached the FCS semifinals for the first time in 35 years.

Tim Plough, UC Davis associate head coach and offensive coordinator: In his West Coast offense, Plough demands leadership, toughness and responsibility out of the quarterbacks, but those traits reflect on coach Dan Hawkins’ right-hand man as well because he also was a UC Davis signal caller before graduating in 2008. Plough is a film junkie with an innovative offensive mind, has had opportunities at other schools and may have a future on an NFL staff.

Andy Thompson, Sacramento State defensive coordinator: Plough and Thompson worked together at Northern Arizona as the OC and DC, respectively. Thompson played on a national championship team at Montana before graduating in 2004, and he’s spent most of his career in the Big Sky. After 13 years at NAU, he joined new Sac State coach Troy Taylor’s staff in 2019. The Hornets posted the biggest improvement in the FCS (going from 2-8 to 9-3) and earned a share of the Big Sky title and a playoff bid for the first time, with the defense ranking second in the conference.

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CAA Football

Garrett Gillick, New Hampshire linebackers coach: The New Hampshire coaching tree is strong and associate head coach Rick Santos has served as interim head coach already and appears to be two-time Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Sean McDonnell’s heir apparent. A look farther down the coaching staff arrives at Gillick, who has impressed in his first six seasons guiding the linebackers. He’s a graduate of rival Maine, so his future as head coach may be somewhere else than UNH (just kidding, of course).

Corey Hetherman, James Madison defensive coordinator: In his first season with the 2019 national runner-up Dukes, Hetherman guided one of the best defensive units in the FCS. Previously, he built standout defenses at Maine and has coached long enough in the CAA to say he had stops at former members Northeastern and Old Dominion. Don’t be fooled by that fact, though, as the former three-year starting quarterback at Fitchburg State, and a 2006 graduate there, has youth on his side.

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Missouri Valley Football Conference

Jason Eck, South Dakota State offensive coordinator: The American Football Coaches Association selected Eck as the 2019 FCS assistant coach of the year. It was his first season as the OC in a South Dakota State tenure that began with the offensive linemen (whom he still coaches) in 2016. Eck is 1999 Wisconsin graduate who played under Barry Alvarez and also began his coaching career under him. He’s served on FBS, FCS and Division II staffs.

Jeremiah Johnson, Northern Iowa defensive coordinator: Some coaches on this list could eventually become the head coach at their current school, and that includes Johnson. The 2000 Kansas graduate has been on UNI’s staff since 2007 and annually constructs one of the better, more physical defenses in the FCS. Johnson arrived at UNI as part of the Bob Bierie coaching tree at Loras College.

Tyler Roehl, North Dakota State offensive coordinator: The youngest coach on this list, the 2009 NDSU graduate could one day be in demand because of his background in the Bison dynasty. He played under Craig Bohl and coached under all three of the Bison’s FCS championship-winning coaches (Bohl, Chris Klieman and Matt Entz). He’s as impressive off the field (think alumni relations) as he is on it.

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