One Firing Isn’t Enough

On Sunday, Tom Allen took the necessary step of firing offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan. Whatever you thought of the decision to hire Sheridan after Kalen DeBoer left, it became painfully clear this season that Sheridan had to go. I call it a “necessary” step because while the firing of Sheridan was needed to get IU back on the right track after a disastrous (to put it mildly) 2021 season, that firing alone is not sufficient. Put differently, the staffing moves IU needs to make to better compete in 2022 and beyond may start with Sheridan’s firing but they cannot end there. There are clear shortcomings in this program that cannot be remedied by bringing in a new offensive coordinator. Indeed, at least one of those shortcomings – the one we will discuss today – may even complicate the effort to hire the right OC.

That’s right, we’re talking about Darren Hiller. I think most serious IUFB fans consider Hiller the obvious candidate, after Sheridan, to be pink-slipped. Before we go any further, let me add a quick disclaimer: I take no joy in writing that a guy should lose his job. That said, football coaches at this level are well compensated, and they all know when they take these jobs that the turnover rate is high and job performance is at least somewhat visible to the public, who will have opinions on it. In short, they signed up for this. Nothing I write below should be taken as a commentary on Hiller the person, who by all accounts is great. I’m just talking about Hiller the football coach.

Darren Hiller was one of Coach Allen’s first hires when he got the head job during the offseason following the 2016 season. Greg Frey left for Michigan shortly after Kevin Wilson resigned, and Allen needed a new offensive line coach. As Allen has done repeatedly, he went with someone he knew from his time coaching under Hugh Freeze. Hiller had coached with Allen under Freeze at Arkansas State in 2011. Hiller’s first season as Indiana’s OL coach was 2017, and the first recruiting class that he had meaningful involvement with was 2018. Along with is OL duties, he is also IU’s Run Game Coordinator.

Offensive line play can be somewhat difficult to measure, but we aren’t without stats to help us gauge Hiller’s performance. The chart below shows a set of OL stats from Hiller’s five seasons at the helm. In case you aren’t familiar: (1) Adj. Line Yards – in general, “Line Yards” gives credit to the OL for rushing yards, with the credit decreasing the farther the run gets from the line of scrimmage, so:

  • 0-4 yards: 100% strength
  • 5-10 yards: 50% strength
  • 11+ yards: not included
  • runs for a loss: 120% strength

Adjusted Line Yards adjusts for quality of opponent and filters out garbage time; (2) Opportunity Rate measures the percentage of running plays that gain 4 yards or more, i.e. in which the OL gave the running back an “opportunity” for a big gain; (3) Power Success Rate: percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown; (4) Stuff Rate: percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage; and (5) Sack Rate: unadjusted sack rate for all non-garbage time pass attempts (all definitions from Football Outsiders).

Woof. Three out of five seasons outside the top 90 in Adjusted Line Yards. Four out of five seasons at 106th or worst in Opportunity Rate. No ranking higher than 68th in any of the categories in 2021. Even with every excuse in the book (talent level, COVID, injuries, etc.), production like this over the course of five seasons merits a change.

For comparison’s sake, here is what Greg Frey’s last three years as IU’s OL coach looked like (FO doesn’t have line stats before 2014):

Obviously, there were still some issues in those years — opportunity rate is apparently a long-term issue — but there’s also more bright spots, particularly in 2014 and 2015. And if you want to make the argument based on this chart that a drop-off began under Frey in 2016, that’s fine, but Hiller has had plenty of time to pull out of that dive and hasn’t done it.

So the stats reveal a problem with the offensive line. I think most honest assessors of IU’s recent offenses will concede that their eyeballs saw a problem. But what was the genesis of the problem? Recruitment? Development? On-field deployment?

Yes as to all.

The major issue with Hiller is that he hasn’t proven himself to be adept at any of those three areas of coaching competence. On the recruiting front, to the extent OL recruitment is his final responsibility, he has now had four classes (not counting 2017, in which he didn’t really have a hand, and excluding 2022, which isn’t complete), with a total of 13 high school recruits, two JuCo’s, and 3 FBS transfers. With all the caveats about recruiting rankings, IU hasn’t landed a single 4-star OL recruit during Hiller’s tenure, while bringing in 4-stars at several other positions. Beyond the rankings, I have never heard Hiller described as a dynamic presence on the recruiting trail. At best, he’s a workmanlike recruiter. At worst, he’s replacement level.

On the development side, of Hiller’s 13 high school recruits, only one, Matthew Bedford, has turned into a solid starter. One other, Michael Katic, has been in and out of the starting lineup, and a third, Tim Weaver, has been pressed into the lineup due to injury. Aside from that, the starters in the Hiller Era were either recruited by the previous regime, or were transfers (FBS or JuCo). Hiller’s first class in 2018 had either two or three high school O-linemen (depending on whether Gavin McCabe, now a DL, was ever seriously considered an OL). None of them have started, and Aiden Rafferty has only seen spot duty. There is very little evidence that Hiller can take under-ranked linemen, coach them up, and make them solid B1G starters. There are absolutely others that bear responsibility for IU’s failure to develop effective offensive linemen, most notably the strength and conditioning staff, but the buck stops with the position coach on development.

On deployment, as the Run Game Coordinator, Hiller is responsible for a part of the offense that has largely remained ineffective from 2017 through 2021. Under three different offensive coordinators, IU has never landed on a run game identity in this time period, running a mix of inside zone, outside zone, and gap concepts. During Hiller’s tenure, there has never been a particular run scheme that IU could consistently execute well. Beyond that, there has been nothing that might be construed as innovative or outside-the-box — not that a running attack needs to be, but when nothing else is working, trying a new scheme or two might be worthwhile. In pass protection, particularly in 2021, his linemen consistently struggled to handle basic stunts. While his lines had some reasonable sack rates, some of that is attributable to QBs who generally didn’t take sacks (Michael Penix and Peyton Ramsey), and sack rates don’t capture non-sack pressures, which still negatively impact the offense, and his lines allowed plenty of those. Relatedly, to the extent playing time decisions were up to Hiller, he seemed reticent to replace players that were clearly struggling with other, less-experienced options.

At his best, in 2018, with players recruited and in many cases initially coached by Frey, Hiller was making 2+2=4. Most of the time, Hiller’s coaching seemed to make 2+2=3. A truly successful offensive line coach at a program like IU must figure out a way to make 2+2=5. Frey did that when he (and likely others on the staff) identified, recruited, developed, and deployed players like Dan Feeney, Jason Spriggs, Brandon Knight, and others. Hiller simply didn’t do enough of that.

The most predictable response from any Hiller defenders that still exist it that the talent just isn’t there. Dan Feeney and Jason Spriggs were NFL players, and Hiller just hasn’t had that luxury. First of all, Hiller did have Knight and Wes Martin in 2017 and 2018, both of whom have played in the NFL (and were recruited by Frey), and Hiller managed to put up respectable numbers in 2018 while struggling in 2017. Beyond that, even if we accept that the talent level has dipped, that’s still Hiller’s fault! This particular chef has had plenty of time to buy his own groceries. Of course, there is a limit to what IU can get in the door – large people who can move are scarce – but as IU and many other programs have shown in the past, a decent offensive line can be built on 3-star players. So Hiller has either made the wrong choices in recruiting, failed to develop what he’s brought in, or failed to effectively deploy them. Take your pick.

On top of all of that, even if Hiller’s performance made the decision to retain him a close question, the fact is that any legitimate offensive coordinator candidate will want to either bring his own OL coach with him, or at least have the final say in who is hired for that position. Telling OC candidates that IU’s OL coach in 2022 will be Darren Hiller is a great way to severely limit the pool of quality candidates. There has been some chatter that the money isn’t there to cover Hiller’s remaining contract, while paying for a new OL coach. I won’t go into that too much here, except to say that if IU wants to be taken seriously as a college football program, money can’t be a reason for retaining an ineffective position coach, particularly when doing so may limit the offensive coordinator pool.

In the end, given the timing of Nick Sheridan’s firing, it did not appear that Coach Allen had a difficult time arriving at that decision. The offense’s performance gave him no choice. I would argue that offensive line’s performance from 2017 through 2021 makes the decision to remove Darren Hiller no less clear. If he is left in place, Allen would essentially be accepting a below-average (and potentially FAR below average) B1G offensive line, and it’s very hard to win that way.