Clemson’s Tony Elliott returns from COVID-19, Tennessee wooing

Ken Ruinard

Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott is grateful the stress of December and January is behind him and he’s once more doing a job he loves.

The Tigers imaginative play-caller was out with COVID-19 for the team’s 49-28 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State in the national semifinals. Soon after, Elliott strongly considered leaving as he was courted for the head coaching job at one of the Southeastern Conference’s resource-rich programs in Tennessee.

“You know, I thought I had made it through the coaching carousel unscathed,” Elliott joked.

Elliott spoke with new Vols athletic director Danny White before choosing to remain with the Tigers.

“Definitely, it was something that I really had to sit down and think about and consider and pray about, and talk to people, and try to find the right confirmation,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day, when I put everything on the table, it just wasn’t the right time.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is happy to have Elliott back leading an offense that loses its two marquee players in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne. That was apparent when Elliott received a raise last month that made him a $2 million a year coordinator.

“He loves Clemson and he loves his job,” Swinney said. “One of these days it will be the right one. The only reason he’s not head coach yet is because it hasn’t been the right one yet.”

Elliott has carefully considered each step in his career before jumping into it. The former Clemson receiver had his engineering degree and a bright future in the business at tire-manufacturer Michelin North America. Still, he couldn’t get the coaching bug out of his system and became receivers coach at FCS schools South Carolina State and Furman.

He returned to Clemson in 2011 and learned everything he could from high-powered, attack offense from then coordinator Chad Morris. When Morris left for SMU after the 2014 season, Elliott was ready to call plays for the Tigers.

Elliott shared coordinator duties with Jeff Scott from 2015 until Scott left to become USF head coach after the 2019 season.

With Elliott solely in charge last season, the Tigers continued to post big offensive numbers and finished 10th nationally at 502 yards a game.

Elliott seems ready to take over a program, but hasn’t made that move. He knows whatever job he takes will come with through-the-roof expectations because of his Clemson accomplishments.

“I want to be in a position where we have a legitimate opportunity to win,” he said.

Elliott was confident the Tigers could keep last season going at the Sugar Bowl when he was told he’d tested positive for the coronavirus.

“When they told me, I broke down,” he said.

Elliott began tracing back for how he contracted the disease before making peace that while he could virtually take part in pre-game preparations, he’d have to sit out the Buckeyes’ game.

As the game went on and Ohio State dominated, Elliott felt helpless.

“To see the guys struggle and to know I wasn’t there to help them out,” he said. “That’s when it started to hurt.”

A re-energized Elliott, whose raise came with added title of assistant head coach, has thrown himself into spring and some new coaching duties. The team’s running backs coach since 2011, Elliott moved to handle tight ends so Swinney could hire former Clemson ACC player of the year C.J. Spiller to coach runners.

Elliott is excited about the potential of rising sophomore quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, Lawrence’s heir apparent, and a stacked group of runners including senior tailback Lyn-J Dixon and five-star freshman Will Shipley to keep the ground game going after Etienne.

He wants to head his own program one day, but only if the fit is right for his family and his peace of mind that he can do a good job.

“It’s more about everything else than it is about the football piece,” Elliott said. “That’s what I’ve learned in my 10 years here.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.