Meet Zac Alley, the Brent Venables disciple set to take over OU’s defense

Meet Zac Alley, the Brent Venables disciple set to take over OU’s defense

Zac Alley’s coaching career was shaped by Brent Venables at Clemson. They’ll partner again to lead Oklahoma into the SEC.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Jan 5, 2024, 10:30am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Jan 5, 2024, 10:30am CST

NORMAN — There were plenty of things that fascinated Rich Rodriguez in his first season working alongside the youngest defensive coordinator in FBS. One was the way Zac Alley organized his halftime talks at Louisiana-Monroe in the fall of 2021. 

There are no monitors or iPads on a college football sideline. That’s part of why every second of evaluation matters during the 20-minute interval between halves. In his 36th season coaching college football, Rodriguez marveled at how quickly Alley dialed up video to express specific concepts to his players and wondered where his 28-year-old counterpart had learned to do it.

“I took it straight from Brent,” Alley later told Rodriguez on the “Hard Edge Football” podcast. “That’s the value of the support staff. I think that gets missed sometimes. But I used to do that for him.”

Listen to Alley speak and he sounds like Brent Venables. Watch Alley coach a drill and he looks like him, too. Even Alley’s parents, he says, think their son shares sideline mannerisms with Oklahoma’s head football coach.

Venables was 29 when he became the Sooners’ defensive coordinator in 1999. When Alley takes over OU’s defense, as confirmed by multiple reports Thursday, he’ll be 30. Close enough, right?

Alley, a disciple of Venables’ decade at Clemson, will be the coordinator who leads the Sooners’ defense into the SEC. Following two seasons in the same role at Jacksonville State, he’s slated to become OU’s next defensive play-caller after the program announced Ted Roof’s departure after two seasons Thursday afternoon.

A support staffer under Venables from 2012-18, Alley was 28 years old when he landed the defensive coordinator job at Louisiana-Monroe. From there, he followed Rodriguez to Jacksonville State in 2022 before leading the nation’s 15th-ranked run defense and the 34th-ranked scoring defense as the Gamecocks transitioned into FBS football this fall.

The stakes will rise on Alley as he takes on guiding a veteran Sooners defense into a new era in Venables’ third season in charge. With 36 games of experience as a coordinator, the job will bring the stiffest test yet to a career Alley says he’s built on outworking people.

He’ll arrive in Norman under the tutelage — and with the endorsement — of Venables, the coach who helped mold his career.

“He’s like a second father figure to me,” Alley told Rodriguez on the head coach’s podcast in April 2022. “I love him to death.”

The Clemson years

The son of a former Clemson wide receiver, Alley holds childhood roots in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, but he claims Greenville, South Carolina, as home.

Greenville sits roughly 30 miles from Clemson. In 2011, Alley became the latest family member to attend the school. In some of his earliest days on campus, Alley approached Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele about a role with the program.

“He looked at me and told me I was crazy,” Alley told Rodriguez. “‘Why did I want to do this?’ He told me all the bad things about (coaching). He asked if I still wanted to do it. I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ It started there and from that point forward I’ve loved it ever since.”

As a student assistant, Alley’s initial duties included setting up chairs for defensive meetings. When Venables took over after the 2011 season, Alley remained as a student assistant before moving into a graduate assistant role from 2015-18.

Those years under Venables, during which Clemson won two national titles, offered Alley a coaching template to work from and insight into the coach he’ll now work for again.

“He’s so detailed,” Alley said of Venables. “He’s intense, all the time. What you see on the sideline is what you get in the meeting room.”

Alley’s eight years at Clemson and his time with Venables served to platform a budding coaching career. 

In 2019, Alley spent a month as an assistant at Charlotte before moving to Boise State as an inside linebackers coach under Bryan Harsin. The following season, Alley was in charge of the outside linebackers and took on duties as co-special teams coordinator. 

A journey that led back to Venables

Alley’s coaching future turned uncertain when Harsin left for the top job at Auburn after the 2020 season. While Alley plotted his next steps from North Carolina, Terry Bowden was assembling his new staff at Louisiana-Monroe.

As Alley tells it, his first coordinator job came with an assist from a pair of Clemson mentors.

“I’d heard about coach Bowden from some of the guys at Clemson and that he might be taking this job,” he told the Monroe News-Star in 2021. “I didn’t have his number or anything, but he called me that next day and said he’d asked coach Venables and coach (Dabo) Swinney who the best young guy in the country was to come in and be the defensive coordinator and they recommended me.”

The fall of 2021 marked the Warhawks’ first of three losing seasons under Bowden. As Louisiana-Monroe sputtered to 4-8. Alley’s unit allowed 33.5 points per game and finished 114th in total defense.

On the other side of the ball, Rodriguez was coordinating an offense that would go on to close 2021 scoring 20.9 points per game, good for 110th nationally. Yet while the Warhawks struggled, Rodriguez saw promise in the young coordinator, and when Rodriguez was hired at Jacksonville State for the 2022 season, he took Alley with him. 

That spring, Rodriguez outlined some of what he saw in the promising coordinator on the podcast the former West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona head coach has hosted since 2020.

“I was impressed by Zac last year watching from the other side,” Rodriguez told his listeners. “Like a lot of the most successful coaches, you have a core belief in how you want to do things. Yet you’re open-minded as far as looking at other stuff scheme-wise.”

Success at Jacksonville State

Alley’s first Jacksonville State defense allowed 22.9 points to rank 28th among FCS programs. And when the Gamecocks jumped to FBS football in 2023, Alley’s defense jumped with it. 

Jacksonville State’s defense finished seventh in turnovers per game (1.9), eighth in stop rate (74%) and 43rd in total defense (352.8 yards per game), carrying the Gamecocks to a 9-4 record and a New Orleans Bowl win.

The biggest game on Jacksonville State’s 2023 regular season schedule ended in a 38-28 loss to South Carolina on Nov. 4. Beforehand, South Carolina offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield told The Post and Courier that Alley’s defense was “the most multiple” his offense has seen all season. South Carolina coach Shane Beamer referred to Alley’s unit as “extremely disruptive.”

In his interview with Rodriguez, Alley outlined the wide range of schemes across college football and the NFL that he’s drawn inspiration from. But the defense that drew praise from South Carolina’s staff and elevated Jacksonville State in 2023 began with Venables, the coach who helped launch Alley’s coaching development. 

“He’s the main influence I draw from,” he said. “More the mindset than anything else. Diverse and hard. Trying to do a lot or looking like you do a lot.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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