These Days: Jake Spavital’s fast rise through the coaching ranks

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Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

The first thing anyone mentions about Jake Spavital isn’t his years of experience, his coaching prowess or his family’s illustrious history of producing coaches.

It’s his age.

Sure, all those building blocks have helped mold one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. But at first glance, the glaring bullet point on Spavital’s resume is that he is 31. Though he started his coaching career back in 2008, Spavital is the fifth-youngest coordinator in the FBS.

“They bring up the age a lot,” Spavital, Cal’s first-year offensive coordinator, says. “I was just trying to get my foot in the door so I was constantly moving.”

Football has been a part of Spavital’s life for as long as he can remember. Born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Spavital grew up in Tulsa as the coach’s kid. His father, Steve Spavital, made his way through the coaching rounds, working at both the high school and college level for more than 30 years before retiring in 2013. Steve’s oldest son, Zac Spavital, was the defensive backs coach at Houston from 2008 to 2014 before joining Texas Tech’s staff as the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. Steve’s father, Jim Spavital, played in the All-America Football Conference and the NFL, then went on to coach at Oklahoma State for a decade.

After spending hours and hours as a child stenciling plays with his father, it was only fitting that Jake Spavital would soon find his calling in football.

Like most coaches, he started out playing the game, becoming a two-year letterwinner at Missouri State as a quarterback and punter despite being plagued by injuries for much of his career. Though Spavital may look back at his time on the field fondly, he suspected that playing was not what his future held.

“I was OK, but I wouldn’t recruit myself at quarterback,” he laughs.

Spavital’s early interest in coaching, however, remained as forceful a pull as ever, so he began his search for graduate assistant coaching jobs.

The 23-year-old Spavital found his first stepping stone in 2008, working as an offensive quality control assistant in Tulsa under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and head coach Todd Graham.

But the next year, Spavital discovered an opportunity elsewhere. Zac, then an assistant coach at Houston, put in a good word for his brother at the program and presented him with the chance to work with head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. When Holgorsen left for Oklahoma State in 2010, he brought Jake Spavital, who had spent the year learning the ins and outs of Holgorsen’s offense, with him. Spavital spent much of the season showing the ropes to quarterback Brandon Weeden, who was later drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

“You want to make sure you play hard for a guy that believes in you so much.” -Davis Webb

With three seasons of experience under his belt, Spavital was itching for something more. He followed Holgorsen once more, this time to West Virginia where he had been hired as head coach. Though Spavital initially joined the Mountaineers as a graduate assistant again, Holgorsen soon named him the quarterbacks coach, handing him his first full-time official title.

“My role had been the same everywhere I’d gone. I just got the official title, and that’s the thing,” Spavital says. “Everything in my career just sped up once I got named full-time.”

And speed up it did.

Spavital’s next big project was quarterback Geno Smith, who flourished with the new pass-based offense and Spavital’s coaching to break records left and right. With the fervor enveloping Smith, Spavital’s name quickly permeated coaching circles. By the time Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left his position to become head coach at Texas Tech, Spavital had established himself as a logical replacement.

After being offered the position by Sumlin, now the Aggies’ head coach, Spavital started the 2013 season as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach while bracing for a new system and staff. Most of all, he prepared for his newest project: a redshirt sophomore by the name of Johnny Manziel.

In Manziel, Spavital found his most talented quarterback prospect to date. Manziel’s two seasons starting for the Aggies led to an unprecedented barrage of attention, media requests and sudden stardom, all under the unflinching national spotlight.

Celebrities began to appear at Texas A&M games. Manziel couldn’t go to class without being bombarded by Sharpies and flashing cameras. An ESPN truck took up permanent residence outside the Aggies facility — all to catch a peek of the young quarterback with the million-dollar arm and electric presence. Thankfully, it was made clear that Spavital’s job was solely to be responsible for the quarterback on the field.

“Every day was fascinating, just to see all the people coming to the game and practices and on the sidelines. I think Johnny just enjoyed being at the offices at times because it got him away from it all,” Spavital says. “It was just crazy how many people were wanting a piece of Johnny Manziel — of Johnny Football.”

“It was just crazy how many people were wanting a piece of Johnny Manziel — of Johnny Football.” – Jake Spavital

But away from the spectacle that became Aggies football, Spavital’s reputation was quietly growing by the minute. Who was behind one of the best performances in college football history?

After three years at Texas A&M and a dismal 2015 season that begged for a scapegoat, Spavital “mutually parted ways” with the program in January. He began the harrowing process of interviewing with NFL teams, reaching advanced talks with four or five before Cal head coach Sonny Dykes got in contact with him.

Dykes needed to find an offensive coordinator, and fast, after the abrupt departure of Tony Franklin, who resigned two weeks before National Signing Day to take the same position at Middle Tennessee State.

Within 15 minutes, Dykes gave Spavital a call.

Though the two of them first crossed paths at a spread-system clinic years ago, they had never spent much time together, even with their many mutual friends in the profession.

Spavital now faced two tantalizing options. He had the opportunity to make the jump to an NFL coaching staff, but he knew as well as anyone that there was more he had to learn at the college level. What if he left that on the table?

“Again, I’m young, but one of the positives is if I get in the NFL young I can advance up the ladder like I did here. But there’s also the whole thing of you’re pretty much starting all over again and I’d made a pretty good name for myself in college,” Spavital says. “The thing about the NFL is that it’s just so unknown. It’s just a leap of faith I took deciding to come out here.”

But his decision was made easier when he started consulting the very people who had recommended him to Dykes in the first place. Holgorsen and Kingsbury spoke highly of Dykes and the system he had in place and continued to urge Spavital to head west. He also already knew Brandon Jones, Cal’s run game coordinator and offensive line coach, through  Oklahoma State, where Jones had briefly worked as a graduate assistant before getting promoted to a full-time position.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

“Jake’s name was certainly one that popped into my head at the very beginning. We’ve never worked together, but we’ve worked with so many people through the years and people that I know well and respect,” Dykes says. “The key is to find the right people.”

When Spavital joined Cal, the team was coming off its most frenzied season in years, having just produced the NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall pick and losing its top six receivers heading into 2016. But with the excitement came a flood of uncertainty. Heading into March, there wasn’t a sure pick to succeed Jared Goff at quarterback and the receiver depth chart was little more than a series of question marks.

But despite the expectations attached to taking the reins of one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, Spavital insists he didn’t equate this with pressure. It helped that he had paid close attention to Cal the past three seasons, watching how Dykes and Franklin had developed their players and the Bear Raid offense.

“I always look at each year as starting all over. You have a new team and you have to find a new identity,” Spavital says. “Throughout the spring, I was just trying to piece together who I had because I didn’t have much tape of anybody.”

Even without feeling the burden of seasons past, there were undeniably a lot of problems Spavital would have to solve, particularly with the skill positions. Of the 28 wide receivers and tight ends listed on Cal’s roster this season, 19 are underclassmen. With so little tape on so many players, Spavital was left with spring camp and word of mouth as his two best scouting reports.

“There was just so much unknown on everybody. You know you had a pretty good idea with the running backs, but with the receivers, I had no clue what was going on,” he says. “We played a ton of people and then we gave everybody an opportunity in fall camp and that kind of just fell into place over time.”

At the very least, the addition of quarterback Davis Webb helped Spavital work out the kinks. Webb, a graduate transfer from Texas Tech, joined Cal in May after an initial commitment to Colorado and took an immediate liking to Spavital, a key reason for his decision to join the Bears.

“I was recruited by a lot of schools and the one thing that stood out about Coach Spavital is that he really cares about his players,” Webb says. “He loves the game, but he loves to know each of us on a personal level. It’s something I really respect about him.”

After the murky competition at the quarterback spot, it was clear from the get-go that Webb would start for the Bears. It didn’t hurt that the offense Webb ran at Texas Tech under Kingsbury was so similar to the one Spavital was establishing at Cal.

With wide receiver Chad Hansen cementing his place as Webb’s favorite target over the summer, Spavital’s offense began to take shape.

Spavital credits his relatively seamless transition this season — the Bears are second in the Pac-12 in points per game — to coming from the same school of offensive philosophy as Dykes. Most, if not all, of the core concepts from last year’s offense have stayed in place. The minor changes appeared with time, such as putting the guards in three-point stances, implementing a more physical edge up front. But if there was one thing the offense needed to change, Spavital — and football pundits everywhere — knew what it was.

Since Dykes became head coach three seasons ago, he has often repeated his desire to create a more balanced offense. But with the quarterback and receiving corps that emerged at Cal, a consistent emphasis on the run game drifted further and further into the background, especially with the Bears routinely trailing in games.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Spavital, who spent several years in the trenches of the SEC, knew this had to change.

The SEC is known for two things (other than constantly churning out NFL players): suffocating defenses and power running. With the caliber of pass-rushers the SEC always boasts, relieving pressure from the quarterback and creating a steady ground attack is crucial to success.

From the day spring ball began, Spavital has worked closely with Jones to identify persistent issues with the run and how it could be adapted to complement the passing game, not disrupt it.

“He’s got a bit more run-heavy background and he’s done a really good job of forcing the run in situations. When he got here, we watched a ton of film and we just meshed,” Jones says. “We’re not as overly talented up front, so we try to scheme people up and that’s been really refreshing for me.”

There is no such thing as stability in the life of a football coach. But if there’s one constant Spavital can count on, it’s the early mornings and late nights. Even after a grueling overtime home game or a long flight back to Berkeley, there are no real beginnings or ends to Spavital’s weeks.

Each Sunday, he watches Cal’s previous game with the staff, breaking down the x’s and o’s before watching it again with players. Sundays are mostly spent getting an early read on the next opponent, watching reels and reels of tape in the hopes of figuring out the defensive coordinator’s blueprint as soon as possible.

On Monday, Jones delivers his run game designs to Spavital, who then cobbles together the backbone of a game plan by matching these concepts with his ideas for the passing game. At the end of his preliminary meeting with Webb, Spavital has a base strategy in hand as the rigor of Tuesday and Wednesday practices approaches.

By the time the players take the field Thursday, Spavital not only has the framework for the upcoming game but the more situational nuances he’ll need at his disposal come Saturday. An array of short yardage packages, two-minute drills and on-the-spot trick plays must be conceived before the 130-play walkthrough.

“I have a bunch of contingencies. I’ve been in situations before in my career where I couldn’t get certain things going, and I didn’t have the greatest answers for it,” Spavital says. “You’re never gonna have perfect games, but good coaches always find a way to move the ball, even in times of adversity.”

From the ambiguity of spring ball has come a more balanced, versatile offense. Even with two devastating injuries (to Hansen and running back Vic Enwere), Spavital has maneuvered his offense around each and every bend. Though the team may not always be as polished or efficient as Cal faithful may hope, Spavital has proved to be an intelligent, hands-on leader, one who tries to utilize each weapon as best he can.

“I think we rotate 10 receivers or so. That’s huge,” says true freshman wide receiver Melquise Stovall. “I don’t know any college that does that.”

If Spavital’s penchant for thoroughness is what earned his players’ respect, his ability to keep them all engaged is what maintains it.

“I think Coach Spavital is the best offensive coordinator in the country. The way he utilizes the strengths of the players is amazing, and the way he does his craft is unbelievable,” Webb says. “He’s got a plan for each and every day. You want to make sure you play hard for a guy that believes in you so much.”

At this juncture in his career, Spavital’s youth is much more an advantage than an impediment. He has coached up too many future stars and helmed too many dynamic offenses for that.

The next logical step is to assume a head coaching position, something that will likely happen sooner rather than later. After all, he has already appeared on a handful of lists highlighting college coordinators best suited to be a head coach. For the time being, however, Spavital has made both home and career in the Bay.

“There’s a lot of unpredictable things in the profession, and at the end of the day, I do want to be a head coach but I really do enjoy my time out here,” Spavital says. “I’m having one of the most fun years I’ve ever had coaching.”

Michelle Lee covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_e_lee.