New Gophers coach P.J. Fleck met with former defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel on Saturday, but by Monday afternoon, ESPN was reporting that Arkansas’ Robb Smith — not Sawvel — would be Minnesota’s new defensive coordinator.
Gophers sources did not confirm the Smith report. Fleck told WCCO-AM on Sunday that he expects to have his staff hired by Thursday. Fleck was in Nashville on Monday for the American Football Coaches Association’s national convention, where he was expected to meet with Gophers assistant coaching candidates.
A source familiar with the discussions said Fleck never offered Sawvel the job, but there was talk of another meeting before the Smith news surfaced.
Fleck and Smith coached together on the Rutgers staff, under Greg Schiano, in 2010 and ’11. When Schiano left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fleck went with him, and Smith became Rutgers defensive coordinator.
At Arkansas, Smith had the nation’s No. 10 scoring defense (19.2 points per game) in 2014, and he was nominated for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach. But the Razorbacks fell to 68th in scoring defense in 2015 and 85th this season.
According to USA Today, Smith made $825,000 this past season, making him the nation’s 23rd-highest-paid assistant coach. He was reportedly headed to Wake Forest a few days ago, before the apparent reunion with Fleck surfaced.
Sawvel made $550,000 this past season, and the Gophers ranked 21st in the nation in scoring defense, at 22.1 points per game. Sawvel put together the defensive game plan that helped the Gophers upset Washington State 17-12 in the Holiday Bowl. Minnesota grounded a Cougars passing offense that came in ranked second in the nation.
Sawvel also was one of the Gophers best recruiters. As a defensive backs coach, he helped turn Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson, Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun into NFL defensive backs.