How UConn Football Coach Jim Mora Built His Young Coaching Staff

At the end of that month, a complete overhaul of the coaching staff was underway, with the aim of overturning the program after a disastrous 1-11 season.

Six new coaches were hired within the first two weeks after Mora joined UConn and the entire staff was chosen by the end of the year.

“I was hired and immediately (UConn Executive Director of Football Operations) Pat Collins and I started working on finding coaches who fit who we want to become both structurally on the pitch and culturally. off the pitch,” Mora said. “We went through hundreds of names. … There wasn’t necessarily a philosophy of becoming young, it was just going with the men who we thought would be the best fit for what we want to be here.

Only one member of the 2021 coaching staff would remain with the team, as Lou Spanos took over as defensive coordinator after serving as interim head coach for 10 games.

Last week, however, UConn announced that Spanos would take an indefinite leave, which means the Huskies will enter the season with a new coaching staff – in addition to Matt King, director of Football Strength and Conditioning, who has been with the program since 2019.

The announcement will add pressure to Mora’s hand-picked young defensive coaching staff just days before the season opener at Utah State.

“There’s no coordinator at the moment, it’s a collaborative effort between me, Dalton (Hilliard), Kenny (McClendon) and the analysts in the room,” Mora said.

McClendon, the defensive line coach, has spent the past two seasons in the same position for Youngstown State. He played at Central Michigan from 2010-2013.

Hilliard worked as a defensive graduate assistant at UCLA under Mora from 2015 to 2017 and spent last season as a secondary coach at Arkansas State before being hired as UConn’s defensive backs coach.

Hilliard, 32, also played at UCLA from 2009 to 2012, including a year under Mora.

“Coach Mora and I have known each other for over 12 years,” Hilliard said. “When he came back to football it was special for me because as a player I saw one side of things where I was able to be coached, mentored and taught by him. Now to be on the other side of things, it’s one of those things you don’t experience very often, and it’s very exciting.

Siriki Diabate, 30, spent the past five seasons as middle linebacker coach at Middle Tennessee before being hired as linebacker coach for the Huskies.

“It has been an incredible work environment. I have so much faith, so much confidence and so much faith in Siriki (Diabate), Dalton (Hilliard) and Kenny McClendon,” Mora said. “They are three exceptional young coaches, and they are young. They have a lot to learn, but they learn fast and they get along so well with the players.

The defensive coaching group will have to fill the void left by Spanos’ absence, but Mora is confident the group will deliver.

“It’s amazing how they all pulled together,” Mora said. “I’m so impressed with them, I guess because I’m old and double their age, I can say proud. I’m very lucky to have them on our team.

The youth of the coaching staff also extends to the attack.

Nick Charlton, 33, was named assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after serving as head coach at the University of Maine from 2018-21.

“You look at the attacking side of the ball and you have Nick Charlton, who is a young guy,” Mora said. “He was a head coach, so having a guy like that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Charlton said: “I love these guys, it’s an exceptional staff that the coach (Mora) has put together. We are all very involved, and it starts with his leadership and his vision. Ultimately, that’s why I’m here.

Charlton grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, and was a student manager for the Boston College football team, where he earned a degree in philosophy. He was a graduate assistant at BC before moving to Maine as an assistant, before becoming a head coach.

His wife is from Madison, so the move to UConn is a bit of a homecoming.

The same goes for John Marinelli, 36, who was hired as a tight ends coach. The son of New Canaan High coach Lou Marinelli led Greenwich to a state title in 2018 and worked as an analyst at the University of Arizona and a senior analyst at the University of Illinois.

As a native of the state, Marinelli was instrumental in establishing a relationship between Mora’s program and Connecticut’s high school football community.

EJ Barthel, 36, was hired as running backs coach after spending the last two seasons in the NFL as an assistant coach for the Carolina Panthers.

Offensive line coach Gordon Sammis, who played at Virginia from 2004-07, has worked the past three seasons at William & Mary in the same role. UConn will be the fifth college program Sammis has coached since 2012.

“EJ (Barthel) is young, John Marinelli is young, Gordon Sammis is young,” Mora said. “But they all have very good footballing spirits, they are all determined to be the best they can be and their dedication to the players is out of this world.”

Wide Receiver Coach/Passing Game Coordinator John Allen is the most experienced coach hired, having held various positions in a handful of college programs beginning with Lock Haven in 1996. Most recently he was the wide receiver coach at Louisiana Tech in 2021.

“I work with the offensive staff every day and they’re exceptional,” Charlton said. “On the defensive side of the ball you don’t have a lot of time with them when you start breaking up training, they’re great and I love being around them.”

Mora said the new coaching staff instilled a strong culture in pre-season, and that was especially noticeable for returning players.

The difficulty will be to maintain this crop throughout the season. The Huskies open as a massive underdog against Utah State, which finished 24th in the nation last season.

A young team led by a young coaching staff have made progress towards a ‘revolution’ within the program, but the real test will begin on Saturday.

“I think between us and the way we worked together, we did it right,” Mora said. “We understood, they are very good coaches on both sides of the ball.”

[email protected]; @AldamWill

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