What to Know: Fast-Rising Jeff Hafley Brings College, NFL Experience to Ohio State As Co-Defensive Coordinator

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 7, 2019 at 7:25 pm
Jeff Hafley

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

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Ryan Day looked into his NFL past to find Jeff Hafley.

Both Day and Hafley, whom Day hired on Monday as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, worked under Chip Kelly with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, though they coached on different sides of the ball. Day coached quarterbacks, while Hafley led the defensive backs. 

Jeff Hafley as a Coach
Year Team Duty
2001 Worcester Polytechnic Running Backs 
2002-03 Albany Graduate Assistant
2004-05 Albany Graduate Assistant
2006-07 Pittsburgh Defensive Assistant
2008-10 Pittsburgh Defensive Backs
2011 Rutgers Defensive Backs
2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Assistant Defensive Backs
2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Backs
2014-15 Cleveland Browns Defensive Backs
2016-18 San Francisco 49ers Defensive Backs
2019-Present Ohio State Co-Defensive Coordinator

After just one season in San Francisco, Urban Meyer pulled Day out of the college ranks and hired him as a co-offensive coordinator with Kevin Wilson, a long-time college coach who was an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and most recently was head coach at Indiana. Hafley remained on the 49ers' staff after the team fired Kelly.

During that time, Day rose in power at Ohio State, earning a promotion to offensive coordinator last offseason before the program made him its 25th head coach in program history following Meyer's retirement. As part of his ongoing defensive overhaul, Day hired Hafley and Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison as co-defensive coordinators on his inaugural coaching staff.

“Jeff is a rising star and highly regarded as one of the best secondary coaches in the country,” Day said in a press release. “His NFL knowledge coaching the secondary is only going to enhance and improve what has become a marquee area for the Buckeyes.”

The hirings of Hafley and Mattison eerily mirror those of Day and Wilson. 

Ohio State's offense struggled to consistently produce in 2016, so Meyer replaced Ed Warriner and Tim Beck with Day and Wilson. After the Buckeyes' defense had its worst season in years, Day replaced Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch with Hafley and Mattison. Just like Day was when Meyer added him to the staff, Hafley is a late-30s NFL position coach with college experience.

Hafley began his coaching career at the college level at Worcester Polytechnic in 2001 after playing wide receiver at Siena, eventually becoming defensive backs coach at the University of Pittsburgh in 2008. He spent five seasons on the Panthers' staff, then one year at Rutgers under Schiano, before heading to the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Schiano.

In the past seven seasons, Hafley has held four different job titles with three NFL teams – the Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. Hafley's hire puts him back in the college ranks for the first time since 2011, when he coached defensive backs for the Scarlet Knights.

On the field

Though Hafley has bounced around from team to team in the past decade, his former players have vouched for his coaching ability.

Logan Ryan worked with him at Rutgers, where he developed into a first-team All-American and third-round NFL draft pick. He signed a three-year, $30-million contract with the Tennessee Titans before the 2017 season.

Former Buckeye safety Tyvis Powell also crossed paths with one of Ohio State's new co-defensive coordinators while playing for the 49ers this past season.

Hafley has spent nearly a decade in the NFL, but he has experience coaching defensive backs at the highest level.

A little over a decade ago, Dave Wannstedt gave Hafley his biggest break to date. After coaching defensive backs for four years at the University of Albany, Hafley was hired by Wannstedt as a defensive assistant. In his first year at Pittsburgh, Hafley played a role in the development of Darrelle Revis, who was a Thorpe Award finalist in 2006 before moving on and becoming one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. 

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K'Waun Williams was recruited to Pittsburgh by Hafley, who then coached Williams at the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers.

“He brought me in,” Williams told Cleveland.com. “He told me he believed in me. I was young at the time. I'm like, 'All right, maybe he's just blowing some smoke.' As I got to school and he kept coaching me up, and I just seen it and I just believed it.”

Thought of as a high-level recruiter, Hafley helped bring Dion Lewis, Ray Graham, T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy to Pittsburgh from New Jersey before Schiano, who was then the head coach at Rutgers, targeted him and hired the then-31-year-old coach as his defensive back coach.

With the help of Ryan and Duron Harmon, an eventual third-round NFL draft pick, Hafley coached a unit that ranked ninth in the nation in pass defense. Schiano then brought him to Tampa Bay as an assistant defensive backs coach, starting his NFL career. There, he reunited with Revis in 2013 before Schiano was fired.

Coaching for two seasons under Mike Pettine in Cleveland, Hafley's defensive backs thrived. The Browns had the second-most interceptions in the NFL during his second season – in 2014 – and led the league in opponent passer rating (74.1), opponent completion percentage (57.1) and passes defensed (99). Donte Whitner, a former Buckeye, thrived along with Joe Haden, Tashaun Gipson and Buster Skrine. Whitner, Gipson and Haden made the Pro Bowl during Hafley's tenure.

Hafley's three seasons in San Francisco were unspectacular, though he was hurt by a lack of talent in the defensive backfield. The 49ers improved in opponent passing yards per attempt from 29th in 2016 to 24th in 2017 to 14th in 2018. However, they ranked 31st in opponent passer rating in 2018.

On the staff

Co-defensive coordinators have become the norm at Ohio State.

Recent pairings have included Schiano and Grinch, Luke Fickell and Schiano and Chris Ash and Fickell. Among them, the Schiano-Grinch tandem led to the poorest results. Thus, Day replaced both of them with Hafley and Mattison.

It's unclear whether Hafley or Mattison will call the plays or how their game-day responsibilities will be divided, but they're a natural fit together. Mattison's experience is largely with the defensive line, while Hafley has been a defensive backs coach for most of his career. In some ways, it's similar to how the offensive staff is constructed. Newly hired Mike Yurcich will be passing game coordinator, and someone else will presumably be running game coordinator. 

“I love the idea of having two coordinators on defense,” Day said. “I like having a diversity of opinion, but even more I like the expertise and experience that Jeff has in the secondary coupled with the expertise that Greg brings to the front seven.”

Given the structure of the staff, it's likely that there will be five defensive assistant coaches: Hafley (co-defensive coordinator), Mattison (co-defensive coordinator), Larry Johnson (defensive line), a linebackers coach and a defensive backs coach. Taver Johnson's future is uncertain and Billy Davis reportedly will not return.

Hafley's NFL experience combined with his successes on the recruiting trail likely made him an attractive candidate to Day.

Brian Hartline, who played for the Browns in 2015 when Hafley was their defensive backs coach, also vouched for Hafley's ability.

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