Football: Northwestern hires NFL’s Jim O’Neil to serve as defensive coordinator

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Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph patrols the field during the Big Ten Championship game. Joseph figures to play a major role in new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s plans next season.

Patrick Andres, Assistant Sports Editor


Football


Northwestern is hiring Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs coach Jim O’Neil as its defensive coordinator, tapping a former graduate assistant and longtime NFL coach to replace the recently retired Mike Hankwitz. The move was first reported by ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg.

O’Neil has overseen the Raiders’ secondary each of the past two seasons, during which the team registered 7-9 and 8-8 records. The Raiders struggled against the pass in both seasons, finishing eighth and seventh in the league in most passing yards allowed in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Highlights of O’Neil’s tenure included a three-interception, two-pick-six season for safety Erik Harris in 2019, and multiple picks in 2020 for safety Jeff Heath (three), safety Johnathan Abram (two), and cornerback Trayvon Mullen (two).

The Pennsylvania native has three seasons of experience coordinating defenses in the professional ranks, serving as the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator in 2014-15 and the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 2016. The 2014 Browns finished ninth in the league in scoring defense and recorded the franchise’s best record (7-9) since 2007, but the 2016 49ers finished last in the NFL in scoring defense, surrendering 30 points on nine different occasions.

O’Neil served as a defensive graduate assistant for the Wildcats in 2003 and 2004, his only collegiate coaching experience at the Power Five level. He has also served one-year stints at Albany (2001, as an assistant offensive line and tight ends coach), Penn (2002, as an assistant offensive line coach), and Towson (2005, as defensive coordinator and defensive back coach).

From his alma mater Towson, O’Neil progressed to his most recent FBS gig at Eastern Michigan, spending three years coaching safeties and serving as recruiting coordinator. He was hired by the New York Jets in 2009, and has coached in the NFL ever since.

O’Neil is tasked with filling the shoes of Hankwitz, who retired after 51 seasons coaching, the last 13 of which were spent as NU’s defensive coordinator. During Hankwitz’s tenure, the Cats routinely fielded some of the stingiest defenses in the nation, with his 2020 defense surrendering just 15.9 points per game, the lowest per-game total allowed by the Cats since 1995.

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