Say what you will about Mack Brown, but the man moves quickly.
Less than 24 hours after news broke that offensive line coach Stacy Searels would be leaving Chapel Hill to take the same job at Georgia, Bruce Feldman of The Athletic is reporting that UNC will be hiring Louisville’s offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. to replace him. Bicknell was the offensive line coach at Ole Miss for the two years when Phil Longo was the offensive coordinator there, so he’ll join a system he’s already familiar with.
Bicknell’s been coaching for nearly 40 years, including a decent run as head coach of Louisiana Tech from 1999-2006 that preceded 7 years in the NFL as an offensive line coordinator with the New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Miami Dolphins. He hasn’t been anywhere for very long since 2007, but that seems to have been a function of joining teams and organizations in various states of disrepair rather than any dissatisfaction with his own performance: After winning a Super Bowl as an offensive line assistant with the Giants, he joined Romeo Crennel’s staff as offensive line coach for a year in Kansas City in the last year of his tenure, then was not retained when Andy Reid came to town. He had the same position in Pittsburgh for a year, after which Mike Tomlin shook things up to try and get back to winning, and then went to Miami, where he lasted until the Dolphins hired Adam Gase as their new head coach. He went back to the college ranks and coached for 3 years at Ole Miss while they were embroiled in a scandal from the previous regime, then left for Auburn in 2020, who fired Guz Malzahn later that year.
Louisville’s offensive line was already decent in pass protection before Bicknell’s arrival, but there’s no question they improved significantly once he got there. They allowed 29 sacks in 11 games in 2020, and Bicknell helped improve that number to just 20 sacks in 13 games last year, helping Malik Cunningham rediscover some of his early-career magic. After an unremarkable 2020, the 2021 Cards were among the best teams in the country at preventing sacks on downs that mattered, which has been a problem for UNC the past few years. On the ground, while the basic stats were pretty similar (5.2 yards per carry for 200 yards per game in 2020, 5.4 for 210 in 2021), the advanced stats per Football Outsiders look pretty kindly on Bicknell — the 2020 Cards ranked just 104th in the nation in offensive line yards per rush, while the 2021 Cards improved all the way to 43rd. The only blemish on Bicknell’s line is Louisville’s underperformance in power situations, defined as runs on 3rd or 4th down that needed 2 or fewer yards to get a first down or touchdown, which is an area where UNC struggled last year as well (as an aside, Football Outsiders look quite kindly on Searels’ 2021 line in the run game, so make of that what you will).
After three years where the offensive line looked, at best, like a square peg in a round hole because of Phil Longo’s and Searels’ disparate philosophical upbringings, it’s heartening to see UNC find an offensive line coach who’s worked with Longo before and understands what he expects — the two combined to create a very good Ole Miss line in 2018 that ended up getting Greg Little drafted in the 2nd round. It’s even better that it’s a coach who clearly made his last unit better, and who fans seem upset to see go because of the good work he’s done. As of this writing, the hire isn’t official yet and it’s unclear when Bicknell will be able to join his new staff, but hopefully it’s soon, now that spring ball has started up.
Welcome to Blue Heaven, Jack!