Saints’ Wesley McGriff adjusts quickly to NFL

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNONSaints coach Sean Payton, right, along with secondary coach Wesley McGriff, left, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, talk inside LSU's indoor football practice facility during LSU's Pro Day.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNONSaints coach Sean Payton, right, along with secondary coach Wesley McGriff, left, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, talk inside LSU's indoor football practice facility during LSU's Pro Day.

Wesley McGriff was a college football coaching lifer. Or at least that was his career path.

Spending more than two decades working his way out of the backwaters, McGriff had travelled from his alma mater, Savannah State to Kentucky State to Eastern Kentucky to Kentucky to Baylor to Miami to Vanderbilt and finally, last year, to Ole Miss as co-defensive coordinator, cornerbacks coach and the ace recruiter given a major share of the credit for the Rebels landing a surprising top five class.

But in turn, the recruiter was being recruited, even if he wasn’t aware of it.

In February, the Saints were looking for a secondary coach to replace the fired Ken Flajole. Despite a lack of NFL experience, McGriff topped the team’s wish list.

“This is a thing where Sean (Payton) wanted to hire the best coach,” first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “Not the one with the best credentials.

“So we all sat down as an entire defensive coaching staff along with Sean, and we picked the best one, Wesley McGriff.”

And it turned out the attraction was mutual.

The Saints didn’t have to ask twice for McGriff to make the move.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” McGriff said. “But as an assistant coach, your goal is to one day get to the highest level.

“I was blessed to have coach Payton invite me for an interview and to see fit to make me part of the staff. Just to have an opportunity to be in the room with guy like Rob Ryan, Joe Vitt, and Bill Johnson — what a blessing.”

For McGriff, the transition from college to the NFL has been a smooth one.

Although he retains his collegiate gusto, including telling the players to call him “Crime Dog,” after the similarly named McGruff. McGriff also has quickly gained the respect of his charges for his football savvy.

“He’s definitely more enthusiastic than we’re used to,” safety Rafael Bush said. “It reminds me of coaches I had in college.

“We’re still adjusting to each other. He keeps us motivated, and that’s one thing you really want from a coach.”

And while McGriff acknowledged that he misses recruiting, he’s glad other elements of being a college coach — like “not having to go around chasing guys about going to class” — are behind him.

“It’s football all day long,” McGriff said. “Whenever you’ve got a chance to be a football coach and nothing else, you take it.”

It helps that in football, acceptance for NFL newbies is common.

Chip Kelly, less than a decade from being the offensive coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, is shaking things up as the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles following the long-tenured Andy Reid.

In Flajole, McGriff is replacing someone with 14 years experience in the league, including three as defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams under Steve Spagnuolo, who also was fired after the Saints set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season in 2012.

No matter.

Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints’ first-round draft pick, said he didn’t know McGriff had coached only in college until recently.

“He seemed like all of the other coaches,” Vaccaro said. “He’s a smart coach who knows what he wants to do.

“It’s been easy for pick up on what he says. Maybe it’s because we came into this process together and are growing together at the same time.”

McGriff said he feels like he deals with his first NFL players like he did his former college ones, but safety Malcolm Jennings said there’s a definite difference.”

“He (McGriff) knows this isn’t college, so he treats us like grown men,” he said. “He keeps it light in the meetings, but you also know he knows the defense.

“But mainly, he’s letting us be us while demanding a lot, too. That’s why we respect him.”

McGriff returns the kudos.

“These guys are world-class athletes who are very serious about the way they handle their business,” he said. “They are physically and mentally prepared, they know their assignments, and they do them with a lot more discipline.”

At the same time, they are still looking for you as their coach to help them improve their game.”

On the field, McGriff said the NFL’s efficiency of practice is something he anticipated, even at Payton’s highly organized level.

If there’s been one thing he’s had trouble adjusting to, it is the skill of opposing quarterbacks, especially when Drew Brees is running the offense.

“A quarterback like Drew has a jaw-dropping speed of release,” McGriff said. “The ball gets up on the defensive backs so faster at his level, and your margin of error is reduced.

“Drew can deliver the ball before your guys get out their back pedal. That caught me flat-footed.”

If that’s a coaching deficiency, Ryan hasn’t noticed it.

“He is outstanding to have on the field,” Ryan said. “He’s excellent; he’s sharp.

“He knows his coverages and techniques. He’s as huge an addition just like our draft choices are, and we’re very fortunate to have him.”