SUNSET — It was late 2010, Clemson had a job opening and Marion Hobby called Dabo Swinney to campaign.
Not for himself. A friend who coaches offense asked Hobby for a favor. Since Hobby and Swinney had both been assistants on Tommy Bowden’s 2005 staff at Clemson, Hobby was asked to call Swinney and vouch for the friend (whom Hobby declined to name) to replace outgoing offensive coordinator Billy Napier.
Swinney’s response: “Well, you know, I think I’ve got that situation under control.” (That situation resulted in the hiring of Chad Morris). “But hey, Marion: what interest would you have in coming back to Clemson?”
Hobby, then Duke’s defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, was a bit taken aback, but not shocked. He knew Clemson was probably losing its defensive line coach Chris Rumph to Alabama.
“Coach, I haven’t even really thought about it,” Hobby told Swinney. He was with his sixth different employer in 15 years, coordinating his own defense for the first time and working his second stint under Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe.
“It was kind of up in the air. I talked about it with my family,” Hobby said. He decided to call Swinney back and ask how serious he was. By that time, Rumph was just about out the door.
“And then, bam, it worked out,” said Hobby, entering his sixth season coaching Clemson’s defensive ends and fifth as co-defensive coordinator. “How about that? Luck of the draw.”
Clemson has produced its share of standout defensive linemen. The school counts William “Refrigerator” Perry, his brother Michael Dean Perry, Chester McGlockton, Brentson Buckner, Trevor Pryce, Gaines Adams and Da’Quan Bowers among its greats.
So it was not a position that needed revolutionizing. But Hobby instantly made an impact with 2011 second-team All-American Andre Branch (10.5 sacks, 17 quarterback pressures.)
Even with Branch, Clemson ranked 63rd in the nation in sacks in 2011. Each successive year, the Tigers ranked 20th, 12th, seventh, and last year second in the nation behind Alabama.
“I know what Hobby does, because I go against him every day,” Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said. “I’ve been very proud and impressed with how he’s developed those guys with a want-to. Boy, he’s good.”
To Hobby, whose unit has led Division I football in tackles for loss three consecutive seasons, defensive line statistics are merely a part of the equation.
“You have to be in the right spot at all times. Some people think defensive end play is all about sacks; there’s a whole lot more to it,” Hobby said. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice your own production to make sure that ball is edged. There’s a lot of technique and fundamentals as well as discipline that goes along with that position.”
The story of Hobby’s coaching career has many twists and turns.
After a solid playing career at Tennessee (first-team all-SEC in 1989) and three years in the NFL with the New England Patriots, his first coaching job was leading the defensive tackles at Tennessee-Martin, which four years prior had been promoted from Division II to the Division I-AA level. A year later, he took over the strength and conditioning program at Southwestern Louisiana (now known as UL-Lafayette) in 1996; a year later, he added defensive tackles to his duties. Southwestern Louisiana went 1-10 in 1997.
Hobby then got a call from his old college coach, Philip Fulmer, asking him to come work in Tennessee’s weight room. Hobby took it, still stuck in restrictive earnings. That 1998 season, Tennessee won the first BCS national championship game at the Fiesta Bowl.
Cutcliffe, Fulmer’s offensive coordinator that year, won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and was rewarded with the head job at Ole Miss. Cutcliffe, who’d originally recruited Hobby to UT out of Shades Valley High School in Irondale, Ala., offered Hobby the Rebels’ defensive ends coaching job, which finally gave Hobby a steady gig for the following six years. His most notable player was Derrick Burgess, an all-SEC first-team pick in 2000 who went on to be a two-time Pro Bowler for the Oakland Raiders and log 10 NFL seasons.
After 2004, when the Rebels went 4-7 one year following a 10-win season in the Cotton Bowl, Cutcliffe was reportedly told by Ole Miss superiors to fire assistants. Cutcliffe wouldn’t, and therefore was dismissed along with the whole staff.
So Hobby went to Clemson for one year, a year in which the Tigers defeated Colorado in the 2005 Champs Sports Bowl to finish 8-4. After the Champs Sports Bowl, Hobby took his first and only NFL coaching job, a two-year stint with the New Orleans Saints. Two years after that, Cutcliffe took over Duke, and again brought Hobby onto his staff.
“He’s family. I’m really close with his mama, his sisters and his wife,” said Cutcliffe, who’s in his ninth season coaching the Blue Devils. “Marion is an incredible human being. It doesn’t surprise me that every year Clemson has all-conference players at his position. He’ll recruit his own well, but he also coaches them to play ball.”
After three years at Duke (12-24 from 2008-10), Hobby made that phone call to Swinney.
As Clemson enters a season in which “Championship or Bust” seems the objective, none of the Tigers’ nine assistants might face a more critical task than Hobby, whose defensive ends consist of three sophomores with limited game experience — Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin, Chris Register — and two freshmen with none at all. That’s a giant step down in production from Hobby’s previous starters, when Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd finished one-two in the nation in tackles for loss, and 2014 when Vic Beasley set the school’s career sack record. Malliciah Goodman, Tavaris Barnes and Corey Crawford, other Hobby pupils, are also on NFL rosters.
“He analyzes and critiques, and he can choose players as good as anybody. He sees the potential in them,” Caldwell said. “Some of the guys he’s chosen, with the talent level, you’d think, ‘well, does he do this or that well enough?’ Coach Hobby can see it, and he can get it out of them. He interacts with them well. Got a great rapport.”
Beasley was a top 10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, while Lawson and Dodd went No. 19 and No. 33, respectively, in this spring’s draft.
“He’s been able to coach them all and develop them all,” Swinney said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Vic Beasley, who didn’t even know how to get in a stance, or a guy that comes in like Austin that has a pretty good foundation. Shaq came in as a good player and he left as a great player. Beasley never played D-line, and Dodd was clueless. Both those guys developed. Marion deserves so much credit for that. He is as good a defensive line coach as there is out there.”
Hobby recognizes the challenge ahead of him this season, and he embraces it.
“Clemson has such a great history of special defensive linemen ... even when I was going into college,” Hobby said. “I’m just trying to keep that trend going.”