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Raiders offseason: Secondary concerns

Departure of Ron Milus as defensive backs coach a big loss for Las Vegas

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders
Longtime defensive backs coach Ron Milus is renowned for his ability to develop cornerbacks and safeties.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Out goes Ron Milus. In comes Chris Ash and Jason Simmons. While the Las Vegas Raiders haven’t confirmed the hires, news circulated that Ash is slated to serve as the new defensive backs coach while Simmons lands the defensive passing game coordinator role. But, again, nothing is official.

What’s clear, however, is the Raiders have quite the task of replacing Milus.

Once new Raiders head coach and general manager Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler, respectively, pursued and eventually landed Patrick Graham as defensive coordinator, the writing was on the wall for Milus. He joined the Raiders along with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley from L.A. to coach the defensive backs in the desert this past season and, once a new defensive boss came in, Milus wasn’t long for Vegas.

Upon his arrival, Milus was an immediate bright spot and impact coach. The Raiders revamped the secondary last offseason by drafting safety Tre’Von Moehrig in the second round, cornerback Nate Hobbs in the fifth, and signing what was thought of then as over-the-hill Casey Hayward Jr. in free agency to be a starting outside cornerback. Under Milus’ tutelage, those three aforementioned players played well for the Raiders in 2021. Add into the mix the in-season signing of Brandon Facyson from the Chargers (another Bradley/Milus pupil) and despite the moving parts, Milus got the group in sync.

That wasn’t surprising, mind you. Milus has a long history of developing talent in his various league stops over the course of his 21-year career. He made high-round draft picks worthy of their selections (Deltha O’Neal, Jason Verrett, Derwin James, and most recently Moehrig), but it was Milus’ penchant to make late-round picks into and undrafted free agents into starters that’s captivating. That list includes Chris Harris Jr., Michael Davis, Desmond King, Rayshawn Jenkins, and most recently Hobbs. He’s even helped breath new life into Hayward’s career.

Now, Ash and Simmons must do that for the Raiders going forward. Their combined efforts and experience should help offset the loss of Milus.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Iowa
While Chris Ash’sm, right, tenure as Rutgers head coach was forgettable (an 8-33 record), he joins the Las Vegas Raiders as defensive backs coach.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Ash’s resume as a defensive backs coach is steeped with a lengthy collegiate career that started in 1997. As he traversed the college ranks, Ash coached alongside Urban Meyer at Ohio State as Ash held the title of co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach for the school known as DBU (defensive backs university for the Buckeyes’ propensity to churn out NFL DBs). That relationship with Meyer translated into Ash joining the NFL ranks last season as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach.

Ash overcame the turmoil of Meyer’s rocky tenure in Jacksonville and shaped a quality Jaguars secondary (ranked 17th in passing yards allowed at 227.9 per game). Ash also tasked with developing rookie safety Andre Cisco.

But before that, Ash’s work as defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Texas earned him high marks. Edge rusher Joseph Ossai, who was picked in the third round by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2021 NFL Draft, wasn’t shy about sharing the impact Ash had on not only him, but the Longhorns defense, as a whole.

“Chris Ash is amazing. He’s a great coach, a great leader,” Ossai told SI.com. “He believed in working hard, he believed in repetition. That’s all we did. We would go out there in every walk-through and some of the guys would get bored with it but when we started leading the Big 12 in run stoppage we started to buy into it a little bit.”

Simmons, on the other hand, will be a familiar face for Graham as the pair worked on the Green Bay Packers staff together in 2018. Graham was the linebackers coach and run game coordinator while Simmons served as secondary coach.

Simmons comes to the Raiders after holding the same title and job duties for the Carolina Panthers in 2021. Under his guidance, the Panthers defense boasted the fourth-best pass defense in yards allowed per game at 192.1. That’s an accomplishment considering how injury-riddled Carolina’s secondary became, particularly at cornerback.

Unlike Ash, Simmons career trajectory is former-player-turned-coach. From undersized safety out of Arizona State to a 10-year playing career, Simmons used the underdog nature as a player into the coaching field.

“People see me — I’m not the most daunting doggone figure,” Simmons told Panthers.com. “I mean, I’m 5-foot-9, I went to the Combine and I ran a 4.5 (40-yard dash) and I was still able to get 10 years out of the league just based on, I think, knowledge and will — a lot of the same traits that coaches try to put on players.

“I had good coaches that taught me how to study. It wasn’t me. They taught me how to study. So they were like, ‘If you know that, you almost have an obligation to teach guys behind you.’ So I wanted to do it.”

Simmons moved up the rung of the Packers defensive coaching ladder before joining the Panthers in 2020.

The one area that neither Ash’s and Simmons’ units excelled at this past season was interceptions. The Raiders had a paltry six in 2021 while the Jaguars and Panthers had nine and seven, respectively. Developing a takeaway mentality in the Raiders secondary is going to a vital part of the duo’s responsibility.

Ash and Simmons are likely to have a relatively clean slate to work with in Vegas, however. Three cornerbacks who saw snaps in 2021 — Hayward, Facyson and Desmond Trufant — are unrestricted free agents with another a restricted type — Keisean Nixon. Trayvon Mullen, Hobbs and Amik Robertson are under contract for 2022. Hawyard and Facyson are Bradley/Milus transplants that went from Chargers to Raiders because of those two coaches. While one or both corners could be back, a system/scheme change also likely spells their departure, too.