Coaching changes are part of the NFL life. Well, football life in general. When Josh McDaniels was named the new Las Vegas Raiders head coach, it was certain the team’s coaching staff was going to be in flux. Hence the hiring of several new names and faces over at Silver & Black HQ.
Kennedy Polamalu is one of those new faces. (Let’s get this out of the way, if his name rings familiar to you, it’s largely because of his nephew, Troy, the USC and Pittsburgh Steelers legend of a safety). Hired as running backs coach, the 58-year-old Polamalu adds a wealth of experience to the Raiders staff as a seasoned coach who cut his teeth in both the collegiate and pro ranks. Polamalu was most recently the Minnesota Vikings running backs coach where he spent the last five seasons. During those years, Polamalu is credited for developing running back Dalvin Cook and fullback C.J. Ham in Minny. The duo have been quite the hit for the Vikings as Cook is a do-it-all type tailback while Hamm is the road-grading lead blocker.
But with Minnesota going through its own regime change — the team hired Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell as head coach — Polamalu found himself needing a new squad. Thus, Las Vegas.
The #Raiders are expected to hire Kennedy Polamalu as their running backs coach, source said. Polamalu spent the past five seasons in Minnesota, where he was well-regarded.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) February 22, 2022
And what a solid landing spot the desert is for Polamalu. The cupboard is well-stocked in Las Vegas with Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake on the roster. Jacobs, the lead back since he was drafted by the Raiders with the 24th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, should be in line for a rebound from a down third year that saw him churn out a career-low 872 yards on 217 carries and nine touchdowns. Jacobs participation in the passing game did increase in 2021 as he was targeted 64 times hauling in 54 of those passes for 348 yards (zero touchdowns). Drake, on the other hand, was signed to a rich deal to be a change-of-pace-type tailback. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound 28-year-old offers good size but a different element of speed as both ball carrier and pass catcher. In his initial season as a Raider in 2021, Drake ran for 254 yards and two touchdowns on 63 carries and caught 30 passes for 291 yards and another score. But his usage as both spell back and third-down back left something to be desired. It didn’t help Drake that his season was cut short by a broken ankle suffered in December.
If there’s a coach that can refine and help the 24-year-old Jacobs rebound and get the fleet-footed Drake back on track, it’s Polamalu. Jacobs’ own ailments and an offensive line that couldn’t find it’s run-blocking footing until the tail end of the 2021 campaign contributed to lower numbers from Jacobs. Often, Jacobs was caught and dropped in the backfield or close to the line of scrimmage due to lackluster blocking. Similar case for Drake, although his speed did let him break away from contact at times. His ability to run routes out of the backfield left flat-footed defenders sprinting to try and catchup. And that must be used more often in 2022 than it was the year prior.
Both Jacobs and Drake offer Polamalu and the Raiders lead-back ability as both are comfortable carrying the majority of the load. Jacobs has done it his first three years in Vegas while Drake did it in Arizona in 2019 and 2020. Having a continued timeshare-type relationship between the two Alabama products, however, ensures they both remain fresh as the season wears on.
Polamalu will combine with new offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo and McDaniels (he’s the play caller) to devise a regiment that gets the most out of No. 28 and No. 23.
Polamalu also has the opportunity to further the development of Trey Ragas, an undrafted free agent this past season. Ragas is the only other running back on the roster besides Jacobs and Drake.
And that’s just the half backs. In Vegas, Polamalu could have at his disposal Alec Ingold. There’s a high chance Ingold returns to the Raiders fold as he’s a restricted free agent, but Sutton Smith is currently the lone fullback under contract. In Minnesota, Polamalu oversaw the development of Ham as one of the game’s better lead-blocking fullbacks. Any improvement or refinement of Ingold’s blocking chops only means good things for the Raiders offense.
While Las Vegas was able to sustain without Ingold — lost to an ACL injury in November — his presence allowed the team to be more robust in terms of formations and alignments. Having Ingold hit the hole first with Jacobs or any other running back behind him tended to product more fruitful results in the heavy power packages. Not only that, but Ingold is a sneaky good athlete as a pass catcher and showcases said ability by hurdling would-be tacklers. But, on the off chance the Raiders don’t re-up their fullback and team captain from 2021, Polamalu is the right coach to guide and steer the development of Smith.
Kennedy Polamalu at a glance:
- UCLA (1992-93): Graduate Assistant
- San Diego State (1994–96): Running backs coach & special teams coordinator
- Colorado (1997–98): Running backs coach
- San Diego State (1999): Linebackers coach
- USC (2000): Running backs coach
- USC (2001): Special teams coordinator
- USC (2002–03): Running backs coach & special teams coordinator
- Cleveland Browns (2004): Running backs coach
- Jacksonville Jaguars (2005–2009): Running backs coach
- USC (2010–12): Offensive coordinator & running backs coach
- Loyola High School (2013): Running backs coach
- UCLA (2014–15): Running backs coach
- UCLA (2016): Offensive coordinator
- Minnesota Vikings (2017–21): Running backs coach