Less than four years ago, Nick Sheridan was on the same Michigan State sideline he'll walk today as a USF assistant coach, but then, he wore a helmet as a backup quarterback for Michigan.
As the Bulls face the Spartans today and look to regroup from a humbling 53-21 loss to McNeese State, Sheridan has a challenging offense to implement against one of the nation's top defenses.
Just as USF coach Willie Taggart was 24 when he became QBs coach at Western Kentucky, Sheridan is equally precocious. His return to Michigan is a reminder of just how much he has accomplished at 25, already a full-time assistant in college football.
"I've learned a ton from Coach Taggart, and try to just relay the information I learned from him and what was successful in this offense in the past," said Sheridan, whose title is QBs coach and passing game coordinator. "If players feel like you can help them play better, then they'll respect you and listen to you."
As a high school senior, Sheridan broke his collarbone midway through the season, but quickly transitioned to coaching his replacement. He landed at Michigan as a walk-on, working behind future NFL quarterbacks Chad Henne and Ryan Mallett, and earned a scholarship, starting four games as a junior in 2008.
"He was a true joy to coach — knew not only what he was supposed to do, but why he was supposed to do it," said Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, who coached him at Michigan. "I knew instantly that if he wanted to get into the profession, he'd be pretty good at it."
After graduating, Sheridan spent one fall coaching at his high school in Saline, Mich., then landed a job as a graduate assistant on Taggart's staff at Western Kentucky. He was promoted to full-time coach, and when Taggart got the USF job, he was one of five WKU assistants to join the Bulls staff, with a $160,000 salary.
By coincidence, coming to USF put Sheridan in the same city as his father, Bill, who came to Tampa last year as the Bucs' defensive coordinator. Nick has grown up immersed in football and coaching, at college and pro levels, but his father said he's smart enough to succeed outside the family business.
"He's a sharp kid. He probably shouldn't be in coaching," said his father, who coached at Michigan State (1998-2000) and Michigan (2002-04) and still has a home near Ann Arbor. "He has a political science degree from Michigan, but he went into coaching, which his mother's not too pleased about. But Nick's a smart guy, so he'd do well at anything."
Taggart's mentor, Jim Harbaugh, was a former Michigan quarterback turned coach, and Sheridan's dad was a graduate assistant in 1985-86 when Harbaugh played there; he also coached with John Harbaugh at Cincinnati from 1989-91, so the name carried strong connections for Taggart. If that got him the interview, the maturity with which he carried himself got him the job as a grad assistant.
"When he came in and interviewed with us as a GA, it was unbelievable how professional and mature he was. I call him an old soul. He's probably more mature than I am," said USF offensive coordinator Walt Wells, 45. "He's what I call a gym rat … up in the office first and last, studying tape. He understands the game. I tell him all the time, he'll be the head coach at Michigan probably when (he's) 35."
Rodriguez was a college head coach at age 25, at Division II Salem International in West Virginia in 1988, and said it isn't easy for a young coach to command authority from players at an age where you can be easily seen as a peer.
"That's the hardest adjustment — there's a separation, in that now all of a sudden you've giving instructions instead of getting them yourself," he said. "Nick, growing up as a coach's kid, understood that more than anybody because he's been around coaches all his life."
Nick was born in Maine, but the family calls Michigan home — his father coached the Spartans while Nick was in fifth through seventh grade, so he knows East Lansing and Spartan Stadium well. He never played against Michigan State, but knows Michigan went 2-2 against the Spartans during his time there; his brother Mark is a safety at nearby Albion College, a Division III school.
Taggart, who became a head coach at 33, likes Sheridan's smarts, of course, but also likes his temperament, how his even-keeled nature can help level out his quarterbacks' emotions, whether the score is good or bad.
"He's very calm, during good times and bad times," Taggart said. "To keep them where they don't get rattled, Nick's one of those guys. He's really good with our quarterbacks, a good teacher, a good mentor for those guys. He brings a lot to it, more than the football part of it."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346.