Yet another story about how young Kenny Dillingham is
With spring practice beginning in a few weeks, The I-5 Corridor takes a look at the man in charge of making Oregon's offense fun again.
The “Kenny Dillingham hotshot young coach” stories have been written for so long now that Charlie Ragle is beginning to feel old.
Ragle, 45, was hired as Idaho State’s head coach in December, wrapping up a decade-long stint in the Pac-12 as a position coach at Arizona and Cal. And in what feels like a lifetime ago, he once coached the high school football juggernaut Chaparral in Scottsdale, where he won three consecutive Arizona 6A state championships beginning in 2009.
Ragle’s five years at Chaparral were surrounded by bright football minds, including Dave Ziegler — now the general manager of the Las Vegas Raiders. Dillingham, Oregon’s new 31-year-old offensive coordinator, earned a spot in that group too, Ragle said, even if he first joined the staff as a teenager.
“I had to tell him to stop going to the freshman mixers,” Ragle joked. “He was graduated now.”
Ragle’s watched with wonder in the 15 years since, as Dillingham’s football career blossomed from being the injured quarterback coaching the freshman team, to the 21-year-old offensive coordinator of an Arizona prep powerhouse, to the 27-year-old offensive coordinator of Memphis, to the 28-year-old offensive coordinator at Auburn, to the 29-year-old offensive coordinator of Florida State and to now Eugene, where Dan Lanning added Dillingham to Oregon’s staff in December.
He turns 32 in April. Not that age should matter, Ragle said.
“At the end of the day you are the age you think you are,” he said. “You are how you act. That’s why you’ve seen coaches like Pete Carroll who have done it for so long. They understand how to relate to players. The great ones always do. That’s what Kenny does.”
Dillingham is an accomplished college football coach now. He’s worked on both coasts with four Power Five programs, coached a pair of positions (quarterbacks and tight ends) and his newest role as Oregon’s offensive coordinator at his age would seem impressive if he hadn’t been through the young OC dance twice already in the SEC. He coached Bo Nix past Oregon and to the SEC offensive freshman of the Year award in 2019 and his energy precedes him.
“He’s like a hype man, all the time,” Auburn receiver Eli Stove told The Athletic in 2019. “He has some crazy speeches. He’s a loud dude, but he’s a good dude.”
But back in 2007, Ragle was the new Chaparral coach who first knew Dillingham as the senior quarterback who had to quit playing because of a bad knee.
“I had spent a few months with him up to this point and recognized he was pretty sharp, so I asked him what his plans were,” Ragle said. “He said he was just going to graduate and go to college.”*
The coach countered: Do that, but also come help out on the coaching staff. Get your feet wet. See if you like it.
Dillingham did, and within a year he was scheduling freshman year classes at Arizona State around the practice schedule of the Chaparral freshman team he now found himself leading.
When Ragle left for a job at UA in 2012, Dillingham was promoted from coaching the JV team to become Chaparral’s offensive coordinator as a 21-year-old — the same year Mike Norvell took the OC job at Arizona State. And to anyone who knows how Dillingham’s career has played out from there, this would seem like a stroke of luck: Dillingham would sit in on Norvell’s practices at ASU, eventually get hired on as a graduate assistant and then follow the offensive-minded head coach along for stops in Memphis and Florida State, with an OC gig at Auburn sandwiched between.
But Ragle sees that luck differently. He sees it in the form of Dillingham driving 110 miles south to take in practices at Arizona, then booking it back north to get in more time at Arizona State, all while going to class and coordinating the state’s top-ranked high school offense.
“There’s certainly some luck involved for all of us, but I always say that opportunity needs preparation, and that’s really what luck is,” Ragle said. “You can have the opportunity, but when you get the opportunity you must be prepared.
“Kenny was doing all the things on his own dime, outside of scheduled football stuff, to be great.”
Four years of Mario Cristobal saw a drastic departure from the offensive identity long established and associated with Oregon. Nobody should have expected the Ducks to ever match the production of the Chip Kelly offenses of the early 2010s, but a group that once inspired wonder with its quick-strike ability had thickened down to one that often elicited head scratching despite its talent. Oregon’s offense never ranked better than third in Pac-12 total offense during Cristobal’s tenure, and while that stat can be a blunt tool to use, consider the Ducks led the conference in the category every year from 2010 through 2015.
Dillingham acknowledged that history in his quotes from the press release announcing his hiring.
“Being born and raised on the West Coast, the opportunity to be at Oregon — a place known for explosive, high-powered offense, is an honor and a privilege,” he said.
Dillingham is going to be a strong recruiter. His age certainly helps and former players swear by him.
Wrote Memphis quarterback Brady White on Twitter when Dillingham was hired by Auburn: “Words can’t describe how proud I am of this man. No man more deserving.”
But his job, more so than any other on Oregon’s staff, will be graded by production on the field. And that’s also the foggiest area to try and predict.
There are a lot of things Dillingham has done in his 31 years. Calling plays without Norvell, however, will be new. The two have collaborated on the game plan and call since 2018 when Memphis ranked fourth nationally in total offense and had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers.
“He could be in another room, I could be in my office, and we’d come together and share ideas of the game plan,” Dillingham said of Norvell in 2020, “ and nine times out of 10, we’re bringing the same ideas to the table.”
Even during Dillingham’s year at Auburn when head coach Gus Malzahn was calling plays, he often texted with Norvell about schemes and philosophy.
“We’re a system that’s built around playmakers,” Dillingham said when he returned to Norvell’s staff at Florida State, “and we’re a system built for playmakers.”
Ideally, the same should be said about Oregon.
Oregon’s 2022 offense returns four starters along the offensive line, a talented-but-unproven wide receiving corps and a running game expected to be led by sophomore Byron Cardwell Jr., who Dillingham recruited while he was at Florida State. For a third consecutive season, Oregon’s biggest question on that side of the ball is at quarterback. The Ducks got an up-and-down season from Anthony Brown Jr. in 2021, but Cristobal never shied away from his starter in favor of freshman Ty Thompson, despite repeated criticism from the fan base. Brown is gone in 2022, but now it’s Nix, transferred in from Auburn, who will compete with Thompson for the job.
Nix passed for 2,500 yards and accounted for 23 touchdowns as a freshman at Auburn under Dillingham in 2019. He had 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in 10 games in 2021 before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Having him, Thompson — or Jay Butterfield — succeed is the biggest priority the Ducks should face in 2022.
And since Dillingham was 17 and helping on the sideline in Scottsdale, Ragle said his best quality has been the connection he forms with players.
“Once you get your type of players you have to acclimate to them. You have to understand what they’re about and embrace them,” he said. “Kenny does a hell of a job with young guys and getting them to believe in themselves and believe in him. It’s why he’s had great success.”
— Tyson Alger