New Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley draws raves from former players

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New Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley draws raves from former players

Jeff Hafley earned a nickname inside the Buckeyes’ building because of the role he played in transforming Ohio State’s defense in 2019.

“His name was, ‘The Wizard,’” Jordan Fuller, a Rams captain and former Ohio State safety, said in a phone conversation.

The Buckeyes went from No. 72 in the country in yards allowed per play in 2018 to No. 1 in 2019 under Hafley, who called plays for Ohio State’s defense as co-defensive coordinator that season. That’s the last time Hafley called defensive plays — he didn’t do so in the last four years as Boston College head coach — which he’ll do in 2024 for the Packers as their new defensive coordinator.

“I think his superpower is his mind and how he sees the game and how he understands the game,” said the 25-year-old Fuller, who’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after having three interceptions, three forced fumbles and eight passes defensed for the Rams in 2023. “His in-game adjustments and him having us ready for certain looks that offenses would give us and stuff like that, it really felt like he gave us a winning edge.”

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur fired Joe Barry after three seasons as defensive coordinator and replaced him with Hafley, the 44-year-old who arrives in Green Bay with seven years of NFL experience coaching defensive backs. He served as defensive backs coach for the Buccaneers, Browns and 49ers before coaching one year at Ohio State and the last four leading Boston College. The big question now surrounds what the Packers are getting in Hafley, whom the Packers kept quiet as a candidate while reports of them interviewing various NFL names for the position surfaced.

Jeff Hafley celebrates after defeating Southern Methodist as Boston College’s head coach in the Wasabi Fenway Bowl at Fenway Park in December. (Eric Canha / USA Today)

Hafley has not yet spoken to reporters in Green Bay. That’s expected to happen after his defensive staff is finalized. But he appeared on the Next Up podcast with Adam Breneman shortly before the Packers hired him and discussed his affinity for playing one-high safety defense with four down linemen. At the same time, he acknowledged the importance of two-high shells and stopping quarterbacks who run, so there’s really no telling how different Hafley’s defense will look from Barry’s in Green Bay. That will also be determined by what Hafley thinks of the personnel he’s inheriting, as well as who the Packers add and subtract on that side of the ball over the coming months, though the NFL is primarily a 4-2-5 league, regardless.

What we do know is what Hafley’s former players say about him, and the first-time NFL defensive coordinator drew rave reviews from three players The Athletic spoke with, one from each of Hafley’s last three coaching stops.

“I think ‘Haf’ is a great coach that focuses on the details. Always has a great plan and adjustments,” said Richard Sherman, who played for Hafley when he was the 49ers’ defensive backs coach in 2018. “His team will see the looks they will see on Sundays throughout the week because of the time he puts in studying and understanding offenses. He’s going to be a great fit.”

LaFleur has not spoken publicly since firing Barry, the defensive play-caller he hand-picked ahead of the 2021 season, but one can deduce that the reason LaFleur pulled the plug was because Barry didn’t maximize the talent at his disposal over the last three seasons despite finishing the most recent season strong. Over the last three regular seasons — Barry’s defense played well overall in his three playoff games — the Packers ranked 11th in points allowed per game (21.4), tied for 13th in takeaways (68), 22nd in defensive expected points added per play, 15th in defensive red zone EPA per play, 20th in opponent third-down conversion percentage, 30th in defensive rush EPA per snap and 15th in defensive pass EPA per dropback, according to TruMedia.

It’ll be Hafley’s main objective to get more out of a defense that will feature two-time All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander, the NFL’s sixth-highest-paid edge rusher in Rashan Gary, three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark and various other notable talents.

Hafley’s specialty is the secondary, which is welcome news for the Packers, who according to general manager Brian Gutekunst were too inconsistent in the defensive backfield during the 2023 season. That group is arguably the biggest question on the team entering the offseason, as both starting safety spots and the nickel role are up in the air with Darnell Savage Jr., Jonathan Owens, Rudy Ford and Keisean Nixon all set for unrestricted free agency.

“He’s really good at helping guys to see certain things the way he sees it and it really, really slows the game down,” Fuller said. “He’s really good at teaching guys route concepts and if you’re able to see maybe like a couple things at once right before the play, it could tell you a whole lot about what you’re expecting. I remember being with him for the first time … say you’re in man-to-man. When you’re young in the game, you could be expecting every single route concept … but he taught me that it really didn’t have to go down like that. It was really, if you look at the sets and the formations and stuff like that, you can really rule out a whole bunch of stuff and it allows guys to play a whole lot faster.”

It’s not just the secondary Hafley must master in Green Bay, so perhaps it helps that the one player on the Packers who’s already played for him is an inside linebacker who figures to start next season. Isaiah McDuffie played one season for Hafley in 2020, his first year as Boston College’s head coach, and Hafley helped turn McDuffie into a sixth-round draft pick after he finished fifth in the country in tackles that season.

“Early on in my college career, I was kinda more like a hybrid position, but he seen something in me and he was like, ‘We’re gonna move you to inside linebacker’ and he knew that’s what I was gonna play in the NFL,” McDuffie said. “So just getting the opportunity to do that, I feel like, was huge and just developing me and teaching me the game at a higher level.

“He’s just genuine. He’s gonna tell you how it is and he’s gonna keep it real and he’s a very likeable guy to begin with, too. At the end of the day, he’s been in the game and he has a good track record and guys are gonna see that and they’re gonna respect that, so at the end of the day, I feel like things are definitely gonna click.”

McDuffie agreed with Sherman’s assessment that Hafley left no stone unturned during the week of preparation before a game.

“Always,” McDuffie said. “That’s one of the biggest things. What we see during practice is what we’re gonna get in a game. He was always super diligent in practice, getting us those looks, because he does his studies and he breaks down his film so precisely that he knows what we’re gonna get in a game.”

All that sounds nice and dandy from Hafley’s former players, but everything he has done in his coaching career before this point only matters so much. That goes for the mediocre defenses at Boston College he oversaw despite not calling plays, just as it goes for his dominant one at Ohio State.

This is his biggest test yet, calling defensive plays for a team that might be a stout defense away from a Super Bowl, and it has the potential to either make him a savior for one of the most iconic franchises in sports or yet another scapegoat in Green Bay.

“He’s very, very well respected in the league and someone that I know has been highly respected for a long time,” Gutekunst said. “I love the fact that he has some head-coaching background. I think that’ll help us and help Matt as we go forward and I’m just really looking forward to working with him and getting to know him more … just really excited about some of his thoughts and where he could take our roster.”

(Top photo of Richard Sherman and Jeff Hafley in 2018: Michael Zagaris / Getty Images)