Northwestern Taps raiders’ DB Coach Jim O’Neil to Replace Hankwitz

Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats will meet Tulane on the football field this fall.

By John Volk

Nineteen days since the retirement of Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern has its new defensive coordinator.

First reported by ESPN Tuesday, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald is adding Las Vegas Raiders DB Coach Jim O’Neil to lead his defense in 2021. O’Neil and Fitzgerald previously worked together at Northwestern from 2003-04 under Randy Walker.

He inherits the country’s fifth-best scoring defense from 2020, as well as All-American safety Brandon Joseph who led the nation with six interceptions as a redshirt first-year. However, O’Neil is also faced with the task of revamping the linebacker position after the graduations of starters Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Fisher was the nation’s active leader in tackles through the 2020 season and Gallagher finished third in the conference in tackles in 2020.

After his stint with the Wildcats, Jim O’Neil has bounced around to various coaching positions in college football and the NFL, notably serving as the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator from 2014-15 and the San Francisco 49ers’ DC in 2016. He elevated the Browns to the league’s ninth-best total defense in his first year with the team, but they dropped to the 29th spot his next year. The 49ers ranked last in the NFL in total defense in his one season in San Francisco.

The Raiders’ defense allowed 4,212 passing yards last year, 26th in the league, and brought down 10 interceptions with O’Neil as the DB coach. He served on the Raiders’ staff for three years, working as DB coach in the last two.

Jim O’Neil also oversaw defensive backs when he worked under Walker at Northwestern in 2004. The defense allowed 3,021 passing yards and came away with eight interceptions that season.

O’Neil replaces Hankwitz who worked as Northwestern’s defensive coordinator since 2008, helping the team to five bowl wins and two Big Ten West titles. He earned his 400th win with Northwestern’s victory over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, the final game of his 50-year coaching career.