Bubba Ventrone left no doubt when the question arrived. The Colts special teams coordinator is a man with goals, after all.
“I do aspire to be a head coach at some point — when the time is right, in the right situation,” Ventrone said Tuesday.
Ventrone, 40, is considered by some to be a rising star in the assistant coach ranks. The Colts have felt that for a few years and have given him increased responsibility in roster decisions, helping to create the culture.
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Whether he has a chance at the Colts’ job remains to be seen. Indianapolis could have given him an eight-game audition when it fired Frank Reich midseason but instead hired Jeff Saturday from ESPN to fill that role. Multiple Colts starters pledged for Ventrone during that time, but owner Jim Irsay said that Saturday was his only consideration.
“He’s a better fit,” Irsay said the night of the hire. “There are lots of coordinators that aren’t good head coaches. Certain people just have it. They have it. You see it when you know it.”
Saturday is 1-4 with the Colts in his first coaching job above the high school level. His teams have set records in their past two losses, first for tying the largest scoring deficit in a fourth-quarter against the Cowboys and then for blowing the biggest lead in an NFL game.
Ventrone’s units haven’t been perfect this season, but they have been the steady parts of the team during this recent slide. Against the Vikings, Ifeadi Odenigbo blocked a punt and JoJo Domann returned it for a touchdown, causing Vikings fans to rain boos upon their team in a way that inspired the Colts to race to a 33-0 halftime lead. Dallis Flowers also averaged 35 yards per kick return and Chase McLaughlin hit all five field goals, including a 52-yarder.
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The names excelling represent why Ventrone is a dark horse candidate for head coach openings around the NFL. Once a special teamer himself for 10 seasons and four different teams, the 40-year-old has a reputation for taking late draft picks and undrafted free agents and unleashing them for the biggest plays in a game.
Special teams coaches don’t often get looks to be head coaches, but the track record for those who have been strong. Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh are the best examples, combining for seven Super Bowls and 443 victories.
Last season, Raiders special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia became the first interim coach in recent memory to lead a team to the playoffs after he went 7-5 with a team mired in controversies involving Jon Gruden and Henry Ruggs III.
“I’m in tune with the offense and defense because I coach the field goal and field goal block units. I know all the personnel and I know the players pretty well,” said Ventrone, who learned under Belichick as a player and an assistant coach. “They’re all in my meetings every week and I have pretty good relationships with all of those players.
“Relative to the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator, I actually have those guys in my meetings with installations and as the season goes along with training camp, I have those guys around me and I coach them the entire season.”
In Indianapolis, Ventrone’s success stories have included Kenny Moore II, an undrafted player from Valdosta State; Zaire Franklin, a seventh-round pick out of Syracuse; EJ Speed; a fifth-round pick out of Tarleton State; and Ashton Dulin, the only player Malone has ever sent to the NFL. All four are now enjoying roles on offense or defense with the speed and confidence they learned on special teams.
“I think most of that is a compliment of Bubba,” Speed said late last season. “Special teams isn’t a drop off for this organization. Special teams is just as big as offense and defense. So, the effort and everything you put in on special teams is a direct reflection of what you should do on defense. Once you get into the role, all you got to do is know your assignment. Once you know your assignment – like I said, the defense and special teams, the effort levels are still the same.”
This year, Ventrone has had to manage more chaos than usual. The Colts lost punter and kickoff specialist Rigoberto Sanchez to a torn Achilles in training camp. They lost ace special teamer Armani Watts to a broken ankle in the preseason. And they decided to release kicker Rodrigo Blankenship after he missed a game-winning field goal attempt in Week 1.
Despite the chaos, his units are ranked No. 19 by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric for efficiency. They’ve had some tough moments, like the missed field goal in Houston and the punt blocked for a touchdown in New England. But the depth of the roster has mostly hurt the Colts everywhere but special teams.
Whether he’s given a chance to interview with the Colts remains to be seen, but he has a reputation building in the league now, and that will be something to consider for whoever takes over the franchise.