ENGLEWOOD – Jack Del Rio only wanted to talk about the Cowboys and not the Trojans.
In his first for-the-record comments since his name’s been bandied about as a possible replacement for Lane Kiffin at the University of Southern California, Del Rio declined Thursday to address speculation he might return to his alma mater.
Asked if he’d been contacted by USC, the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator said, “No. No. No, there’s nothing to speak on that subject. I’m really here to talk about the Cowboys and our preparation in getting ready for them.”
That was it. No outright denial of interest. No reiteration that he’s committed to seeing this thing through in Denver.
That’s how his players see it, though.
“We feel like he’s going to be here,” safety David Bruton said. “We have a great thing going here, and we’ve definitely thrived under his tutelage, so it can’t be anything we worry about.”
The Broncos (4-0), owners of the NFL’s stingiest run defense, will visit Dallas (2-2) this weekend.
Kiffin was fired Sunday and replaced by interim coach Ed Orgeron, but Del Rio’s name quickly rose to the top of the rumor mill as a potential replacement because of his ties to USC, where he was an All-American linebacker in the 1980s and also teammates with Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson on the Trojans’ baseball team.
There was even an erroneous sighting of Del Rio at LAX on Sunday night that set Twitter abuzz, which Broncos’ head coach John Fox got a big kick out of, seeing how he was sitting across from him at a Denver steakhouse celebrating their big win over the Eagles.
Earlier this week, Fox said Del Rio, who is under contract through February, was “definitely qualified” for the USC position but was focused on his current job. Asked whether he’d allow Del Rio to pursue the position if he’s interested, Fox demurred, then said, “I’ve seen plenty of job openings in my life in football. Like always, there are 8,000 candidates. Any point that it gets serious and potential, we’ll keep you posted.”
Although it generally works the other way around, there is precedent for NFL coaches going to the college ranks. Bill O’Brien finished out his contract as the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator before going to Penn State last year. In 2007, Bobby Petrino resigned as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons after 13 games to become Arkansas’s head coach.
Del Rio joined Fox’s staff in Denver last year after serving as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003 to 2011, and the Broncos had the league’s No. 2 defense last year.
By returning to Denver this year, he became the first Broncos defensive coordinator to serve consecutive seasons since Larry Coyer in 2006. Without having to learn a new scheme, Denver’s defenders built upon that foundation and have served as productive partners to Peyton Manning’s high-powered offense.
The Broncos are outscoring opponents by an average of 45-23, and they’ve won 15 consecutive regular-season games by seven or more points, the second-longest streak behind the 1941-42 Bears (16).
Del Rio has done a deft job of keeping the Broncos rolling without their two superstars. All-Pro linebacker Von Miller is serving a six-game drug suspension, and perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey (foot) missed the first month of the season.
Keep this up and Del Rio’s name could surface for any number of head coaching jobs in the NFL this offseason.
“That’s just the nature of the business,” Bruton said. “You expect change, and if there’s not change, it’s a great thing.”
Chatter about Del Rio’s potential candidacy at USC apparently stops at the locker room door, though.
“We don’t think or talk about stuff like that,” defensive end Robert Ayers said. “We’re in the here and now. That’s where he is; that’s where we are.”
Del Rio’s style is a big hit with the Broncos.
“I think he’s a great NFL defensive coordinator,” Ayers said. “He’s proven that over his long time here as a great defensive mind in the pro game. And heck, we’ve done nothing but improve each year. So, his résumé speaks for itself.”
Bruton said that while Del Rio hasn’t addressed the USC speculation directly with the players, he certainly doesn’t seem distracted at all, and neither do the players.
“We know it’s a business. We know that he’s going to take care of it professionally, whatever the situation may bring,” Bruton said. “His top priority, and he’s definitely shown it, is us.”