NAPA – Derrick Ansley is Alabama born, educated and bred. He grew up in Tallassee, played safety at Troy and started his coaching career at Division III Huntingdon College in Montgomery.
He joined the University of Alabama staff as a graduate assistant and, after a two-job tour through the SEC, he returned to the Crimson Tide and helped them win a national title.
It was time, at that point, to truly leave his home state.
"I was going to take the defensive coordinator job at Colorado State, and I got a call (from Jon Gruden)," Ansley said. "The plane detoured and I came out west."
Gruden's courtship was quick. He texted Ansley Jan. 9, a day after Alabama won the national title. Then he called. Ansley was in Alameda on Jan. 10 to meet Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther for the first time. They talked ball for a few hours. There was a good vibe. A job was offered. Ansley accepted.
Gruden was a major reason why.
"When you talk about the Oakland Raiders and the history of defensive backs here, and the way I believe you should play defense, it was attractive. I like to play aggressive defense and, with Coach Gruden coming back, it was a no brainer to come learn from him.
"I've always been a big fan. When I became a young coach, I heard him speak one day and heard about his video library motivated me to start one full of great examples. That helps you teach better. I've had my eye on Coach Gruden for a long time. I've never worked with him until now, but he has influenced me as a young coach."
***Ansley signed up; then the real work began. He was charged with fostering depth and star quality from the Raiders secondary. Gruden overhauled it this offseason, signing five veteran free agents while drafting another. He wanted better from the frontline and reserves.
Cornerback, in particular, needs injury protection. Rashaan Melvin has never played a full season. Gareon Conley has bad luck with injuries since being drafted No. 24 overall last year. That means Daryl Worley, Nick Nelson, Leon Hall and others must be ready to fill a major role. Ansley must also find the right mix within a competitive safety group.
Bottom line: Ansley has to bring the group together and improve upon years of lackluster pass defense. All that in his first season as NFL coach. Ansley expects a smooth transition to the pros, using a universal approach that works with all ages.
"This is the highest level. We played at a high level in the SEC, too," Ansley said. "The difference between there and here is that guys may have been playing a decade plus. You have to learn what makes them go. Football is like that at every level. You have to get to know kids and men to get on the same page with them. Everybody is different, with different styles. Everybody takes coaching different. Learning what buttons to push really helps us connect with these guys."
It's important Ansley connects with Conley, the roster's most talented cornerback. Their bond started years ago, when Ansley recruited him while at Kentucky. It has grown here this offseason thanks to a holistic approach that focuses on the player and person, and can help while Conley's recovering from a hip strain.
"Gareon's a relationship-type guy," Ansley said. "He's a quiet guy off the field. Once he opens up to you, gets to know you, you can see the bright-eyed kid. The first thing I did once I got here was get to know him as a man and not worry about the football part of it. I knew him in high school and in college. He was a great player at (Ohio's Massillon High), great player at Ohio State. He has a history of being a dominant player.
"He has had a string of injuries. That happens some times. His confidence is not shook. We need to get him back on the grass. His best medicine is playing football. He needs to get back out here, and he's working overtime. Last night in meetings he told me he's getting treatment 18 hours per day. That's good."
Ansley's 36 years old, and must find ways to bond with young players and veterans nearly his age. Reggie Nelson, for example, just a year younger.
"The age may be close, but the veterans want to be coached," Ansley said. "We coach them all the same. We nitpick every technique. At the end of the day, defensive back is a reactionary position. It's a one-step, misstep position that can cause a big play. We have to be sound at all times."
Gruden believes his defensive backs coach will help players do that. He said in an interview with Bay Area News Group that Ansley "will be a star in this profession."
He has lofty goals in this profession, and hopes to rise through the ranks in time. That isn't the primary objective right now.
"When you work, you want to get promoted and move up," Ansley said. "My goal now is getting this secondary to be good and ready to play. You ultimately get judged on wins and losses. Those are great compliments from Coach Gruden. I appreciate that, but we're going to be judged by how we do on the grass. We need team success. We need to win."