OU football: Jamar Cain isn't a splash hire, but new assistant's importance is huge
NORMAN — Every day for the past couple weeks, Jamar Cain has driven Lindsey Street to his new job, and each time, he has found himself in awe when his office comes into view.
He marvels every day at OU’s football stadium, but not just because of its grandeur or its history.
“I see all the national championships and the conference championships and All-Americans,” Cain said, “and it’s like, ‘They really went and got a kid from Sacramento? Who didn’t play in the league?’ My father wasn’t a coach.
“I had to do it the hard way.”
But do it, Cain has.
Hired last month to fill the defensive assistant vacancy left by Ruffin McNeill’s departure, Cain is OU’s new outside linebacker and defensive end coach. Less than four years ago, he was in FCS football. Now, he is with one of college football’s blue bloods.
Cain didn’t try to play it cool over that fact.
“It’s a dream,” he said. “Every day I walk in here, blows my mind. Seriously, I am so thankful.”
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But he’s not overwhelmed. Or unprepared. On the day Cain and DeMarco Murray were formally introduced as new Sooner assistants, Murray made the biggest splash. He was an OU legend and a seven-year NFL pro who only retired two years ago. He looks like he could still take a few snaps if the Sooners got into a pinch.
Cain isn’t nearly as much of a known commodity.
His importance, though, cannot be understated.
For starters, he coaches on the defensive side of the ball. What happens over there is crucial for the short-term and long-term success of the Sooners. They’ll be breaking in a new quarterback next season, so the defense needs to continue to progress under Alex Grinch. And as everyone saw in the national semifinal, the biggest difference between college football’s upper crust and the Sooners is defense.
Cain has had great success with his guys over the past few years.
In his only season at Arizona State, his defensive line had the Pac-12's top tackler among linemen and helped the Sun Devils lead the conference in turnovers caused (28) and fumbles recovered (15). That's indicative of what he did at Fresno State and North Dakota State and pretty much every other place he's been.
But as successful as Cain, who played defensive line at New Mexico State, has been developing players, he's been even more successful recruiting them. He got three of the top 30 players in California, for example, to sign with Arizona State.
Lincoln Riley didn't know much of anything about Cain until a couple people the Sooner coach trusts suggested he consider Cain for the defensive opening. Riley started to do some research on Cain.
“And I found a guy that had success everywhere he's been,” Riley said. “We said, ‘All right, we at least gotta talk to this guy.’”
Within a few minutes of meeting him, Riley knew he wanted to hire Cain.
His energy impressed Riley, but so did Cain's background.
“If I do look for any characteristic that I felt like has been important to any success that I've been a part of, I think it's guys that have that edge to continue to prove themselves,” Riley said. “I still feel that way. Just like I did the first day I started coaching, I still feel like I'm trying to prove myself every single day.
“I certainly look for guys that have that same edge about them and that same competitiveness.”
Cain fit that mold.
The native of Sacramento, California, didn't have any major-college football offers when he came out of high school. He stayed home and went to junior college at Sacramento City College.
After finishing at New Mexico State, he returned home and coached high school football. Junior college, too. Then came a move halfway across the country to be a graduate assistant at Ohio. Then came stops at Missouri State and Cal Poly and Wyoming and North Dakota State.
“I tell people this all day that I came from the mud when it comes to recruiting,” Cain, 40, said. “We won a lot of national championships at North Dakota State, but it's hard to get a kid from Texas or Florida or California to go to Fargo when it's negative-42.”
“That ain't easy.”
But Jamar Cain has done it.
And he doesn't plan to forget. Every day he drives up Lindsey to the stadium, he will remember where he's been and he will absolutely appreciate where he is.
“I see Coach Riley talking to me, I'm like, ‘C'mon, Lincoln Riley's talking to me? I see him on TV,’” Cain said with a chuckle. “The wow-factor's every single day I walk in here, but I think you gotta have that.
“Because then it makes you want to work harder to stay.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.