KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Mike Ekeler, who owns more than 15 years of Power Five coaching experience, has been tabbed as Tennessee’s outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator, head coach Josh Heupel announced on Thursday.
Ekeler returns to the Southeastern Conference after coaching inside linebackers and special teams at Georgia from 2014-15, and he served on LSU’s 2007 SEC and national championship staff. He reunites with Heupel as the two served as graduate assistants together at Oklahoma in 2004. Ekeler spent two seasons on staff in Norman, with the Sooners reaching the BCS National Championship Game both years.
“Mike is one of the most engaging and charismatic leaders I know,” Heupel said. “The energy he will bring to our football team, in addition to his track record of guiding successful special teams and defensive units will enhance our program. We are excited to welcome Coach Ekeler and his family to our Tennessee football family and look forward to watching him make a difference in the lives of our student-athletes.”
The David City, Nebraska, native comes to Knoxville after spending the 2020 season as the special teams coordinator at North Texas.
In 2019, Ekeler was the special teams coordinator and inside linebackers coach at Kansas. He tutored Jayhawk punter Kyle Thompson to All-Big 12 honorable mention honors as he averaged 44.5 yards per punt with 17 punts going over 50 yards, including a long of 73. Meanwhile, freshman linebacker Gavin Potter was an honorable mention honoree for Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, and Stephon Robinson earned All-Big 12 Third Team honors as a kick returner by Phil Steele.
Prior to his arrival at Kansas, Ekeler served as the linebackers coach at North Carolina for two seasons. In 2018, he coached Cole Holcomb, who led the ACC in tackles per game with 9.5. Holcomb was an All-ACC second-team selection and ranked second in the league in solo stops with 5.4 per contest. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Washington Football Team.
In his first season in Chapel Hill, Ekeler tutored a veteran group that featured Holcomb along with Cayson Collins and Andre Smith. Collins, who was second on the team with 83 tackles, signed a free agent contract with the Miami Dolphins, while Smith was a 2018 NFL Draft seventh-round selection by the Carolina Panthers.
Ekeler went to UNC after serving as North Texas’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in 2016. In his first season at UNT, Ekeler oversaw a defense that held opponents to 8.7 points per game fewer than the previous year. That turnaround in scoring defense was the 13th-best mark in the country. He also oversaw a linebacking corps that included the team’s sack leader Joshua Wheeler (5.5).
Ekeler mentored numerous NFL Draft picks as the inside linebackers coach and defensive special teams coordinator at Georgia from 2014-15. In 2014, Georgia ranked 17th in the FBS in total defense (337.2) and was second in the SEC in passing defense (170.4). In 2015, the Bulldogs’ defense ranked seventh in the nation in total defense, allowing only 305.8 yards per game.
He coached four NFL Draft picks during his tenure, including first rounders Roquan Smith (2018) and Leonard Floyd (2016) and Ramik Wilson (2015 fourth round) and Amarlo Herrera (2015 sixth round).
Ekeler also coordinated the defensive special teams at Georgia as the punt return squad had six touchdown returns in two seasons. Prior to his arrival, the Bulldogs ranked 124th in the FBS in punt return average (2.92). Ekeler elevated Georgia 100 spots into the top 25 in that category in his first season as the Bulldogs averaged 10.48 yards per return. In his final season, that increased to 13.13 yards per return, which ranked 17th in the FBS. They also improved in kickoff return coverage under his watch, climbing 37 spots in the FBS rankings and allowing only 19.25 yards per return in 2014.
As linebackers coach at Southern Cal in 2013, Ekeler tutored Hayes Pullard, who was named to the All-Pac 12 Second Team. That year Pullard notched 60 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks before being selected in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.
Before USC, Ekeler served as the linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator at Indiana from 2011-12, and he spent three seasons as Nebraska’s linebackers coach (2008-10) under head coach Bo Pelini. During his three years in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers won or shared the Big 12 Conference North Division title every season and appeared in multiple Holiday Bowls and one Gator Bowl.
As Nebraska’s linebackers coach, he played a key role in developing some of the nation’s most successful defenses. In 2010, Nebraska was fifth nationally in pass defense (153.6), ninth in scoring defense (17.4) and 11th in total defense (306.8). In 2009, the Cornhuskers led the country in scoring defense (10.4) and pass efficiency defense, while ranking seventh in total defense (271.3) and eighth in rushing defense (92.43).
He coached Lavonte David, a 2010 and 2011 First-Team All-American, who set the school single-season tackles record and was a second round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2012 NFL Draft. Phillip Dillard (2010 fourth round), Cody Glenn (2009 fifth round), Eric Martin (2013 free agent) and Will Compton (2013 free agent) all reached the league under his watch. David is an All-Pro linebacker for Super Bowl LV champion Tampa Bay, and Compton was Washington’s defensive captain and now current Tennessee Titan.
Ekeler broke into the collegiate coaching ranks working as a graduate assistant and intern at LSU (2005-07) and Oklahoma (2003-04). Oklahoma played for the BCS title in both of Ekeler’s seasons in Norman, posting a two-year record of 24-3. While at LSU, the Tigers led the SEC in six defensive categories and ranked nationally in four in 2006. The 2007 LSU team finished 12-2 and won the SEC and BCS National Championship, marking the third time in five years that Ekeler had been part of a team playing for the BCS title.
Ekeler was a special teams standout and linebacker for Bill Snyder at Kansas State from 1991-94. A team captain as a senior, he earned National Special Teams Player of the Year in 1994 by George Michael Sports Machine, a popular national sports show at the time.
Ekeler earned his bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Kansas State in 1995. He and his wife, Barbie, have a son, J.J., and daughters Cameryn, Abigail and Bella.
THE EKELER FILE
Born: Oct. 4, 1971
Hometown: David City, Nebraska
Education: Kansas State, 1995 (bachelor’s in social science)
Children: J.J., Cameryn, Abigail, Bella
1999-2001: Omaha (Nebraska) Skutt High School, Volunteer Coach
2002: Manhattan (Kansas) High School, Assistant Coach
2003-04: Oklahoma, Defensive Graduate Assistant
2005-06: LSU, Defensive Graduate Assistant
2007: LSU, Defensive Intern
2008-10: Nebraska, Linebackers
2011-12: Indiana: Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach
2013: Southern Cal, Linebackers
2014-15: Georgia, Inside Linebackers/Defensive Special Teams Coordinator
2016: North Texas, Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers
2017-18: North Carolina, Linebackers
2019: Kansas, Inside Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator
2020: North Texas, Special Teams Coordinator
2021-present: Tennessee, Outside Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS (1)
2007 – LSU (Defensive Intern)
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS (2)
2007 SEC – LSU (Defensive Intern)
2004 Big 12 – Oklahoma (Defensive Graduate Assistant)
BOWL GAME APPEARANCES (13)
2020 Myrtle Beach Bowl – North Texas
2016 Heart of Dallas Bowl – North Texas
2016 TaxSlayer Bowl – Georgia
2014 Belk Bowl – Georgia
2013 Las Vegas Bowl – USC
2010 Holiday Bowl – Nebraska
2009 Holiday Bowl – Nebraska
2009 Gator Bowl – Nebraska
2008 BCS National Championship Game – LSU
2007 Sugar Bowl – LSU
2005 Peach Bowl – LSU
2005 BCS National Championship Orange Bowl – Oklahoma
2004 BCS National Championship Sugar Bowl – Oklahoma
NFL PLAYERS COACHED
LB Cole Holcomb, Washington, 2019 (5th round)
LB Natrez Patrick, Los Angeles Rams/Denver Broncos, 2019 (free agent)
LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears, 2018 (1st round)
LB Andre Smith, Carolina Panthers, 2018 (7th round)
LB Cayson Collins, Miami Dolphins, 2018 (free agent)
LB Leonard Floyd, Chicago Bears, 2016 (1st round)
LB Ramik Wilson, Kansas City Chiefs, 2015 (4th round)
LB Amarlo Herrera, Indianapolis Colts, 2015 (6th round)
LB Hayes Pullard, Cleveland Browns, 2015 (6th round)
LB Will Compton, Washington/Tennessee Titans, 2013 (free agent)
LB Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints, 2013 (free agent)
LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2012 (2nd round)
LB Phillip Dillard, Cleveland Browns, 2010 (4th round)
LB Cody Glenn, Washington, 2009 (5th round)