THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Liam Coen had a plan.
Upon moving to Kentucky in 2021, Coen and his wife, Ashley, decided to rent for a year before choosing which Lexington neighborhood they wanted to live in. After one season as the University of Kentucky offensive coordinator, Coen had no reason to think Lexington wouldn’t be home for the foreseeable future, so they finally bought a house.
Thirty days later, the Coen family sold that house after Liam received a call from Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, his former boss, who asked him to interview for the team’s open offensive coordinator position.
“We had just bought a house in Kentucky the month before,” Coen said. “So to say that there was an expectation of me coming back is totally … We just bought a house. But it was just too good of an opportunity to turn down.”
Coen coached with the Rams from 2018-20 before getting the chance to call plays under Mark Stoops at Kentucky. In Coen’s lone season there, Kentucky’s offense went from No. 11 in the SEC in 2020 to No. 5 in 2021.
Now, Coen returns to the Rams organization — a recent launching point for NFL head coaches — as their offensive coordinator, continuing his coaching journey and taking another opportunity to learn under McVay.
“Liam’s always a guy that I leaned really heavily on for the three years that we were together,” McVay said. “We stayed in great touch. When you have somebody like that, in addition to a handful of other guys on the offensive staff, you feel so good about allowing him to be able to lead.
“I wanted to do everything I could to get him back here, and fortunately it’s worked out.”
ONE OF THE REASONS Coen left for Kentucky was the opportunity to call plays, something McVay does for the Rams.
“It was an unbelievable opportunity presented by those guys in Kentucky and just kind of felt like it was time to be able to go do it on my own a little bit,” Coen said. “I kind of looked at working for the Rams for three years as kind of getting my Ph. D in coaching.”
But when McVay called to ask Coen about the Rams’ open offensive coordinator after Kevin O’Connell was hired as the Minnesota Vikings‘ head coach, Coen knew he wanted to interview.
But did Coen think about staying at Kentucky to keep calling plays?
“Yeah, of course,” Coen said. “There’s not much better than calling plays at times, especially when it works. And calling plays in high-stress situations is what I’ve always wanted to do. … But knowing the end game and truly where I’d like to be able to go in this profession and to go learn again. I would have continued to learn from experience as a playcaller. But I’m not sure I was going to continue to grow philosophically, conceptually and schematically if I were to have stayed.
“I’m 36 years old. I don’t have all the answers. But I wanted to continue to learn from the staff and from this organization and from Sean.”
Coen took the Rams’ offense to Kentucky with him. Literally.
“Philosophically, I brought the whole playbook,” Coen said. “And then you have to ultimately fit [it] to the college game, to the athletes. The personnel that we had at Kentucky is a little bit different than here. … So, from a core philosophical, conceptual belief, it was all Rams. And then we tweaked and did some things that maybe Kentucky was still successful in years prior.
“But the [Rams’] playbook was literally copy-pasted with the UK logo.”
Coen said he took the film he got from the Rams and “cut it up into similar concepts and things that we were doing at Kentucky”. He showed it to players on Fridays as a teaching tool to “kind of help with fundamentals [and] technique. … They got a kick out of it because they were seeing Cooper Kupp and all these guys run the same plays.”
“Every time we would install a play, they would pull up the Rams film and say, ‘this is how the pros do it and this is what we’d like it to look like,” said former Kentucky center Luke Fortner, who was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in April, said. “And we’d kind of try and model it off that and go from there.”
Aside from the obvious help Kentucky players gained from running a Rams-based offense, Coen’s players credited their offensive coordinator’s coaching style for Kentucky’s offensive improvement.
“He just can relate to all of his players,” wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, now a rookie with the New York Giants, said. “And I just built up a lot of trust with him. And there were things that I saw and if I came over to him and said anything he would at least take what I had to say and we would talk about it and he wouldn’t be demanding in a dictator type [way].”
WHILE COEN’S RELATIONSHIP with McVay is a huge reason he returned, being able to coach Kupp again was a huge benefit. The pair’s relationship, built while Coen was the Rams’ assistant wide receivers coach in 2018 and ’19, is so strong that Coen said and his wife almost named their son ‘Cooper’ last year.
“I’m obviously very flattered that it was even an option,” Kupp said, smiling.
Coen also leaned on Kupp when recruiting at Kentucky, saying he showed Robinson film of Kupp to convince him to transfer from Nebraska.
“[Kupp] was just kind of unguardable and [I saw] all the stuff that he was able to do,” Robinson said. “And it just kind of intrigued me to know that these are the things that he wanted me to do. And so it really kind of just sold me to go to Kentucky.”
Part of the reason Kupp has been so good? He credits Coen, who was a quarterback at UMass and spent a lot of time in the quarterbacks room as a coach. Coen’s perspective, Rams quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Zac Robinson said, allowed Kupp to “see things through the lens of the quarterback,” allowing him to “understand the why with everything.”
“We’ll go to him like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this from the quarterback style of things?'” Kupp said. “Because all of the stuff that we do is from the receiver’s perspective. Like how can we make this better? From the guy that’s throwing the ball in the pocket, how can we make it better for him?”
In Coen’s season away, Kupp took a huge step forward with quarterback Matthew Stafford, finishing the 2021 season leading the NFL in catches, yards and touchdowns. Now, the goal is help Kupp not only keep that up, but to make the offense even better.
IT’S NO SECRET that there seems to be a road map from coaching under McVay to becoming an NFL head coach.
During the Rams’ Super Bowl run, the Vikings interviewed and eventually hired O’Connell. The year before, the Los Angeles Chargers hired then-Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to be their head coach. In 2018, Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur left Los Angeles to call plays for the Tennessee Titans. A year later he was hired as the Green Bay Packers head coach. And in February 2019, the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor, who was the Rams’ quarterbacks coach.
Coen is in a position to be another one to take that step if the Rams’ offense impresses again this season,
“Ultimately, hopefully,” Coen said, when asked if he wants to follow that path. “That’s the end game.”