Tem Lukabu joins the MSU staff after a stint as defensive line coach at Florida International. Photo by: Florida International University Athletic Media Relations
January 20, 2018 4:31:28 PM
STARKVILLE -- Darren Rizzi was 38 years old and well-established in college football coaching when he took over the Rhode Island Rams in 2008, coming off of three years of head coaching experience and six more on the successful Greg Schiano staff at Rutgers. When he took the head job at Rhode Island, one of his first thoughts was to pluck from Rutgers' off-field staff in Tem Lukabu, 27 years old and taking his first position coach job.
Rizzi saw how this could end.
"Tem was one of those guys I used to joke with that I'd be working for him some day," Rizzi told The Dispatch. That being the case, there's nothing about Lukabu's climb to Mississippi State's staff that surprises him.
On Jan. 5, Lukabu was named MSU's linebackers coach under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop; his introductory press conference, along with those for the rest of the first staff under head coach Joe Moorhead, could happen any day now. In Lukabu, Rizzi thinks MSU is getting a personable, smart coach that's a good teacher.
Joe Trainer, Villanova's defensive coordinator, holds a similarly high opinion of Lukabu, but reached that conclusion much earlier.
Trainer was in his first stint at Villanova during Lukabu's playing days from 2000-2003, when he was a middle linebacker for some of Colgate's most successful years, including a run to the national championship game in 2003. Lukabu was twice the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year and twice a conference champion for his alma mater, where he returned to coach linebackers in 2014.
"He was a beast," Trainer told The Dispatch. "He was a phenomenal player. He's kind of a Jekell and Hyde type of person because once you meet him, super personable, very stable, but he played with a recklessness on the field."
Rizzi coached Rhode Island in 2008 and Trainer took over for him in 2009 when Rizzi left for the Miami Dolphins, where he remains the special teams coach. Rizzi hired Lukabu and Trainer retained him; both wanted linebackers like the one Lukabu was in his playing days, and both got it.
"Not only was he a great athlete, he was a guy that never made mental mistakes," Rizzi said. "I saw that in his players because he's such a good teacher. He's a guy that dots every I and crosses every T. He doesn't leave out any detail, and I think that's going to show up on the field in his players."
Trainer added, "Tem, for me, was always like the voice of reason. He had a maturity about him as a young coach that not many young coaches have. His poise and composure in heated moments, he was at his best, and the kids would sense that, too. His group was always a group that in the magnitude of a big game or a decision by a referee or a coach, his group was always the most well prepared that took the field."
Best of all for MSU going forward, Trainer remembers Lukabu as a classic 4-3 middle linebacker. Shoop, MSU's defensive coordinator, has been a four-down linemen disciple in the past, so Lukabu's experience could fit into that system perfectly.
Lukabu takes over a linebacking corps loaded with young talent. Erroll Thompson is fresh off a season that earned him Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team honors. Thompson racked up 46 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, with 2.5 sacks, one pass break-up and one forced fumble.
Leo Lewis also had 46 tackles in his sophomore season, adding one tackle for a loss, one pass break-up and a forced fumble. The unit will have to absorb the loss of senior leader and captain Dez Harris but hopes to offset it with the addition of junior college linebacker Sh'Mar Kilby-Lane out of Copiah-Lincoln Community College.
If MSU's linebackers do what Lukabu's previous subjects have, they'll take to their new coach quickly.
"That big smile, a big, fit guy, there was a calm in his voice, he had a sense of likeability," Trainer told The Dispatch. "I remember his players, everywhere he's ever been, his players loved playing for him. That's probably his greatest attribute.
"He has a way about him where he's demanding but approachable. Sometimes that's a fine line: he's not their buddy, but he's going to buy into the whole person. They know they can trust him because he's going to support the whole person. He's going to believe in those guys firmly."
Like his new boos, Lukabu will be in his first stint college coaching in the Southeast. The recruiting challenges of the new area could be daunting for some, but Rizzi saw Lukabu grow into an excellent recruiter when they were together at Rhode Island.
"I don't think Tem is going to have a hard time going in there and doing a great job," Rizzi said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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