National Football League
The Rams can't replace Aaron Donald. But Chris Shula, grandson of Don, has a plan
National Football League

The Rams can't replace Aaron Donald. But Chris Shula, grandson of Don, has a plan

Updated May. 27, 2024 8:15 a.m. ET

What to say?

Chris Shula had envisioned this moment for a decade, rolling through the thoughts in his mind of how he would articulate his vision to players as a first-time NFL defensive coordinator. 

On the first day of offseason work, the words came naturally for the new DC of the Los Angeles Rams.

"That was something I had been thinking about — how to set the tone in front of the entire unit," Shula told FOX Sports in an exclusive interview. "You just want to set the expectations of the standards that you want to hold them accountable to, the style of play that we want to play with. But not only that, we want to build relationships with these guys, get them to feel comfortable, be able to ask questions and be vulnerable. 


"I wanted to get all that out there in that first meeting. So I spent a lot of time and put a lot of thought into what I wanted to say and how to go about it. You don't just want to go right to football. … You want to show them that we really care about them, and we're going to have a plan for them to get better every day."

Shula had a practice run a decade ago as the defensive coordinator for Division III John Carroll. Then he worked his way up as a position coach with the Los Angeles Chargers and, for the past seven seasons, in various capacities with the Rams.

"No matter what's happening, up or down, he's always steady," said Rams inside linebacker Ernest Jones. "He's super intelligent; the way he's been able to transfer my game from a pre-snap position is second to none. … Players love him, and he's going to fit in perfectly." 

In his first season as an NFL defensive coordinator, Shula faces the monumental task of replacing future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald, who retired this offseason after a decade of dominance. Shula knows it will take a committee approach to fill the huge void left by arguably the greatest interior defensive lineman in league history.

Aaron Donald announces retirement after 10 NFL seasons

Shula plans to focus on what his players do best. And that goes back to what his grandfather, Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, taught him during his visits to Miami as a youngster: Schemes may change over time, but the fundamentals of killing blocks, tackling, taking the ball away and the pursuit of the football remain the same. 

"I don't take it for granted, as far as what he accomplished in this league," Shula said of his grandfather, the all-time winningest NFL coach. "I don't really think about it, as far as holding up a legacy or anything like that. But it is cool to hear different stories about him.

"One thing that stuck out to me, and still does, is everybody thinks football has changed so much. [My grandfather] always said, ‘As far as I'm concerned, it's still about blocking, getting off blocks. Tackling and breaking tackles. Securing the ball and taking the ball away.' … [So] we try to emphasize here just the simplicity of football."

Don Shula early in his tenure as Dolphins coach

Shula also learned the game from other members of his family. His father, Dave, played a year in the NFL as a receiver and spent 15 years as a coach, including four-plus seasons as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. He currently serves as the receivers coach at his alma mater, Dartmouth. 

Chris' uncle, Mike, was the offensive coordinator for three NFL teams and was the head coach at Alabama before Nick Saban. Mike Shula is currently an offensive analyst at South Carolina

Shula and Rams head coach Sean McVay share a bond through their family's football legacy. McVay's grandfather, John McVay, was an NFL head coach and later served as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, teaming with offensive guru Bill Walsh to lead that franchise to five Super Bowls. Sean's father Tim was an all-state quarterback in high school in Ohio and played defensive back at Indiana

Sean McVay and Chris Shula also share another bond: They were college teammates at Miami University in Ohio. 

"He's that guy that everybody feels like he's their best friend because he's so present when he's with you," McVay said of Shula. "He's so authentic. He's so refreshingly secure in who he is, and he's been prepared for this opportunity. 

Chris Shula during an offseason program. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Rams

"I'm excited because I think he's surrounded by a bunch of other good coaches, and I think he's really ready to help these players be the best that they can be." 

Early on, Shula worked for former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who's from another multi-generational football family. Phillips saw Shula's potential from the start. 

"He's a sharp guy, a quick learner, a hard worker and an outstanding coach," Phillips said. "We turned things around there pretty quickly. We worked really well together. He can coach inside and outside linebackers really well, along with the rest of the defense. He's a Shula." 

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Along with Phillips, Shula worked as an assistant with the Rams for defensive coordinators Brandon Staley and Raheem Morris, now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. 

Shula, 38, said he’s taken bits and pieces from all three defensive minds, learning the importance of keeping things simple from Phillips, innovation from Staley and the value of building good relationships with players from Morris. 

Shula and his staff are now knee-deep into building the defense they want. The biggest question, of course, is how to fill the huge hole in the middle of the line left by Donald.

"Obviously, we're going to have to step up as a group," Shula said. "We made a big point to Kobie Turner that we don't expect him to be an Aaron Donald, because he really is one of one. We knew when he was in the game how offenses were going to protect against us. Now, it's a little bit more of a guessing game."

Shula mentioned the possibility of Turner, who had nine sacks as a rookie nose tackle and finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, expanding his role to play multiple positions along the defensive line. And he expects the pass rush to benefit from the chemistry and ability of a pair of Florida State rookies, Jared Verse and Braden Fiske. They were the Rams' top two selections in this year's draft.

"We liked them each individually as players, whether they were on the same team or not," Shula said. "I think [playing together is] going to help them definitely, especially when they get into those rush-type situations if they're on the same side. There's some really good clips of them rushing together. I think that's a feel thing. We like the package deal we got with them." 

However, Philips believes the Rams will have to find another player like Donald who can consistently win one-on-one pass rush opportunities. According to Next Gen Stats, Donald generated 659 pressures since 2016, 239 more than the next-closest defensive tackle (Chris Jones, 420). 

Donald finished with 111 sacks in 10 NFL seasons, second among defensive tackles to Hall of Famer John Randle (137.5). Donald is No. 3 in league history in tackles for loss with 176.

"We could utilize Aaron in a lot of different ways," Phillips said. "So, that takes away your one-on-one advantages. We tried to make sure Aaron had a one-on-one as much as we could, especially in passing situations because he could beat people one-on-one. 

So, it’s just the personnel you have and try to utilize what they can do. They have other good players obviously, but there aren’t any Aaron Donalds, that’s for sure."

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Shula also said the Rams will continue to use a 3-4 defensive front for their base scheme. And even though Turner can't replace Donald by himself, the second-year pro will be a major factor.

"He's going to be a guy who's on the field a ton," Shula said about Turner. "We love to have the flexibility to move those guys around, depending on the personnel group that's in the game. We're lucky, because he can play multiple spots pretty easily, whether it's physically or mentally. 

"We can keep people guessing where we can kind of move him around. And the nice thing about Kobie is he's so selfless, he's always going to do what's best for the team. So it will be fun to use that chess piece accordingly.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out."

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.


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