New Packers DC Jeff Hafley on 4-3, jump from college to NFL

Jeff Hafley left his head-coaching position at Boston College to become the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator. Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There were two overriding themes to the questions Jeff Hafley faced Thursday when he was formally introduced as the Green Bay Packers' new defensive coordinator: Why would he leave a head-coaching job at Boston College to be an NFL assistant and can his defensive scheme work in the pro game after spending the past five seasons in the college game?

Hafley, 44, was happy to expound on both topics during a nearly 30-minute session with reporters at Lambeau Field.

He was Boston College's head coach from 2020 to 2023 after spending 2019 as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator. Before that, he was a defensive assistant with several NFL teams from 2012 to 2018, working with some of Packers coach Matt LaFleur's closest colleagues in the business (including LaFleur's brother, Mike, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Jets coach Robert Saleh).

"I spent a lot of time in the NFL, right?" Hafley said. "And then I went to Ohio State, and the big knock on me when I went to Ohio State was, this is an NFL guy, he can't coach in college, right?

"So the things I believe in defense -- whether you're playing 3-4 or 4-3, press man, which I do love, zone coverages, vision and break, quarters, match -- it comes down to can you take your players who you have and put them in the best position to succeed? And can you take your players and maximize their ability?"

As for why Hafley left a head-coaching job behind, he explained how much the college game has changed since he got the BC job in 2020 -- including everything from the COVID-19 year to the transfer portal to NIL.

"I'm not going to get on a soap box here today," Hafley said. "But what I will say is I that do think there needs some things to change. But it's still a great game and there's still great coaches, but it changed a lot since I started that job."

Packers fans should like at least two things Hafley said in explaining his philosophy: Press-man and vision-and-break coverage. In former defensive coordinator Joe Barry's scheme, the passive nature of coverages often became a complaint.

To be sure, the biggest difference is the base concept; Barry ran a 3-4 while Hafley will employ a 4-3.

However, given how little recent NFL teams use base -- last season, the Packers used their base 3-4 on 26.7% of their defensive snaps, nickel 67.8% and dime 5.5% -- that may not be as big of an adjustment as it was in 2009, when the Packers switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

For LaFleur, it was more about the person than his scheme.

"I wanted to get who I thought was the best for us," LaFleur said.

"That's an important part of it, the fit, and he just happens to run more of a 4-3 ... But I felt comfortable with what we had. Because the last thing you want to do is just scrap everything that you've got going for you, especially when you've got some pretty good players that have performed at a high level and guys under contract and all this."

LaFleur made it clear what he wants from his third different defensive coordinator since becoming head coach in 2019.

"I want us to be fast and physical and attack the ball," LaFleur said. "We will be a little more vision-based on the back end, and I think that's a great opportunity to be able to go out there and generate takeaways."

A vision-based scheme would seem to indicate that Hafley would lean toward zone coverages, but that doesn't mean his corners can't press.

Perhaps the best example of how Hafley wants to play comes from a position he calls the "post safety," a player who patrols the middle of the field. The Packers have only one safety who played significant snaps last season and is under contract for 2024: rookie Anthony Johnson Jr. Darnell Savage, Jonathan Owens and Rudy Ford all will become free agents next month if they're not re-signed.

"We gotta eliminate explosive plays when we play this defense," Hafley said of that position. "So if a run hits up the middle, this guy's gotta come out of the middle field with his hair on fire. He's gotta be able to get a guy down. I also want him to be a guy, when a ball carrier is wrapped up, he goes and he finishes off the pile.

"I want a guy who can go from sideline to sideline and take the ball away. I think that position has to be a guy with high ball production, meaning he's gotta be able to intercept the ball. He's gotta be a guy that can communicate, and he's gotta be a guy that can get guys lined up and make some calls back there. And I'd love a guy that can play man. So I guess I'm describing the perfect player to you, but those are some of the traits I'd look for in playing that position."

Hafley wasn't the only new coordinator who was a topic on Thursday. LaFleur confirmed that he has hired Aaron Hill as the new strength and conditioning coordinator to replace Chris Gizzi, who was fired last month. LaFleur said he made the change because he thought they needed "new leadership in that position."

Hill was the 49ers' assistant strength and conditioning coach under Shanahan, which attracted him to LaFleur. But so did 49ers head strength and conditioning coach Dustin Perry, who LaFleur said "may or may not be my wife's first cousin."

"I think they're doing some pretty cool things out there," LaFleur said of San Francisco's strength and conditioning department.