5 things to know about Jeff Zgonina, the Commanders’ new defensive line coach

5 things to know about Commanders new DL coach Jeff Zgonina originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

ASHBURN, Va. — Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera made a sudden shakeup to his coaching staff on Tuesday, relieving Sam Mills III of his defensive line coach duties. Jeff Zgonina, who served as Mills III’s assistant the past two seasons, has been elevated to the position.

“Very difficult,” Rivera said following practice on the change. “I’ve known Sam a long time and he’s a very good football coach. I appreciate everything he’s done… There were some things that I wanted to change.”

Here are five things to know about Zgonina, the Commanders new defensive line coach…

1. Zgonina was a standout defensive tackle at Purdue

A four-year starter for the Purdue Boilermakers from 1989-1992, Zgonina ranks fourth all-time on the school’s all-time sack leader with 29. Ironically, former Washington standout Ryan Kerrigan is one of the three players ahead of Zgonina on that list, as Kerrigan totaled 33.5 sacks during his college career. 

Zgonina was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year his final season in West Lafayette, where he recorded 13 sacks and 28 tackles for loss. Zgonina totaled 72 tackles for loss throughout his Purdue career, the most in Boilermakers’ history.

2. Zgonina played 17 seasons in the NFL for seven different franchises

A seventh-round draft choice by the Steelers in 1993, Zgonina carved out a lengthy NFL career for himself. After spending two seasons in Pittsburgh, Zgonina spent the next four years in four different locations — Carolina, Atlanta, St. Louis and Indianapolis — before finding a home for himself back in St. Louis.

The best stretch of Zgonina’s career came from 2000-2002 when he started 40 of a possible 48 games for the Rams. He was also part of the Super Bowl-winning St. Louis squad in 1999.

After his time concluded in St. Louis, Zgonina spent four years in Miami followed by three seasons in Houston. The longtime defensive lineman retired following the 2009 campaign, his age-39 season. He finished his career with 458 tackles, 26 sacks and 13 fumble recoveries.

“There’s so much that he’s learned over his 17 years,” Commanders standout defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “There’s so much he can teach us.”

3. Zgonina has experience both as the main and assistant defensive line coach

Zgonina’s new role with the Commanders won’t be the first time he’s been in charge of a defensive line room. The 52-year-old served as the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line coach under Kyle Shanahan in 2017 and 2018. 

Zgonina also has four years of experience as an assistant defensive line coach for three different teams. Even in his new role, he doesn’t expect his approach to change.

“I’ve had my own room before. I’ve learned from my situation,” Zgonina said. “Sam and I had a great working relationship and I think it’s not going to change much. It’s just a matter of getting those guys ready for Sundays every week.”

4. He got his start in coaching under his former college coach

Zgonina got his start in the coaching world under a familiar face.

The 17-year NFL veteran had been retired for four years before being hired by the Houston Texans as the an assistant defensive line coach in 2013. Zgonina reported to defensive line coach and assistant head coach Bill Kollar, who served as his defensive line coach at Purdue from 1989-1990.

Zgonina’s tenure in Houston lasted just one season, though, as he was not part of the Texans’ staff the following year. Zgonina didn’t return to the coaching world until 2016, where he served as the assistant defensive line coach for the New York Giants.

5. Zgonina’s nephew plays for the Chicago Bears

There will be some family ties when the Commanders travel to Chicago to face the Bears in Week 6.

That’s because Bears second-year tight end, Cole Kmet, is Zgonina’s nephew. The tight end’s father, Frank Kmet, was Zgonina’s teammate at Purdue as well.

Earlier this offseason, Kmet told the Bears website that he approaches his career with the same sense of urgency that Zgonina did.

“There’s no reason not to study the night before,” Kmet said. “You’ve got to know your stuff before you come in. There’s no excuse for not knowing what to do on a play, whether they installed it correctly or not. You’ve got all the sheets, you’ve got everything. You’ve got to be a pro and know what you’re doing.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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