For years, Jason Tarver crossed paths with Joe Woods. They went to the same events, knew the same people but never landed at the same spot at the same time.
That changed in 2014, when Tarver was in his third season as the defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders and Woods joined his staff as a defensive backs coach. They coached just one year together, but it was an experience Tarver cherished as he and Woods respectively moved on to the next opportunity.
Six years later, Tarver and Woods are back together in Cleveland. This time, Woods is the defensive coordinator and Tarver will coach the linebackers, a position he's led for decades in stints across the NFL and college football.
"We were able to finally work together in Oakland in 2014 and got along great," Tarver said. "We really worked on a deliberate process together that year starting with a whole bunch of new starters and learning each other and turning it into a pretty good defense at the end of the year. Joe's gone on to great things so that's been awesome.
"We're very excited to be here to build our defense. What's great about Coach (Kevin) Stefanski and Coach Woods is they're all about the people. It's about working with people, they're very deliberate about how they pick people and how they're putting this together. I'm very excited to be a part of that."
Said Stefanski: "Joe and Jason speak the same language, which I think is important. There's obviously a mutual level of respect that's built in so I think the previous experience is really helpful because you can hit the ground running."
Tarver comes to Cleveland after two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt University. He'll be back in the NFL for his 17th season of coaching.
"I've been very fortunate in my coaching career to be in almost every position in both college and in the NFL and other stops. I'm very fortunate where I've been," Tarver said. "I'm so excited about the NFL, the technical aspect of being around coaches with a process like this and being around great players. There's some players in this organization that really have some athletic skill that we're excited to see how to meld them together."
After a three-year stint as a graduate assistant at UCLA, Tarver got his start in the NFL in 2001 as an offensive quality control coach with the San Francisco 49ers. That began a stretch with the 49ers that spanned 13 seasons over two different stints, as Tarver moved up the ranks and worked with seven different head coaches. His longest stretch with the same position group was from 2005-10 as the team's outside linebackers coach.
That time of Tarver's career fortified his love for the position.
"I love coaching the linebackers because we're in the middle of everything," Tarver said. "They call you a linebacker because you're backed off the line. You've got to be on point in the run and pass game with your keys. You are the leaders of the defense and should respond and work that way and that's what's exciting. You want to be a linebacker because you're just involved with everything. You're right there in the middle or slightly on the sides. Run, shed, tackle the guy with the ball. That's what backers do and that's some of the most exciting things in football."
Tarver took his first defensive coordinator job at Stanford University in 2011. Under his guidance, the Cardinal defense ranked third in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (84.4) and 11th in points allowed per game (16.41) while finishing the season with an 11-2 record. One year later, Tarver was in the same position with the Raiders on Dennis Allen's staff.
As defensive coordinator with the Raiders (2012-14), helped oversee a unit that ranked 10th in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (4.05) over his three seasons. In first season as the Raiders defensive coordinator, Oakland's defense improved from 29th overall in 2011 to 18th in 2012.
"Jason Tarver is somebody I've met over the years and really enjoyed spending time with him and talking about the intricacies of defensive football," Stefanski said. "I think he's a really bright mind. He's been a coordinator, which is really helpful to Joe as he builds out the defensive staff. Jason's impact in that room as the linebackers coach really goes beyond that because of his former experience as a coordinator."
Tarver returned to San Francisco in 2015 for what would be a three-year stint as a senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach.
Tarver's excitement to get his hands on a young group of Cleveland linebackers is palpable.
"There's a lot of ability and what's really exciting is getting to play together, believe in each other and play together because there's ability there and there's ability to make plays," Tarver said. "When you're dependent on the other 10 that are on the field and how you work together and then you let that ability go and you really have fun doing it, that's what is exciting."
Jason Tarver's Coaching Background:
1996-97: West Valley College, special teams and defensive assistant
1998-2000: UCLA, graduate assistant
2001-03: San Francisco 49ers, offensive quality control coach
2004: San Francisco 49ers, assistant running backs coach
2005-10: San Francisco 49ers, outside linebackers coach
2011: Stanford University, co-defensive coordinator
2012-14: Oakland Raiders, defensive coordinator
2015-17: San Francisco 49ers, senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach
2018: Vanderbilt University, outside linebackers/defensive coordinator
2019: Vanderbilt University, inside linebackers/defensive coordinator
2020-: Cleveland Browns, linebackers coach