published Saturday, January 24th, 2009

Tennessee: Kiffin proud of program progress so far


by Wes Rucker
Audio clip

Lane Kiffin

KNOXVILLE — So far, so good. Better, actually.

Lane Kiffin said his first seven weeks as the University of Tennessee football coach have exceeded his expectations.

He promised athletic director Mike Hamilton a “great” set of assistants and support staff, and he now claims to have “actually (done) better than I planned.”

He thought the Tennessee name would get his foot in several doors despite an inauspiciously late start to this year’s recruiting cycle, and he now declares that the Volunteers are in the “top three” with several top prospects.

He hoped that most of his inherited players would embrace the “culture change,” and he says most have.

“It’s hard not to walk around here and feel good about the possibilities,” he said Friday morning while lounging on one of his office’s many black leather couches. “A lot of people think Tennessee is one of the top five programs in the country ... and you can see why.”

Friday’s one-on-one interview session was a brief respite for a man who has sacrificed sleep in the name of recruiting and staff selection.

As new defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron said earlier this month, “This won’t be a good place to be if you like to sleep.”

“We’re better now than we were two months ago; I’ll say that,” Kiffin said. “But we have a million more miles to go.”

And they don’t have long to get there. National signing day is less than two weeks away. Spring practice is scheduled to start four weeks later, and the Orange and White game is set for April 18. Then summer conditioning will set the stage for August’s preseason camp.

Kiffin’s first game as a college head coach is just over seven months away, Sept. 5 against Western Kentucky. Degrees of difficulty will be added the next two weeks against UCLA and at Florida.

Priorities have been set. Kiffin and his staff have piled on frequent-flier miles from coast to coast on the recruiting trail.

The team doesn’t have a playbook. Kiffin isn’t even sure whether he or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will call plays. The head coach’s pro-style background and the coordinator’s pro-spread preferences will wed to create the Vols’ new look.

“I don’t need to hire someone who knows what I know. I can teach that,” Kiffin said. “But here’s somebody who has been a little more spread out. We’ll integrate some of his stuff, and that will make us better on offense.

“We’re going to figure that out throughout this spring. We’ve never worked together before, so we’ll need to see how it goes.”

Kiffin knows how much input he’ll have on the defensive side, though.

“Not very much, to be honest,” he said with a big grin. “That’s why that (Monte Kiffin) hire was so important. It’s such a security blanket when you know that one-third of your team is taken care of.”

Strength and conditioning coach Mark Smith — another newcomer — has scheduled at least 40 5:30 a.m. workouts, and the survivors better make a solid impression in spring practice. Freshmen get most of the practice snaps early in preseason camp.

“We don’t go the old school, ‘Fourth team and work your way up,’ because you won’t find them fast enough that way,” Kiffin said. “We need to find which of these guys can help us win right away. Everybody gets a clean slate, and we’ll go from there. We’ve got to figure out who are our best players and where can they help us.

“You’ll see guys move around, for sure.”

That wouldn’t change the scenery. Few things have stood still the past seven weeks.

  • Video: Kiffin named new UT coach
    The University of Tennessee named former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin as the Volunteers’ new football coach. Kiffin spoke to reporters during a news conference Monday at Neyland Stadium.
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