KNOXVILLE — The round-the-clock rat race of college football recruiting has neared its annual climax, as this weekend’s official visits are the last chance most coaches have to put this year’s hay in the barn.
Intrigue always abounds near the first Wednesday in February, but Tennessee’s coaching change has added even more uncertainty. New Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin and several of his assistants admitted they’re not sure how the final few days will unfold.
There is always tension until national letters of intent are signed and faxed, but Kiffin used simple terms to highlight UT’s situation.
“We’re two years behind with this class, and we’re going on two weeks of relationships with some of these kids right now,” Kiffin said. “It’s a very difficult situation, but one we’ve just got to try to make the best out of.”
Kiffin’s staff members have lived up to their reputations as relentless recruiters the past few weeks. Defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron — who held that title at Miami and Southern California before taking a head-coaching job with Ole Miss — has implemented the same strategies he and Kiffin used with the Trojans.
“Coach Orgeron lays out his plan, and it’s a great plan,” said tight ends and offensive tackles coach James Cregg, who coached the Oakland Raiders offensive line last season. “We’re staying to the course right now and going through the plan, and next year it will be even better.
As for this year, Cregg said, “It’s been going pretty good. I’ve been pretty surprised, actually.”
Kiffin also hired South Carolina recruiting coordinator David Reaves and Mississippi State recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson, as well as the coaches he dubbed “the best recruiters from Auburn and Alabama”: Eddie Gran and Lance Thompson.
Orgeron was Rivals.com’s national recruiter of the year in 2004, and Thompson won that award last year.
The addition of Lane Kiffin’s father — legendary NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin — has also been a boost, according to many recruits.
“The University of Tennessee will sell itself, and our great coaches will sell themselves, but we had an awfully late start this year,” Orgeron said. “We’re not going to be making any excuses, though. We’re just going to work hard and get it done.
“For example, who wouldn’t want to play defense for Monte Kiffin? I jumped at the chance to learn from him. Why wouldn’t the best defensive players in the country do the same thing?”
Cregg conceded that UT’s staff got a “really late start” but added a near copy of former head coach Phillip Fulmer’s recruiting phase: “If we can just get them on campus, we have a shot.”
“I’ve seen a lot of places, and I don’t know of any that have the environment we have here at Tennessee, from the facilities to the school spirit and pride to the academic facilities and everything else,” Cregg added. “We’re behind for this class, but the University of Tennessee sells itself.”
But has UT’s new staff had enough time to sell itself?
The Vols were No. 16 in the Rivals.com team rankings Thursday night, and No. 12 on the Scout.com list. Several of their commitments are listed as “soft,” but they’re also hosting several nearly 20 highly regarded players this weekend.
“I think we’re in a lot of people’s top three,” Lane Kiffin said. “We’ll see how we close here. But once again, to be that far behind, it’s hard for a kid and a family to make a decision when they’ve known the guys you’re going up against for two years and they’ve known your staff for two weeks.”