Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin looks back to the sidelines during the first half of Saturday's Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. The White team won 41-23.
KNOXVILLE -- A lot of things could run through Lane Kiffin's mind this week, as major college football's youngest head coach prepares his Tennessee Volunteers for a Saturday game against Western Kentucky.
More than 100,000 people in person and millions more on television will watch Kiffin's first game as a college head coach. He has publicly maintained a tunnel-vision approach, trying to maintain that this week isn't different than others.
The Times Free Press broached this topic and several others with Kiffin in an exclusive one-on-one interview Monday night.
Q: You've been around football your entire life, and high-level football for most of that time. Still, it would seem like this is a big week for you. How are your nerves treating you?
Kiffin: "This might surprise you, but I haven't had to fight any of that stuff. I just don't get like that. We have so much to do as a team and as a coaching staff, so I don't let outside distractions get to me. For whatever reason, that's just the way I've always been. Even in the Orange Bowl, and the Rose Bowl, or in the NFL games wherever we were, none of that stuff has bothered me very much. I really don't think about it like that. I'm just a football coach getting a team ready."
Q: You've made several references to wanting the bar here almost unattainably high in regard to daily expectations. With that said, has this team done everything that could be reasonably expected this preseason camp to get itself ready?
Kiffin: "Well, I think it was a great camp. We will always look at everything we do and try to find a better way to do it, so we'll always look at it and say, 'Well, I wish we could have done this better,' or, 'I wish we would have prepared better for this.' But overall, I think it really was a good camp. I think defensively we came out extremely healthy and offensively, not necessarily. But I think we're very prepared.
"Now, are we ready go out there and win big? I don't know. Like I've always said, we'll be good when we're good, and I don't know exactly when that's going to happen. But we can control how hard we work, and I think our guys and our staff have all worked extremely hard."
Q: Everyone wants to talk about older quarterbacks Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens, but what about sophomore transfer Nick Lamaison, your third and only remaining scholarship quarterback. Getting here just before camp started from a California junior college, has he proved that he could help in a pinch, if needed?
Kiffin: "That's a very hard, very difficult situation for him. Usually even if you don't get somebody for the spring, you get them for the summer, but we didn't even have him for the summer, so it's been a difficult adjustment for him -- especially because he's mostly been a shotgun quarterback as well. It's been a tough transition but one we'll continue to work on."
Q: Senior Josh McNeil's most recent knee injury left the team with just two centers -- and both Sullins twins, Cody and Cory, are former walk-ons. Have any of your other linemen taken snaps on the side as a precautionary measure, in case the Sullinses get hurt or don't play well?
Kiffin: "(Senior guard) Jacques McClendon has taken some snaps, but we've basically got the two Sullinses, and we feel good about them."
Q: There were several surprises on your post-camp depth chart, but seeing senior Dan Williams -- one of last year's better players -- bracketed with redshirt freshman Montori Hughes atop one of the defensive tackle spots was a stunner on this end. Has Hughes played that well, or has Williams struggled?
Kiffin: "Dan's had a very good camp. That's just an indication of Montori playing great. Both of them will play a lot, and the competition for that starting spot will continue all year long. But both of them will play."
Q: Sophomore tailback Tauren Poole seemed like one of the team's most pleasant surprises in spring and early in preseason camp, but he's been running with the 1s and 2s less lately, and he's now fourth on the depth chart, and he wasn't even dressed for Monday's practice. Is he OK physically?
Kiffin: "He has played great, for the most part. He's had a knee issue that has slowed him down, and he hasn't been able to cut as well as he did early in camp. And then he got a concussion, and he wasn't even available for practice today. Hopefully he gets back out here soon and adds to that competition."
Q: Peaking into the future just a little bit, four seniors are slated to start along your offensive line, and there's a wide gap in experience behind them. Have any of the team's younger linemen showed promise in camp? Could any of them help now, if needed?
Kiffin: "Sure they could. (Redshirt freshman) Aaron Douglas, we feel great about him. He could start Saturday. We'll have to see what happens this week between him and (junior Jarrod) Shaw, but we feel great about Aaron's future, especially because he just moved over there from tight end. We've seen some of those other guys develop, too, especially (true freshman) JerQuari Schofield. He's still a ways away, but we think he's going to be a great guy for the future here. And there are others."
Q: Injured junior wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore look like they're moving around pretty well on their knee and foot injuries. Jones is walking on that high ankle sprain, and Moore is running on the side during practice. Do you feel better about either's chances to play Sept. 12 against UCLA, or Sept. 19 at Florida?
Kiffin: "We're still shooting for Florida with both of those guys. Denarius is ahead of Gerald right now, so if one of them were to come back earlier than Florida, it would be Denarius. Hopefully both of them will be ready to help us in Gainesville."
Q: Lastly, do you think the team is really ready to put last season behind it and move confidently into this season? Is it even possible to know that at this point?
Kiffin: "We're a long ways away from the game, first of all. We've still got four days of preparation before Western Kentucky. This might sound crazy, but we've got so much to do between now and then. I've got so much work to do mentally with these guys. We're not built up to that point yet where I can say whether we're ready or not. We'll know Saturday."
Another contact for Wes Rucker is www.twitter.com/wesrucker.