Gran is special UT aide

Gran is special UT aide

July 17th, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- Most hardcore Southeastern Conference football fans know Eddie Gran for two reasons: the inordinate number of Auburn running backs he developed into NFL players and his inordinate amount of success recruiting South Florida for the Tigers.

But Gran, now a Tennessee assistant, could bring a third dynamic to the Volunteers: organized special teams.

Former UT coach Phillip Fulmer spent most of the past two decades spreading out special-teams duties to several assistants.

"We don't need one," Fulmer said at least once every year. "We have seven."

Now the Vols basically have one.

First-year head coach Lane Kiffin and other assistants -- usually linebackers coach Lance Thompson -- sit in on special-teams meetings, but the buck stops at Gran's plan.

"There are so many reasons you hire a guy like Eddie Gran," Kiffin said this spring. "And that's definitely one of those reasons."

Gran acknowledged that Auburn was "usually pretty solid" on special teams under his direction from 1999 to 2008.

The Tigers were sometimes spectacular. In 2006, they led the SEC in kickoff coverage, field-goal percentage, extra-point percentage and punting. Kicker John Vaughn was the SEC special teams player of the year and a Lou Groza Award finalist that season, and punter Kody Bliss finished third nationally.

Damon Duval, from Central High in Harrison, was All-SEC in 2000 and 2001 under Gran -- whose kickers became known for producing in late-game situations.

"They've always been great with their individual specialists, and their protections," UT junior kicker Daniel Lincoln said of the Tigers.

UT's special teams had high highs and low lows under Fulmer, and last season they had their struggles. Lincoln followed a Freshman All-America season with a subpar sophomore campaign, and punter Chad Cunningham was inconsistent early in the season while subbing for the suspended Britton Colquitt.

The kicking roommates said Gran's track record and offseason organization have boosted their summer spirits.

"I think it's great," Cunningham said. "Now everybody won't be confused about who to go to to talk about this thing or that thing. Everybody can just go to Coach Gran now. I feel like it will be a lot more organized.

"I've never seen so many special teams that the returners are doing, and the coverage men, and all those guys. We're definitely going to be ready."

Said Lincoln: "Whenever you have so many different coaches -- and this is nothing against what we did before, obviously -- it can get confusing. As a special-teams guy, this is all I do, so whenever there is this much emphasis on special teams, and we have one guy ... there's just a lot more organization now than there was before.

"And when you have a coach who has been so successful, and you can see that success on film -- and he's not just showing Auburn film; he's showing stuff he taught successful NFL guys -- I think that really opens guys' eyes and ears up. I think everybody listens."

The Tennessee running backs were happy to see Gran join the staff, too. NFL rosters last season included seven backs he coached, including Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, Ronnie Brown, Rudi Johnson, Brandon Jacobs and Kenny Irons.

Gran also was New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAlister's position coach at Ole Miss.

"Tennessee's always put great backs in the league ... and so has Auburn, and Coach Gran had a lot to do with that," Vols senior Montario Hardesty said. "Coach Gran's a great guy and a great coach, and we're learning a lot from him."

Gran, like most excellent recruiters, generally keeps his public persona on the sunny side. He speaks glowingly of his time at Auburn -- where he'd almost certainly still be, if not for Tommy Tuberville's departure -- but made no secret of last winter's primary plan B.

"To be back in the SEC, especially at a place like Tennessee, is just such a blessing for me and my family," Gran said. "I think Tennessee is one of the top five programs in the country. I've always thought that. You look at that 75 years and you see why they're the nation's winningest team. I wanted to be a part of that, and recruit to that.

"I had some other opportunities, but I wanted to wait on Tennessee. I felt like this was the best fit for me. Lane needed a South Florida recruiter, he needed a running backs coach, and he needed a special-teams coach. And I've been doing those things in this league for 14 years. I just felt like this was right, and I'm glad that I waited."

Kiffin, who has deep connections in Florida, knew Gran's recruiting reputation in that state. But the two had no personal history with each other, so Gran waited through three interviews and several weeks before receiving an official offer -- which he quickly accepted.

"The more I learned about Coach Gran, the more I liked him," Kiffin said this spring. "To put that many guys in the NFL, and have (five) first-round picks ... that's impressive."

Gran paid quick dividends on the recruiting trail. He helped the Vols swipe longtime Florida receiver commitment Nu'Keese Richardson -- one of the nation's premier players, according to most major recruiting services -- and he played a large role in the signings of premier tailback prospects Bryce Brown and David Oku. Brown was's No. 1 overall senior prospect last year, and Oku was rated the No. 1 all-purpose back.

The Vols are arguably recruiting harder in Florida than anywhere else, thanks to several coaching connections and the state's staggering amount of top-shelf talent.

"I think Tennessee is an easy sell," Gran said. "What we have here is a phenomenal sell. We can compete with any university in the country, academically and facility-wise, and with the conference.

"I've been (recruiting) South Florida for 17 years. With that and the other ties we have, I think we ought to be able to get two or three kids every year, if they're the right kids. There's no reason why we can't compete against the top schools down there."

Fort Lauderdale's Michael Palardy, one of the nation's top kicking prospects, committed to UT in July despite offers also from Miami, Alabama, LSU, Auburn and several other prominent programs.

Gran has known Palardy for three years, and the coach's move to Knoxville played a major role in the kicker's commitment.

"A lot of college coaches just tell you to go kick 40 or 50 balls or whatever, and that's your practice," Palardy said shortly after committing. "Coach Gran's different. He's a real special-teams coach."