KNOXVILLE -- Lane Kiffin, like most college coaches, wanted to surround himself with familiar, friendly faces as soon as he took the Tennessee job in December.

"I knew who I wanted," Kiffin said months later.

And James Cregg was one of the first assistant coaches he wanted.

Cregg, who coached with Kiffin at Colorado State and the Oakland Raiders, left the Raiders during the 2008 season to become the Volunteers' offensive tackles and tight ends coach. A midseason move from the NFL to college might have seemed puzzling, but the Kiffin-Cregg relationship is very tight.

When Kiffin took a graduate assistant position at Colorado State in 1999, Cregg -- an experienced GA and former Rams all-conference offensive lineman -- filled him on the way things were done there. The two have been friends since, despite switching places on the chain of command.

"We've got a great working relationship," Cregg said. "We trust one another. He knows who I am and what I bring to the table, as far as my work ethic and how I go about doing things.

"We've known each other for a while. I think he has a level of trust with me."

And a level of friendship.

Kiffin knocked on Cregg's office door during the assistant's 15-minute interview with The Times Free Press last week. The head coach had a quick question.

"Want to lift (weights)?" Kiffin asked between bites of popcorn.

"I can't right now," Cregg replied. "I've got this interview for a few more minutes."

Kiffin then gave Cregg a smirk and went on.

"As coaches and players, we're going to work as hard as anybody," Cregg said. "But you've got to have a little fun, too."

He was all-state at Norco (Calif.) High School as a 225-pound offensive tackle and All-WAC as a senior at Colorado State in 1995. He was Colgate's defensive line coach in the 2003 Division I-AA national championship game in Chattanooga, and he was hired by the Raiders at 34 years old.

"I always wanted to coach in the NFL if I couldn't make it there as a player," Cregg said. "I made it there as a coach, but once I experienced it, it just showed me how I loved the college game. The recruiting, the teaching, the passion ... I just love college football."

Several close to Cregg describe him as the typical son of a military family. Former Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick called the former lineman "tough, dependable, smart ... a guy you could always count on to get the job done."

Cregg said he never planned to follow his family into the military, but that lifestyle left impressions on his personality. His hair is short. His baritone voice booms like a marching order. His office is meticulously manicured and organized, dust-free, as if it's awaiting a drill sergeant's inspection.

That organization helps Cregg navigate the hectic schedule of a new coaching staff. Two previous experiences with first-year staffs have helped, he said, but every situation has offered new sets of challenges.

"It's been great, but it's been crazy -- especially this year, because everything is new," he said. "Everybody's trying to get it going. Nothing's in place yet, really, so you're trying to keep working and getting things right. You're just trying to get the kinks ironed out, and once we get in a groove and everything's ironed out, it will be a lot better.

"Right now, we're trying to get the offense in place and the defense in place, get the recruiting process in place, get the right flow of how we're doing things in place. Once we do that, I think we're going to be fine."

How long that will take is the question. But Cregg shies from discussing the end result, preferring to stick to the process.

The first step? Weight control. UT's new offensive staff had similar first impressions to former coordinator David Cutcliffe, who returned to Knoxville in 2006 for a two-year stint and immediately demanded a trimmer front five.

Cregg gets a detailed weight chart -- "my baby," he calls it -- every week.

"This is the first thing I look at every Monday, to see how much we've dropped every day," Cregg said, sheet in hand. "The guys, it looks like they're on track. When you're too big, it's hard to move around and be healthy that way. That's the main thing, getting that weight down and being healthy.

"You don't want to be big and out of shape, especially when you're playing football in this hot weather against these great defenses. How do you expect to get anything done? How do you expect to perform at the level you want to perform at, being out of shape?"