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Posted: Thursday August 20, 2009 12:11PM; Updated: Thursday August 20, 2009 1:11PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

Star staff must rebuild Tennessee (cont.)

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Freshman receiver Nu'Keese Richardson could make a big impact on Tennesee's inexperienced receiving corps.
Freshman receiver Nu'Keese Richardson could make a big impact on Tennesee's inexperienced receiving corps.
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Kiffin, for one, has been here before. He earned a reputation as a football savant while helping Carroll build USC into its current dynastic state. Starting as the Trojans' tight ends coach, he worked his way up to offensive coordinator by the age of 29 and landed the Raiders' head-coaching job at 31. He and Orgeron worked side by side during Carroll's first four seasons at USC, resurrecting the fallen power into a national player; now, they're trying to rebuild Tennessee in much the same mold.

"It's very similar to the way we ran things with Pete Carroll," said Orgeron. "The players relate to [Lane]. They know how smart he is. Tennessee players want a coach who's going to challenge them."

Much like at USC, words like "challenge" and "competition" are constantly on the tip of the coaches' and players' tongues.

"Everything is a competition," said Tennessee's All-America safety Eric Berry. "Everything we do between offense and defense, they keep score. They even call our scrimmages 'preseason games.'"

Kiffin has stated repeatedly all but one starting job -- Berry's -- is up for grabs. Nearly every practice this month has included segments with live hitting. Coaches and players sprint together from one field to another between periods.

"Because it's our first year, we don't know what any of these players can do in our system," said Kiffin. "We have to find out in a competitive manner. We've gone live more in this training camp than anywhere I've been just because there were so many question marks."

Those questions start first and foremost at quarterback, where senior Jonathan Crompton and junior Nick Stephens combined for a woeful 1,739 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Kiffin has yet to decide on a starter, and from watching practice, it's easy to see why. Both continue to struggle, though it's tough to say how much of that lies with them and how much is a result of the Vols' depleted receiving corps. Junior Gerald Jones is the lone returnee with experience, and he's practicing with a cast on his surgically repaired left wrist.

While Chaney holds the coordinator title, Kiffin is clearly in charge of the offense, and he's already leaning heavily on several members of last winter's top 10 recruiting class. Freshman receivers Nu'Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague are seeing significant action, with Richardson even featured in a Wildcat-type package, while freshman tailback David Oku is pushing senior Montario Hardesty and sophomore Tauren Poole (one of the surprise stars of camp) for carries.

Tennessee figures to be in better shape defensively -- despite losing seven games last season, the Vols still ranked third nationally in total defense -- but much will depend on how quickly the players grasp Monte Kiffin's complex playbook.

"You have to have a lot of patience," said the architect of the famed "Tampa Two" defense. "When you've coached Derrick Brooks, he's been playing the same defense for 13 years. You can't expect some linebacker who's 18 years old to come here and play the same defense."

For his part, Monte Kiffin is still adjusting to the most hectic part of his new job: recruiting. His fellow staff members never seem to take a break.

"It's very, very intense compared to the old days," said Kiffin, a college coach from 1966-82 at Nebraska, Arkansas and N.C. State. "I'm more into coaching right now, but they'll always say, 'We have a recruiting meeting.'"

Lane Kiffin insists recruiting was the primary factor behind some of his unpopular p.r. tactics last winter.

In lauding his program's recruiting success last February (Tennessee landed 11th-hour commitments from four Top 100 prospects), Kiffin took shots at several SEC counterparts, most notably Meyer, whom Kiffin infamously and falsely accused of cheating in front of 1,000 boosters at a post-Signing Day breakfast event. Kiffin received a reprimand from SEC commissioner Mike Slive and publicly apologized to Meyer and Florida AD Jeremy Foley, but the comment continues to haunt him, as it will until Tennessee visits Gainesville on Sept. 19.

"I've said it before -- do I love everything I've had to do?" said Kiffin. "No, but I think it needed to be done for us to do what we needed to do immediately. This isn't the old days where you have four or five years to develop a plan. You have to find impact ways to recruit immediately."

Tennessee's all-star staff is under significant pressure to land another monster class next February, as 12 players have left the program since the end of last season. It's clear the Vols' quarterback of the future is not currently on the roster, and the offensive and defensive lines will suffer heavy loses when graduation hits. The staff is off to a nice start with 16 commitments -- a group currently ranks as a top 15 class -- but there's not a quarterback on that list.

Meanwhile, Kiffin continues his quest of drumming up enthusiasm. His face adorns billboards that recently went up both locally and throughout the South (including in Atlanta and South Florida) proclaiming: "It's Time." Last Sunday, the coach spoke at UT's freshman picnic and spontaneously invited the new students to attend the next day's practice (a couple hundred took him up on it).

Soon, however, the Vols will start playing actual football games, and there's a strong likelihood Kiffin's inaugural team won't provide quite the same excitement.

"We'll be good when we get good; I don't know when that will be," said Kiffin. "We had a phenomenal recruiting class, and I know our guys are off to a great start right now, but it's not going to happen overnight. There's so much work to be done."

He certainly couldn't ask for better help.

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