Lane Kiffin has his work cut out for him as he takes over as head coach at Tennessee. Although he has proven he can be a successful recruiter and is a good offensive Xs and Os coach, having studied under highly acclaimed offensive coordinator Norm Chow, there's a little different pressure with being the lead guy.
There's no denying what he accomplished at USC; he started as tight ends coach in 2001, worked his way up to receivers coach, then to offensive and recruiting coordinator. The Trojans won two national championships while he was there, and Kiffin was considered one of the nation's top recruiters. USC's classes were annually among the best in country and the offense produced Heisman Trophy winners, top NFL draft picks and the Trojans were always among the nation's best in most statistical categories.
But it will be different at Tennessee. Yes, both recruit nationally -- if you look at the USC roster, many of the best players are from outside of California -- but it's a lot harder to lock up those kids at Tennessee. In the Pac-10, it was USC and everyone else. The Trojans were the big dog in the yard, and while they might lose a guy here or there, they weren't losing many top prospects to other schools in the conference. At Tennessee, Kiffin is now in a conference in which every school is in the hunt for the elite guys. Even schools that don't annually contend for conference crowns, such as Ole Miss or South Carolina, are still fighting for the top recruits. He'll have to get used to that kind of challenge because he didn't have that at USC.
Also, there's not the wealth of high school talent in Tennessee to fall back on. There's just not the depth of athleticism, speed and quality players to sustain a program like there is in, say, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas or California. He's going to have to be able to go into these states that are already locked down by guys like Urban Meyer, Mark Richt, Nick Saban, Les Miles, Mack Brown and Pete Carroll and be able to pull recruits out of those states and bring them to Tennessee. The Vols and Kiffin will use the same philosophy he used at USC -- if they think a player is a potential first-round draft choice, they're going to try to get him -- but it will be a tougher fight in the SEC than he's used to because he's often going into his fiercest competitors' backyards to try to get those players.
What Kiffin has working to his advantage, however, are his age, his NFL experience and his staff, which will reportedly include his dad, legendary NFL defensive coach Monte Kiffin, and former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron -- one of the nation's top recruiters -- who is currently with the New Orleans Saints, but worked with Kiffin at USC.
Kiffin, 33, is young enough for players to relate with easily. When the gap between a 17-year-old and a coach is lessened by years, the player often feels the coach gets the times, that he can relate to the players better and understands what's happening in their lives better. Kiffin definitely has that going for him.
Also, having been in the NFL, albeit a short time with the Raiders, is a plus. The culture of kids these days -- and not saying it's right -- is they look at depth charts trying to find fewer competitors and more playing time and they want to get to the NFL. They have no idea how hard it is, but they are looking for the coach who can get them there. Kiffin can say he knows what it takes. And having Monte join the staff would only add to that. Monte has been in the NFL for the past 26 years, which is a plus to the kids, but it is worth noting that the last time he was coaching in college was when he was the head coach at NC State from 1980 to 1982. The former Nebraska Cornhusker spent 16 years coaching in college with stops at Nebraska and Arkansas, but it has been a while. Don't expect to see him hitting the road every week recruiting, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him make some home visits to close the deal on some players.
Meanwhile, Orgeron's track record speaks for itself in terms of recruiting. He has a real feel for the student athlete and has always been able to relate well with players. He also has been able to sell the program and himself to the decision-maker. That's not always the parents. Sometimes it's a coach, uncle or grandmother, but regardless, he's always been able to get that person to buy in. He simply loves recruiting and is one of the best at it. He and Kiffin did great things at USC, and it will be interesting to see if they can bring that national success to Tennessee.
It also wouldn't be surprising if Kiffin tried to keep running backs coach Stan Drayton, whom Tennessee hired away from Florida and who is widely considered to be one of the best recruiters on the road. Several players we talked with about the change at Tennessee mentioned Drayton, and were curious what would happen with him. He could be a big asset in keeping and building a top class for Tennessee yet.
The Vols were building a top 2009 class under Phil Fulmer. When he left, many players reopened the recruiting process and that class rank fell quickly. Kiffin could save the 2009 class, which would be a huge accomplishment. Most schools suffer in recruiting during a transition and don't bring in good classes. With Kiffin, the Vols likely will keep the kids in the fold, but possibly get back some they lost and a little more. If pieces fall into place, you could see a scenario in which Kiffin and his staff work from Dec. 1 to the first Wednesday in February and get one of the best recruiting classes ever for a team with a coaching staff change.
He's already been working the phones with current recruits and the reported early returns are positive, but one player he needs to get back in on is Marlon Brown, a wide receiver from Memphis who is No. 17 on the ESPNU 150 and the No. 2 wideout overall. He visited Tennessee earlier in the year, but the Vols need to get back on his radar. He's a difference-maker at a position the Vols have lacked a playmaker in for the past few years. They also need to get back in with Jarvis Giles, who is ranked No. 42 overall and is the fifth-ranked running back. Giles de-committed from the Vols once Fulmer left, but he reportedly hasn't flown too far off.
There's the old saying whatever you do, don't follow a legend. Kiffin is following a Tennessee legend in Fulmer and the expectations are extremely high. There is pressure to come in and get off on the right foot, and having success with this recruiting class would be significant. Kiffin dealt with high expectations when he was at USC, so the pressure to succeed is nothing new, but the competition he'll face in the SEC, both on the field and on the recruiting path, will be tough. It will be a new role for him as the head guy of the program, but it looks like he's on the right path so far.
Tom Luginbill is the National Recruiting Director for ESPN's Scouts Inc. He has an extensive background in professional football talent evaluation and coaching. He played quarterback at Georgia Tech (1994) and Eastern Kentucky (1995).