Welcome to Lane Kiffin's Charlie Weis Jr. experiment

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- So he is young. Do you know how many times Charlie Weis Jr. has heard that?

It's going on a decade now.

Do you know who else heard constantly about being young?

Lane Kiffin.

It makes sense, then, that the man who was once the youngest coach in NFL history hired the youngest offensive coordinator in college football. There is a kinship and a chemistry there, formed during the time they spent together at Alabama: Kiffin as offensive coordinator and mentor; Weis Jr. as offensive analyst and mentee.

Kiffin sees himself in Weis Jr., with their similar backgrounds, preternaturally gifted minds and love for offense making it easy to mesh. Although hiring a 25-year-old to call plays at Florida Atlantic seems unconventional to outsiders, Kiffin sees nothing out of the ordinary.

"Age is irrelevant. Experience is relevant," Kiffin said. "I can be 50 years old, and if I've only coached for three years, then I've only coached for three years. He was this child coaching prodigy. When everyone else was playing in college, he was coaching. He's coached with Will Muschamp at Florida, at Kansas with his dad, he's coached at Alabama with Nick Saban, and he's coached in Atlanta, and he's coached here. There's a lot of 40-year-olds that will never be able to say that.

"When you sit in his meetings, if you closed your eyes and just listened -- the way he commands a room, the way he commands the players, the other coaches way older than him -- you'd never guess he was 25."

Kiffin saw this first in 2015, when Weis Jr. interviewed at Alabama. Just 21 at the time, Weis Jr. had settled on coaching as a career since as long as he could remember. Watching his dad, Charlie Weis Sr., played a major role, but Weis Jr. also realized at a young age that he was not a very good athlete.

He started helping his dad around the Notre Dame football offices. Eventually, he became a fixture on the sideline during Notre Dame games, often drawing the ire of more traditional Irish fans who wondered what business the 14-year-old son of the head coach had wearing a headset and helping.

It was during that time that Weis Jr. saw the ugly side of coaching, often hearing criticism from peers at his high school, not to mention the nastiness reserved for his dad during the team's struggles.

Yet he remained steadfast in his desire to get into coaching.

"There's always the highs and lows of it," Weis Jr. said. "When things are going great, it's awesome. You've won Super Bowls. The first couple years at Notre Dame were really good, and those moments are really incredible, but the last couple years, you get fired. You go to Kansas, and you get fired and have to deal with those moments. You can't sugarcoat it. They hurt really bad, and the biggest thing is my dad always turned it into a life lesson. No matter what you do, sometimes things don't work out, but if it's something you love, don't give up on it. The experience working with the players and being with them every day and seeing them grow is something that's so valuable and such an amazing experience. To me, that overrides having to move a lot of times and having to deal with getting fired at some point, which everyone has happen to them."

The initial plan for college was to work with Muschamp at Texas. In his senior year of high school, Weis Jr. went to the Texas-Texas A&M game and visited with Muschamp, the Longhorns' defensive coordinator at the time, and then-coach Mack Brown. But Muschamp ended up becoming the head coach at Florida. Both Weis Jr. and his father went to Gainesville before going to Kansas, where Weis Jr. continued to hone his skills on offense, and he worked an internship one summer with the New England Patriots.

"He'd know the offense better than most of the assistant coaches knew it, at least walking in the door, which gave them a valuable resource," Weis Sr. said. "There'd be times the assistants, they don't want to ask you a question, so they go to him. It was kind of funny watching the assistants going to an 18-year old kid, asking, 'Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?' He'd explain it without them coming to me and me saying, how do you not know this? It was a helpful tool for him."

An assistant Weis Jr. worked with at Kansas eventually landed at Alabama. Eric Kiesau sat in a staff meeting and heard Nick Saban say they needed to bring in a new offensive analyst. Kiesau pulled Kiffin aside and said, "I've got the guy. He has a special name, but don't worry about the name. Just trust me. Get him here."

So Weis Jr. got an interview with Saban and Kiffin, fresh out of college.

"I was extremely nervous going into it," Weis Jr. said. "But they are very easy to talk to. When I was in there, they made me feel really comfortable. We had good conversations, and I felt really good after."

A few days later, Saban called to tell Weis Jr. that he was hired and asked point-blank, "When can you get here?" Two days later, Weis Jr. walked into the football offices in Tuscaloosa. Weis Sr. ran into Saban's administrative assistant, Linda Leoni, who worked for the Jets at the same time Weis Sr. did in the late 1990s. The last time she had seen Weis Jr. was in 1999, when he was 6 years old.

"So she goes, 'Well, he's going to have tough shoes to fill because the guy he's replacing was really good,'" Weis Sr. recalled. "I said, 'Give him a couple months, Linda. In a couple months, I'll ask you how he's doing and see if you still miss the other guy.' I knew where this was headed, but you have to let people see it on their own."

Kiffin quickly learned to trust Weis Jr. and loaded more and more on his plate. Weis Jr. responded to every request, often turning in his future scouting reports days early.

"His intelligence level, it's not good, it's not great, it's not phenomenal -- it's off the charts," Kiesau said. "He has a photographic memory. At Alabama, he was on the headset during games, and he would go back through a series and tell you exactly what all 11 guys on defense did. Sometimes, you start to scratch your head and think, 'That really happened?' We'd go back on film days on Sunday, and we'd be like, 'Holy cow! This kid was right on every one of these plays.'"

By year two, almost every time Weis Jr. and Kiffin had a conversation, they would end up talking about the same group of plays. Weis Jr. began to anticipate Kiffin's play calls.

When Kiffin took the job as FAU coach, Weis Jr. was his first hire -- as tight ends coach. But two months later, Weis Jr. left to take a job as an offensive analyst with the Atlanta Falcons off a recommendation from Steve Sarkisian, whom he also knew from Alabama. "It was a chance to try out the NFL, see if I liked it, because if I never tried it, I'd never know," Weis Jr. said.

Weis Sr. recalls a conversation he had with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan last season.

"One of the first things he said when he saw me, he said, 'Coach, I couldn't believe when he opened his mouth and started talking football,'" Weis Sr. said. "'When he gets in front of the team and sits there and goes over the defensive personnel and goes over the scouting report, you sit there and look at him. I can't believe this kid talking to us is the one who's done all this work.'"

Meanwhile, after the season ended in Boca Raton, Kiffin needed an offensive coordinator to replace Kendal Briles, who left for the same job at Houston. Kiffin made his play for Weis Jr.

"Coach Kiffin is someone I look up to more than anyone in football, and when he offered me that job, I knew I could not turn him down twice after leaving the first time," Weis Jr. said. "When I got that offer, the second he said it, I said, 'Yes!' and it was the easiest decision I've ever had to make."

Kiffin feels the same way.

"I think I was 24 when I went to USC with Pete Carroll," Kiffin said. "Pete believed in people and never worried about their age. I learned that from him."