Tennessee strides exciting to Kiffin
Posted: Monday, January 4, 2010 5:40 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Lane Kiffin’s first season as Tennessee coach didn’t quite end the way he’d like. Still he feels that the Volunteers are on their way to bigger things.
Look at the turnaround the Vols offense has made, he says. Or the way players improved dramatically. Or how Tennessee came closer to beating No. 1 Alabama than any other team.
“I know there’s a ton of excitement about what we’re doing, and we’re just getting started,” Kiffin said.
The 34-year-old coach stirred up plenty of that excitement this season with his own brash comments but proved he could prepare his team to compete in one of the toughest conferences in the country. Now Kiffin has to show he can take it a step further by making a run for a Southeastern Conference championship.
But first he’s got to replace a coach and a few top players.
The Vols finished their season 7-5 with a 37-14 loss to No. 12 Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Thursday. They str-uggled to run the ball, protect quarterback Jonathan Crompton or stop Hokies running back Ryan Williams.
Tennessee played that game without a coach in charge of running backs or special teams after assistant coach Eddie Gran left earlier in December to become an assistant at Florida State.
Rumors swirled in the week before the bowl game that Kiffin, who already replaced one assistant who left, had hired Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Rich Bisaccia to fill the special teams position. But Kiffin said he wanted to wait until after the season was finished to make any more coaching moves.
The Vols are losing a number of top notch players, including All-American safety Eric Berry, who has said he will enter the NFL draft as a junior. Berry, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, is projected as an early first-round pick.
“I really just wanted to make sure there was no stone unturned,” Berry said of the decision. “I sat down with coach Kiffin and talked about it and talked about it with my family and talked with some of my close teammates and friends about the whole situation.”
Tennessee is also losing some seniors who could find themselves being drafted come April. Players like tailback Montario Hardesty, defensive tackle Dan Williams and offensive tackle Chris Scott impressed NFL scouts during the 2009 season.
Crompton and company helped to put together strong wins over teams like Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky and nearly pulled off major upsets at Florida and Alabama.
Still, the Vols lost at home to UCLA, were blown out by Mississippi and had a few off-the-field embarrassments too.
Freshmen Nu’Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards were dismissed after they and freshman Janzen Jackson were arrested in an alleged armed robbery at a Knoxville convenience store. Jackson was allowed to return to the team after charges against him were dropped.
Tennessee also confirmed in December that the NCAA is looking into the activities of members of the university’s Orange Pride student ambassador program as possible recruiting violations.
The university reported six minor NCAA violations in Kiffin’s first year for his efforts in recruiting.
Kiffin has joked that his biggest challenge in his first season as a college coach was following all the rules.
Still, he knows all the attention helped pay off in recruiting, where he signed a top 10 class for 2009 just weeks after being hired and is building a 2010 signing class that ranks in the top 20.
“I said it before, I don’t regret anything that I did,” he said. “I thought that it was important to get us out there and we couldn’t have a long-term plan and wait around and say we didn’t sign many guys because we didn’t have much time.
“We don’t believe in excuses like that.”