Commentary

Monte 'fired up' about Vols' future

Updated: October 30, 2009, 5:39 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Monte Kiffin is having a blast.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin and Monte Kiffin
AP Photo/Wade PayneMonte Kiffin, left, and his son Lane, have brought new energy to Tennessee.

Most guys his age are already retired or at least thinking about it. The only thing the 69-year-old Kiffin is thinking about is that next blitz, that next coverage, that next opponent.

Besides, he's having too much fun to quit.

"I don't golf. I don't fish. I don't play tennis. I don't bowl. How am I going to retire?" Kiffin says, his voice rising in a machine gun-like tone that fluctuates from a whisper to a hearty chuckle.

"I've got news for those coaches recruiting against us, and I'm not going to say who they are, that are telling kids who want to come play for us that I'm going to retire. I ain't retiring. Haven't even thought about it. We've got too good a thing going here. I'm fired up. Every day I come to work, I get a little more fired up."

And with good reason.

His Tennessee defense is playing lights-out. The Vols haven't given up an offensive touchdown in eight quarters, a span of 133 minutes since an opposing offense has reached their end zone.

For that matter, they've only allowed one trip inside their 20-yard line in the past two games.

And here's the best part as they prepare for South Carolina's visit Saturday night (ESPN, 7:45 ET) at Neyland Stadium: This is just the beginning.

Kiffin, the gray stubble on his face telltale evidence of the long nights spent in the film room, nods glowingly when asked how much more he'll be able to do as the talent improves and players have a whole year in his system.

"I think we're going to be pretty darned good, especially with the way it looks like recruiting is going right now," he said.

His son, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, is even more confident.

"I have to hold myself back sometimes because I look down the road and get so excited about how great we're going to be as we get people in that fit our system and we develop more depth and recruit more depth," Lane said. "It's going to be real exciting to see this team when you look at what's going on now with our defense -- some of the injuries, not a lot of depth and playing with some players that we love, but aren't necessarily system-fit players.

"I can't wait."

If he sounds like he's recruiting, he is.

Monte jokes that Lane and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron are never not recruiting.

"I look at him on Friday night before our game with Alabama last week, and he's got a phone to his ear," Monte said. "Some of the kids were calling him.

"I'm just having fun sitting back and watching it all, because this recruiting in the SEC is dog-eat-dog. Lane's not going to back down, either, and he's not going to quit on guys. That's not going to happen. He never quits thinking about recruiting. It's 24 hours."

And so is Monte.

He has more energy than most people in their 30s. And, yes, he's a little stooped as he approaches his 70s, and windy days wreak havoc with his familiar comb-over.

But when it comes to setting up a defense, getting players in position to make plays and scheming up the opposition, Monte remains well ahead of his time.

There aren't a lot of secrets, either. His trademark is the same as it was when he was running the famed "Tampa 2" with the Bucs.

It starts with being fundamentally sound in every area, keeping everything in front of you and not being predictable.

"If you're going to hit a pass on them, there's going to be somebody close to him when he catches it," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who coached against Monte when he was in his final season with the Redskins in 2003.

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesMonte Kiffin quieted critics who questioned whether he could transition to the college game.

For the record, the Bucs won 35-13, collected six sacks and scored a defensive touchdown.

Spurrier said all of Monte's defenses look the same.

"His players are in position and play their assignments every play," Spurrier said. "That's what great offenses and defenses do. They're fundamentally sound, and there are very few mistakes by his players. And he gives them something they can do. They don't have 50 different defenses every play. They play their defense, and players have confidence and know what they're doing."

Set to make $1.5 million this season, including a retention bonus at the end of the year, Monte is far and away the highest paid assistant coach in college football.

But few would argue on Rocky Top that he hasn't been worth every penny.

It's an investment that will only continue to pay dividends as top defensive prospects around the country are lining up to play in Monte's NFL-style system.

The guy who brought him to Tennessee, his son, still gets a laugh out of some of the chatter that was out there about Monte having to make the adjustment from the NFL to the college game.

"I just smiled, because I knew what he was going to do with this defense," Lane said. "I actually heard it from recruits. Other coaches were telling them that. Funny how you don't hear that much anymore."

Monte is quick to point out that he cut his teeth in the college game, calling the defensive signals for Nebraska's 1970 and 1971 national championship teams under Bob Devaney.

"Coaching is coaching," Monte said. "Now if they put 12 on the field and we only have 11, then we've got a problem. But that hasn't happened yet. The field's the same. The hash marks are different. That's about the only difference, that and the time restraints you have with the players."

Monte's influence has been particularly noticeable this season at halftime. The Vols' defensive adjustments have almost always been on the money.

Not counting the opener against Western Kentucky, which was a rout by the second quarter, the Vols have given up just two offensive touchdowns in the second half all season.

They've allowed just 14 plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or longer, including only two in the past two games against Alabama and Georgia.

Only four times all season has Tennessee's defense given up a play that was longer than 25 yards.

The only real blip on the Vols' defensive résumé this season came after middle linebacker Nick Reveiz was hurt in the Ohio game, and his absence was glaring the next week against Auburn when the Vols were breaking in Savion Frazier at that position. Frazier hadn't played middle linebacker since the eighth grade.

But he's played much better the past two games, and so have the Vols.

"We're not the Steel Curtain or anything like that by any means, and we've been playing banged-up a little bit," Monte said. "But the players are playing extremely hard right now and understanding what we're trying to get done."

The old guy coaching them ain't half bad, either.

Chris Low covers SEC football for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.

Chris Low | email

College Football