Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin has done a lot of talking since he arrived in Knoxville. His comments - some boastful, some accusatory - have drawn national attention. Whether by design or not, Kiffin's talking points have made headlines from ESPN to Newsweek.
But it's his actual, honest-to-goodness football statements that should have Vol fans feeling good about the future. Forget the "you'll pump gas" nonsense and take note of the gridiron messages this staff is sending.
Attack The Weakest Link
New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney recently told a collection of high school coaches that his staff will find the weakest player on the opposing defense and attack him. Repeatedly.
Why is that good to hear? Because for years you've heard coaches like Steve Spurrier say, "Tennessee is going to do what Tennessee does."
Year-in and year-out, the game plans against Florida looked an awful lot like the game plans against Alabama, Georgia or Kentucky. In the 1990s, UT had the talent to be somewhat predictable. They could enforce their will on their opponents. But in the 2000s, it caught up with them.
"We do what we do," is a far cry from the NFL, where so many current Vol coaches have worked. In the pros, game planning plays a bigger role than it does in the college game. Teams are reinvented from one week to the next. Heck, some of the best franchises are downright schizophrenic in their approach.
One week, a team might target their opponent's linebackers with numerous passes to a tight end. The next, they might run 40 times at a suspect defensive line, while that same tight end might never catch a ball. A week later, they might exploit a weak secondary with 40 passes from the shotgun and only a handful of runs.
That's now what Tennessee's coaches say they want to do.
If UT's coaches can indeed utilize their players in different ways each week, they'll have an advantage over several SEC coaches who still prefer to simply "do what they do."
A More Intense Weightroom
In October of 2007, I wrote a column in which I spoke to nine former Tennessee players who still had contact with the program. Weightroom intensity was a concern mentioned by several of those ex-Vols.
"Tennessee's workouts are just not as competitive and intense as they used to be," one former Vol told me at the time.
Another said, "I've seen guys drop by the weightroom with their bookbags between classes. That didn't happen when I played. You didn't go in there to talk and break the focus of guys who were working out. If you're not working out, you're not in there."
Fast forward to the present day. Now players have to wear matching gear to workouts. No jewelry. No iPods. No ballcaps. No skipping reps at the weightbench. And someone is always watching, always monitoring. The weightroom is all business.
The current Vols have said that that's been an adjustment. And some former UT athletes no longer feel comfortable even going into the weightroom. More intense? Absolutely.
A More Competitive Practice
Another concern mentioned by former Vols back in that 2007 piece was a drop in the competitive nature of Tennessee's practices.
"We used to really get after it on scout team," one ex-Vol told me. "Then they started telling us to 'stand here, don't move, you might get someone hurt.' "
Fast forward to the present day. No green jerseys. More hitting. More contact.
Another former Vol told me in 2007, "Practice was like a game. You think Al Wilson and Peyton Manning didn't view practice as competition? It was all about winning those little battles in practice. And when you're used to doing it in practice, it carries over in games."
And now? Faster drills. A greater sense of competition. A non-existent depth chart with only All-American safety Eric Berry's job secure. In fact, in a much told story, the players have become so competitive that they actually refused to leave the field after a recent practice session, preferring to run one more play. And then another. And then another.
More competitive in practice? Someone find the "Mission Accomplished" banner.
Better In The Long Run
Kiffin and his staff are addressing the areas that need addressing. Where Tennessee was once viewed as predictable, the Vols now want to make major game plan adjustments from one week to the next.
Where players had once seen a decline in weightroom intensity, Kiffin has turned up the heat.
Where players had once seen a decline in competitiveness on the practice field, Kiffin has now made every job up for grabs and every player open to being hit.
All that said, with the current talent level, it's hard to imagine the Vols will be able to make a giant leap forward this fall. The pay-off to the recent changes may come down the road, if at all.
But for now at least, the messages that Kiffin and his staff are sending sound like the answers to many fans' prayers.
John Pennington hosts the The Enrichment Sports Source on Sundays at 11 a.m. on WATE.