Monte Kiffin was watching video of prospective recruits this winter when he got an inkling of what he was up against as a college defensive coordinator. The more he watched, the better he understood why spread-option offenses have become so threatening to college defenses.
It's not just the option. It's the overhead support as well.
"I could not believe it till I started watching all the tape," said the longtime NFL defensive coordinator, who will command Tennessee's defense this fall. "The high school coaches have progressed so much in the passing game."
Kiffin noticed more than the sophisticated passing attacks in the high school videos. The proliferation of the zone-read option also got his attention. And why wouldn't it? It brought back memories of an old offensive nemesis. Long before the spread option was tormenting defensive coordinators, the wishbone was posing serious problems for college defenses.
When Kiffin called the defensive signals for the Nebraska defense in the early 1970s, Oklahoma's wishbone was his greatest challenge. He confronted that option attack at its peak when quarterback Jack Mildren was pitching and running back Greg Pruitt was catching; when your average college defense didn't have a clue how to slow it down.
Defenses are still chasing the spread option in college football. That's Kiffin's new challenge. His first test will come Sept. 19 in The Swamp when UT takes on the Florida Gators, who return seven offensive starters from a team that averaged 43.6 points per game on the way to the 2008 national championship.
Kiffin's wasn't so immersed in the NFL at Tampa Bay that he was oblivious to what was going on farther up I-75 in Gainesville. He knows about the Gators.
"I went to pro day at Florida a year ago," said Kiffin, who ran Tampa Bay's defense before joining his son, Lane, at UT. "I can tell you there were a lot of players who worked out. But the most impressive players were the younger underclassmen who weren't working out."
Those younger players, including Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow, are now the veterans on a team primed for a run at back-to-back national championships. An offensive system, which incorporates wishbone as well as single-wing principles, has showcased that talent.
And it presents a similar problem to what Kiffin faced in his early battles with the wishbone.
"We had five days to get ready for Oklahoma's option," Kiffin said of the 1971 game, which Nebraska won 35-31 en route to a national title. "We could not simulate their speed."
And he knows enough about the Gators to surmise, "It's difficult to simulate the speed of Florida in practice."
Of course, there's more to it than sheer speed. That's where Kiffin comes in. He has spent 40 years matching wits with offensive coordinators, with most of those chess matches occurring at NFL venues.
"You've always got new things in the pros," Kiffin said. "The coaches are all working in the 'laboratory.' They don't have to recruit."
No one was more comfortable in an NFL laboratory than Kiffin, whose reputation as a defensive guru was established years ago. That's one reason for UT fans to look forward to the Florida game.
Sure, the Gators should be a heavy favorite. But Kiffin will have a summer in the lab.
Maybe he can slow them down.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.