There've been big changes at Tennessee. Clearly it's a new day for Volunteer football.
Phillip Fulmer, whose time with UT dates as far back as the historic Mule Game vs. Ole Miss in 1969 as a player, a contest won by the Rebels 38-0, no longer roams the sideline as head coach.
Lane Kiffin, fired by the Oakland Raiders after two years as head coach and looking for a home, landed on his feet in Knoxville. The 34-year-old takes over a Vol program that has fallen on hard times by Tennessee standards.
Tennessee was 5-7 (3-5 SEC) in 2008, and Fulmer found out during the season he wouldn't be retained. Enter Kiffin.
Certainly during the past few months he's made good copy for journalists and radio talk show hosts as well as fodder for college football fans. It was perhaps a part of the plan.
"Tennessee football has been the most talked about football program in all of college football through the offseason," Lane Kiffin said. "Think about that statement. If you're a 17 year old kid, all the way down to eighth grade, if you've seen Tennessee's logo more than any other school, and you've seen our staff talked about, our players talked about, we're creating interest, and it's shown."
Since Kiffin was hired to bring UT football back, in addition to getting the Tennessee name out there, another order of business was to hire a staff. He brought veteran defensive mind Monte Kiffin, his dad, to coordinate that side of the ball. He added former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron to coach the defensive line, coordinate recruiting, and serve as his assistant head coach.
He picked up Eddie Gran, a former Ole Miss assistant, who departed Auburn with the firing of Tommy Tuberville. Gran will coach running backs and special teams. Former Ole Miss assistant Frank Wilson, at Southern Miss last season, will coach receivers.
That's not all the staff, obviously, but Kiffin has meshed old and young while mixing in experienced SEC coaches. The collective UT staff has 35 years of NFL experience and 118 years of college coaching background.
"As we set out to put a staff together," Lane Kiffin said, "I wanted to make sure we had two things. We did not hire anybody who was a great recruiter but couldn't coach, or anybody who was a great coach but couldn't recruit."
They'll need to use all that apparent expertise to put together a winning team in 2009. Tennessee returns seven offensive starters and five defensive starters from last season's squad which won its last two games over eventual bowl champions Vanderbilt and Kentucky to salvage something.
Two quarterbacks with playing time return. Jonathan Compton and Nick Stephens shared duties last season, with Compton starting six games and Stephens six. The Vol coaches continue to work through the preseason to find a starter for the opener against Western Kentucky on Sept. 5 in Knoxville.
Running back Arian Foster's departure after a successful career opened an opportunity for two returnees to take over in the backfield. Montario Hardesty and Tauren Poole gained experience last season and battled in the spring. Kevin Cooper, a junior, returns at fullback.
Junior Brandon Warren has been moved from tight end to wide receiver. Experienced receivers Gerald Jones and Austin Rogers also return at the WR position. Two-year letterwinner Luke Stocker is back at tight end along with senior Jeff Cottam, who battled injuries last spring.
Senior-laden is one way to describe the offensive line. Veteran senior center Josh McNeil started every game last fall but was in a spring battle heading into fall camp with senior Cody Sullins for the position. Seniors LT Chris Scott and LG Vladimir Richard return along the offensive front.
Seniors also weigh heavily as returnees on the defensive front. Seniors DT Wes Brown and DT Dan Williams are back. Senior LB Rico McCoy and junior SS Eric Berry are the leading returning tacklers on the squad with 87 and 72 total stops respectively.
Junior Chad Cunningham, who averaged nearly 40 yards a punt last season in a part-time role, is back. Junior PK Daniel Lincoln returns after a 10-for-18 year in the field goal department.
The kick return position could be up for grabs with several newcomers involved, but junior Dennis Rogan is back. He averaged five yards a punt return and 25 yards a kick return in '08. Junior Gerald Jones also returned punts and kicks last fall, averaging 10 and 38 respectively.
Lane Kiffin said he knows it's win big or else at Tennessee.
"We know what conference we're in. We know what school we're at," he said. "The school and the people around us expect us to win. They expect us to win a lot of games. I love being a part of that. I would not want to be somewhere where the expectations are down because that's not who I am. I want to be around people that want to operate at the highest level and be in the most competitive conference and be at the top of it every single year."
The Volunteer program attempts to begin a climb back to the top. UT hasn't won an SEC crown since 1998, when it also won the national championship. That's 11 years, considered by Big Orange faithful a drought on Rocky Top. Lane Kiffin and company were brought in to get the Vols back to that level.
This season the Vols are picked by most as a middle of the pack SEC East team, following Florida and Georgia and in some polls South Carolina. A bowl bid with six or seven wins would be considered a step in the right direction in year one of the Lane Kiffin program.
Ole Miss and Tennessee, longtime rivals who formerly waged annual battles prior to the East-West split in SEC football in 1992, play in Oxford on Nov. 14. It's the first meeting since 2005 when UT won 27-10 in Knoxville.
The Volunteers lead the all-time series 43-18 and there's been one tie. Ole Miss last won in 1983, a 13-10 victory in Knoxville. Tennessee has won 12 straight games in the series since then.
Scouting The Opponents: Tennessee
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