Cutcliffe on Chavis-Sanders

You get the feeling former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe wouldn't trade anyone for the tandem of Randy Sanders calling plays and John Chavis orchestrating defenses.

Cutcliffe should know. He coached with both at Tennessee.
Is Cutcliffe biased? Yes.
Is he right? Perhaps.

Sanders' stock as an offensive coordinator shot up the charts last season when his innovative play calling from the sideline for a pair of true freshmen quarterbacks spawned blue-chip results.

Chavis' defenses have ranked among the best in the SEC for the better part of his 10 years as UT's defensive coordinator.

Is there a better coordinator duo in the SEC? No - not if you discount head coaches as coordinators.

You might prefer LSU with offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and his $400,000 salary and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. But Pelini, whose recent background has been the Big 12, hasn't proven himself in the SEC.

Al Borges did a marvelous job as Auburn's offensive coordinator last year, but the Tigers have a first-year defensive coordinator in David Gibbs.

Charlie Strong is Florida's defensive coordinator. The offensive coordinator is Dan Mullen, who ran Utah's offense last year.

You might like South Carolina, but that's counting Steve Spurrier as the offensive coordinator. The co-defensive coordinators are John Thompson and Tyrone Nix.

Chavis and Sanders (entering his seventh season) are the dean of coordinators in the SEC. And they have earned the respect of Cutcliffe, known as a solid play caller and outstanding developer of quarterbacks.

What makes Sanders a good offensive coordinator?

``He's extremely intelligent,'' Cutcliffe said. ``The thing that made Randy special as a player is he understood what we were doing. He was always functional with the offense. I think Randy has a sound approach, he understands the answers and he's been in the system a long time.''

Twenty years, to be exact.

Twenty years, learning from the likes of Walt Harris, Phillip Fulmer, Kippy Brown and Cutcliffe.

Cutcliffe likes Sanders' ability to game plan.

``I always felt five sets of eyes were better than one,'' Cutcliffe said.

So, when Cutcliffe was Tennessee's offensive coordinator, he sought input from the entire staff, especially Sanders.

Cutcliffe had a form for the assistants to fill out and systematically put a game plan together on paper. But Cutcliffe readily admits it isn't just about schemes.

``As Kippy Brown liked to say, it's not about X's and O's, it's about Jimmys and Joes,'' Cutcliffe said. ``What can your personnel do?''

That's a critical part of the equation.

``No doubt, you have to make an evaluation of where a quarterback is mentally and physically,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Sometimes, the mental part is more important because you won't play well if you don't understand what you're doing. One of the keys to being a good quarterback coach is understanding what they know. Sometimes, that's harder than you think.''

Sanders said he won't call a play if the quarterback isn't comfortable with it - even if it might be the right answer for a particular defense.

Cutcliffe is impressed with Sanders' in-game adjustments.

``He took a Texas A&M defense that was highly thought of and dissected it,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He gives you a lot of looks.''

Chavis was amazed at how Sanders took two freshmen quarterbacks - Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer - and called plays for them at the line of scrimmage, milking the play clock and forcing the defenses' hand.

``If Randy knows what the defense will do, he knows how to attack it,'' Chavis said. ``He does a good job of getting players in the best situation to make plays. You've got to be brilliant to do that.''

Chavis has faced offenses that called plays at the line.

``It forces you to be disciplined,'' Chavis said. ``It forces you to line up in one or two looks. It forces you to hold your hand a little bit. You have to give one look, then play another.''

Chavis called Sanders a ``great'' play caller. ``It's amazing some of the things we've been able to do,'' Chavis said. ``Everybody thinks we've got the best personnel in the country. We've got good personnel, but we've got problems, just like everybody else. You do things to cover up the problems the best you can.''

Few defensive coordinators do that better than Chavis. His cerebral approach and aggressive style have stamped him as one of the nation's top defensive coordinators.

``From an X and O standpoint, he's outstanding,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He's tough in practice. He's versatile. He always has a great third-down package. He does a great job with his blitz package. He's a real good first-down coach.

``But the true test of a coach is how much his players respect him and how much he gets out of them. John has always been able to get the most out of his players and they play hard for him.''

Chavis loves to blitz. At times, that has left the UT secondary vulnerable, especially the corners.

``He's aggressive by nature,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He doesn't hold anything back. He knows what his tendencies are and he knows he'll be studied. There's a fine line in doing what you know to be successful and not worrying about being predictable.

``There was a period of time, way back, when he was in so much man to man, people played on that fact. But he adapted his package. John is front oriented. He's going to stop the run first. That puts a lot of pressure on the secondary. But if John doesn't have people in the secondary that can perform, he won't put them in that position.''

What's the best way to attack a Chavis defense? ``Make him defend the entire field, have a good plan to handle pressure and find a matchup in the secondary you can take advantage of,'' Cutcliffe said.

Last season, in Cutcliffe's only game coaching against Tennessee, he didn't have the quarterback at Ole Miss to attack the Vols.

``We had to try to whip them up front and we didn't have much chance to whip them,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I can't say I enjoyed going against him. Yards (257) and points (10 by the offense) were tough to come by.''

If Cutcliffe had Chavis as his defensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Cutcliffe might still be the Rebels head coach.

``We'd have been much more successful,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Not just with the package, but how to practice and get a team ready. That's one thing I struggled with, finding a common ground on what I thought it took to get a team ready.''

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