"This spring is going to be very, very big for our returning players," the new coach said. "There's going to be highly competitive practices they'll be involved with, and they have got to show us what they're going to do ... because in the fall, the first shot that's going to come, I'm going to give it the newcomers.
"We've got to find out if the great players we go and recruit ... can they help us right away? We're going to go find these players and put 'em right in, see what they can do, how far can they take it."
Kiffin said Vol signees will have "a great shot" to make immediate impact in an offense so user-friendly that it made immediate superstars of Southern Cal's Reggie Bush, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, LenDale White, Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett and Patrick Turner. When Kiffin joined the USC staff in 2001, however, the offense was nothing more than some concepts and diagrams.
"We showed a blueprint," the new Vol coach said. "We didn't have proof of it. We had to say, 'This is the system. You're going to come, we're going to plug you in and give you a great opportunity to play as a freshman. How far you take that is up to you.'"
Several elite prospects took the bait, then set freshman records and earned Freshman All-America honors at USC. That made recruiting the next batch of superstars a lot easier. Kiffin was no longer selling a blueprint; he was selling a proven formula. It is the same formula he is now selling in Knoxville.
"The best proof I have is to go through and take the receivers we had when I first got there at USC," Kiffin said. "We broke all kinds of records for freshmen – national records at times. That allowed us to come in a few years later and sit in (Nashville native) Patrick Turner's house and show him the evidence. That's why Patrick Turner is not here (playing for UT) today.
"That's what we have to start here. And that will set us up to have the best recruiting classes in the country for years to come."
Kiffin released all of UT's 2008 staffers except four offensive aides – Greg Adkins, Stan Drayton, Latrell Scott and Jason Michael – who are on the road recruiting while their fates are being determined.
"We've hit the ground running in recruiting," Kiffin said, noting that he inherited "a very good roster, but we have got to make it better. We've got to go out and we've got to get great players to come in here to work with them."
Tennessee produces very few players of the Patrick Turner caliber. Still, Kiffin insisted that in-state recruiting will be a priority.
"As we are nationally recruiting, we will never forget the state of Tennessee," he said. "We've got to put a fence around the state of Tennessee. We've got to make it so there is no reason a player from Tennessee should ever leave this state and go anywhere else. They need to be here playing for us, winning championships for the University of Tennessee. That would be our No. 1 goal in recruiting, as well as going nationally."
Kiffin went on to promise that UT will "go everywhere to find the best players in the United States" in order that "we can do this thing and make a run for a very long time."
Although Tennessee averaged just 17.3 points per game in 2008, the Vols return some good offensive players – tailbacks Montario Hardesty, Lennon Creer and Tauren Poole, wideout Gerald Jones, tight ends Luke Stocker and Brandon Warren, for instance. Even so, Kiffin insists that everyone will be starting 2009 with a clean slate.
"I don't care what you've done before," he said. "I don't care how many stars you had in recruiting. I don't care how many yards you had or how many tackles you had. It doesn't mean anything now. I don't even care if you're on scholarship or not....
"They're going to earn their starting spots. Not one of those guys is a starter right now. They're going to earn it, and it's going to be based on what they do in the spring."
And, perhaps more importantly, what the freshmen do in the fall.