Shrouded in mystery

Lane Kiffin felt plenty of uncertainty as he approached his head coaching debut with the Oakland Raiders in 2007 ... but not nearly so much as he feels heading into his debut with the Tennessee Vols.

Although the Raiders were Kiffin's first head coaching job, there were some pluses that made that situation easier than the one he has inherited at Tennessee. For one thing, he'll be depending a lot more on rookies (true freshmen and redshirt freshmen) in Knoxville than he did in Oakland.

"I think it's really different because of all the freshmen we have playing," said Kiffin, who has nine first-year Vols listed on the two-deep depth chart for Saturday's opener vs. Western Kentucky.

Besides molding a team with a bunch of new players, the first-year Vol coach is still molding a staff with a bunch of new assistants.

"It's my first game and it's our whole staff's first game (at UT)," Kiffin noted. "At Oakland, a lot of the staff had already been there. The whole defensive staff had been there before and the majority of the players, besides your draft picks, had been there."

With a new head coach, nine new assistants, a glut of new players, a new offensive scheme and a new defensive scheme, Tennessee shapes up to be the mystery team of college football this season. Kiffin thinks that could help establish a feeling of team unity.

"We have so many new guys, it's kind of like we're all in this together," he said. "Every one of our coaches has never coached here, so it's kind of a different feeling. It's more of 'everybody in.' Instead of my first game, this is all of our first games and all of our first games together.

"It's exciting for us."

Another factor that makes Kiffin's Vol debut more unpredictable than his Raider debut is the stark contrast in preseasons. He learned a lot about the Raiders as they played four exhibition opponents in 2007. Conversely, he learned very little about the Vols as they staged three intrasquad scrimmages in 2009.

Kiffin conceded that getting a feel for your team is "way easier in the NFL because you get four preseason games. And a bunch of your players have played eight, nine, 10 years, so you know what they are."

By comparison, many of the players who will see action for Tennessee Saturday against Western Kentucky have little or no experience at the collegiate level.

"There's a lot of guessing to this, as far as 'How good are we going to be?' and 'How good is this guy going to play?'" Kiffin said. "We've done everything we can to figure it out ... but we really will never know until Saturday how they're going to be."

The head man added that keeping the younger Vols focused as they try to execute their assignments before 100,000-plus screaming fans at Neyland Stadium represents "a whole 'nother level we have to worry about."

Whereas keeping Tennessee's players focused may be difficult, keeping them motivated won't be.

"We're not going to have to get them excited and jacked up; that won't be our job," Kiffin said. "As awesome as the Vol Walk and running through the T is, there's another side to that: That's making sure we keep our players calm and that they don't use too much energy up before kickoff."

That was never a problem with the Raiders, for sure.

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