Being without middle linebackers Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier (season-ending ACL tears) is tough. Being without nickel back Marsalous Johnson (thumb surgery) is a blow, too. But the Vols still have Monte Kiffin coordinating their defense, and that's cause for optimism.
"We keep getting injuries but we still play great on defense," Lane Kiffin said. "It seems like it doesn't matter who goes down; he finds a way to outscheme whoever we play and motivate our players."
Monte Kiffin, a youthful 69, appears worthy of such praise. His defense did not allow an offensive touchdown for 10 consecutive quarters spanning all of Game 6 vs. Georgia, all of Game 7 vs. Alabama and the first half of Game 8 vs. South Carolina. That's pretty amazing, considering that the stop unit has had to overcome the loss of six starters from the 2008 defense and the loss of Reveiz in Game 4 of '09.
Kiffin spent 26 years coaching in the NFL prior to joining the Vol staff in January, so his knowledge of the game was never in doubt. The key question on a lot of minds was: How will he relate to college kids after working with professional players for so long?
Suffice to say, that question has been answered: And the answer is that Monte Kiffin relates beautifully to college kids.
"He's just so unbelievable with the players," Lane Kiffin said. "Being around him in training camps and stuff but not every truly working with him, (I'm impressed by) the way he is with our players and how he motivates them every day. Nothing changes. Every day you come in and he's still there at 2 o'clock in the morning. He's going to find a way to motivate our players, put them in the best position to win."
Another question when Monte came aboard the Big Orange Express last winter was how much help a man his age could be in Tennessee's recruiting efforts. The answer to that question: A bunch.
"Recruits flock to him," Lane Kiffin said. "We used to set up the recruiting schedules on weekends for the defensive players to meet with him. Now Ed Orgeron and I have changed it so that all of the players meet with him - whether they're defensive guys or not - because they're so impressed with him. They see what he can do for them, as far as making 'em more money at the next level off of the draft."
What he can do for their NFL Draft stock is only a small part of the equation, however. The players recognize that Monte Kiffin has made them better individually and has made the defense better as a unit.
"When I first heard he was going to be defensive coordinator I was excited," senior defensive tackle Dan Williams recalled. "I was like, 'Man!' I didn't know what to do. I was like a little kid in a candy store, you know? I was so happy.
"Then when I got to meet him, everything I'd heard about him was true - about him being a great coach and his enthusiasm for football. It really surprised me that a man that age - almost 70 - was jumping around. I seen with my own eyes ... OK, Coach Kiffin is for real. Everything they say about him is true: He's a great football coach."
After three decades in the coaching profession, Monte Kiffin has seen just about everything that can happen in a football game. Nothing seems to surprise him. In fact, he seems to know what's coming before it happens.
"He's like a wizard," Williams said. "He always has a trick up his sleeve and he knows everything. Sometimes I think Coach Kiffin can look into the future and predict things. It's a real blast to player to play under Monte Kiffin."