“It's really fun to have a young coach,” junior defensive end Chris Walker said recently. “He's really active and he really can relate to us. It's really fun for us.”
Although he has since toned down his act, Kiffin's youthful exuberance led him to make some controversial remarks during his first two months on the job. ESPN made a big deal of them but Tennessee's players did not.
“I really don't pay too much attention to it,” Walker said of the head man's national image. “I'm a football player. That's what we're here to do – play football, try to get better every day, work towards being a good team next fall. We don't pay too much attention to it. I've heard of it but I really don't pay too much attention to it.”
One thing Tennessee's players have paid attention to is the increased pace and intensity of Kiffin's practices.
“It's been a lot different than what we were used to, and I think that's what we needed – a change-up,” Walker said. “Practice is really competitive, which is something that we needed.”
Helping make practice more competitive was Kiffin's declaration that All-American safety Eric Berry was the only Vol with a starting job locked up. The fact every other position was up for grabs spurred some 2008 backups to show more energy and determination than ever before.
“Some of the guys didn't get a chance to get a look last year, and some of those guys are coming out and playing really hard,” Walker said. “I think that's what we needed to create depth in our program.”
Although the Vols performed many of the same drills this spring as last spring, they clearly were more enthusiastic about them. That probably could be traced to an unusually aggressive and animated coaching staff that set an enthusiastic tone.
Noting that the style of practice is “not that different,” Walker added: “It's just the energy around the program right now. The new coaches came in with a lot of energy and we all caught on to it. When our coaches are jumping around, we're having fun and they're playing music, getting us hyped on the goal line ... that's something that's really a positive for us.”
Ah, yes ... the music. Whereas the previous coaching staff piped in crowd noise during practice, Kiffin piped in hop-hop music during some late-spring workouts. The Vols responded with even more energy.
“It was something different,” Walker conceded, “but I think it's going to be a little tradition around here from now on.”