When Lane Kiffin initiated his first spring camp as Tennessee's football coach, he turned heads by declaring that every position on the field, save for that of Eric Berry, was open for competition.
Now the Vols are 4-4, fresh off Kiffin's first-ever win against a top 25 team and again seeing Kiffin opening up competition for playing time on both sides of the ball.
"We've opened up a couple of starting spots for competition to make sure that guys understand that we need to continue to improve and get ready for a tough game," Kiffin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "We're opening up the left guard spot, we're going to open the nickel corner spot, the fullback spot, we're going to open up the left-end on third down, the MIKE (middle) linebacker spot and the back-up D-tackle spot.
"There will be a lot of competition this week for guys to earn playing time and to make sure that guys are practicing extremely physical."
Defensive tackle Dan Williams, whose play has surged dramatically in recent weeks, learned to embrace the competition months ago and has seen it boost the entire team's practice demeanor.
"I mean, me personally, I would probably say it doesn't really surprise me. Coach has been preaching competition ever since he's been here," said Williams, who notched a sack and a quarterback hurry in the 31-13 win against South Carolina. "It keeps guys on top of their game. We've got a lot of good guys on second team and I know those guys want to play more. I really respect that because coach Kiffin is giving these guys an opportunity to show what they can do and sometimes as a starter, you can get settled into your position and just get content on what you're doing. It makes you go out and practice harder and get better every week.
"Coach Kiffin is going to play the best player. You might be the best player that week or the backup might be the better play that week and he's going to play them."
While Brent Vinson is getting a chance to climb back from the depths at cornerback, the closest position battle might be the one at fullback between incumbent Kevin Cooper and challenger Austin Johnson. Both players caught touchdown passes against the Gamecocks.
"It's awesome. That's the cool thing about coach Kiffin, it's always competition every day at practice," said Johnson. "Today is going to be competition Tuesday and we're going to go out there and work hard and everyone is fighting for that starting job and it's not just the starting job. It's never set. It's always open and that's the cool thing about this staff.
"It's a really healthy competition. Me and Coop, I think that I push him and he pushes me. I think every day at practice if one of us is slacking or isn't doing good, it kind of picks us up and keeps us working hard. I think me and Kevin will always have a great relationship and always be pushing each other. And that's awesome to have because it's only going to make you a better player each and every day."
Cory Sullins is battling fellow senior and two-year starter Vlad Richard at left guard. Sullins has started the last month after Richard was injured and has been praised by Kiffin for his gritty play. The battle at left end appears to be between Ben Martin, Gerald Williams and Willie Bohannon.
"We don't know. Maybe we stay in base the whole game. It's going to depend. It's going to depend on how the MIKE's playing, on how the nickel is playing on how we're playing in general. There's a lot of different things to look at," Kiffin said. "We're going to get Brent Vinson a chance. Brent's not played on defense very much at all lately, since the Ohio game. It's time to give him a shot again. He played very well on special teams last week."
MONTE THE MAN
When Monte Kiffin was introduced as Tennessee's defensive coordinator, virtually everyone associated with the Vols' program had an awareness of Kiffin's defensive prowess in the NFL.
They'd heard the stories, too. But was it true that the 69-year-old NFL legend really was that energetic? That consumed by film study? Well yes, judging by the Vols' defensive stats through eight games and the first-hand account of Dan Williams.
"It's exciting. When I first heard he was going to be the defensive coordinator, I was excited. I didn't know what to do. I was like a little kid in the candy story," Williams said. "I mean happy and then I actually once I did meet him, it was like a whole different story. Everything I've heard about him, being a great coach, his enthusiasm about football. That really surprised me. At that age, about 70, and you're telling me he's jumping around? Then when I saw it with my own eyes, I was like, ‘OK, coach Kiffin is for real.'
"Everything you've heard about him is true. He's a great coach. He's in the film room. I would say he's like a wizard. He always has tricks up his sleeve and he knows everything. I sometimes think coach Kiffin can look into the future and just predict things. It's been a real blessing to play under coach Monte Kiffin."
Even Tennessee's head coach has marveled at his father's ability to relate to today's college players.
"He's just so unbelievable with the players. I guess from being around him in training camps and stuff, but not ever truly working with him, the way he is with our players and how he motivates them every day ... nothing changes," Lane Kiffin said. "Every day you come in and every day he's still there at 2 in the morning. He's going to find a way to motivate players and keep putting them in a position to win.
"We've had all the injuries, we didn't play with Chris Walker the last game and still played great on defense. It seems like it doesn't matter who goes down, he finds ways to out-scheme whoever we play and to motivate our players."
It isn't just current Vols with whom the elder Kiffin has shown he can connect, according to the head coach.
"Then when you see him with recruits and these recruits flock to him. We usually set up the recruiting schedule on the weekend for the defensive players to meet with him, but now coach (Ed) Orgeron and I have changed it so all the players meet with him," Lane Kiffin said. "Because when they go in with him they're so impressed with him, they see what he can do for them as far as making them more money at the next level when they come out for the draft."
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE
The game within the game Saturday when Tennessee faces Memphis is what most excites Dan Williams. He'll be opposing his best friend and former teammate, Tigers guard Malcom Rawls.
"We both signed here originally. This will be the first time me and him ever played against each other in anything. We usually have been on the same team since middle school. I mean, we do a lot of things together. Right now I guess he's closer to me than a best friend. He's like my brother. I mean, that's probably the only special meaning to me really," Williams said. "We keep in touch every week I talk to him. Try to see how football things are going or just everyday life. Me and him, I mean, we're very close and it's kind of like this game really has something on it for years later. We can always talk about it to our kids or family members. I just want to win so I can always tell him that I beat him."
Williams said it was tough to see Rawls also sign with the Vols and travel with him to Knoxville, only to transfer out of the program following the 2005 season. But, Williams maintained support for his longtime friend.
"At first it was. I mean, it's like a family member leaving. He was that close to me," Williams explained. "Freshman year I really didn't know anyone else besides my other teammates and we had kind of a special bond. And you know, when someone like that leaves, it's just like, 'Man, what do I do next?' Thoughts went through my mind about leaving. It wasn't just because he was leaving but there were other things going on at the time. I mean, like when kind of left, I was like, 'Man, what should I do? What's my next step?' But for the most part I think it's worked out. He kind of had to go his own way and it kind of made both of us a little stronger. Our bond. Things have worked out for him and worked out for me fine. But it's going to be exciting to just see him again on the field Saturday.
"It was personal reasons (that Rawls left). I could understand why he left and I mean, it was his decision in the end. It was his life and he felt it was the best decision for him, so I mean I can't do anything but agree, being his friend, but to support him."
Williams tries to get back home to the Bluff City whenever he can. But it's not always wise, he explained, to don his University of Tennessee gear when he does so.
"Well fans in general, yes. If I go back home and have a UT outfit on and I go to the mall or Wal-Mart, they'll be like, 'What are you doing with that on? You need to take that off and come home and leave that in Knoxville,'" Williams said. "I mean, it's always, especially during when I'm with my friends, they're like, 'Malcom you can't bring this guy around here.' It's all fun and games, but sometimes it's not fun and games. I remember when I first committed and had signed, I had my little UT license plate in front of my truck and then Memphis fan, this lady would not move from the red light. She stopped. It turned green and she waited until just the last second and I got stuck by the red light. She said, 'You made the dumbest decision of your life.' I just thought that was funny. There are always people out there who do stuff like that. Sometimes it can be a little adventure when you go home and have stuff like that on."
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