As Tennessee started bowl practice started on Friday evening, part of the focus surrounding Lane Kiffin's program is his staff. A staff that has not only drawn great acclaim since its inception but is now drawing great interest from other schools as staff changes around the country are in full swing.
Wide receivers coach Frank Wilson was back from the recruiting trail Friday evening and working his receivers on the practice field. Wilson hit the practice field late after spending a few minutes with Kiffin and the two were to talk more in-depth after practice as Wilson mulls an offer from LSU to double his current salary to $300,000 and join Les Miles' LSU staff in his home state of Louisiana.
In addition to Wilson, running backs coach Eddie Gran is being coveted by new Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher. Kiffin confirmed on Friday that Fisher had called him to get permission to speak to the South Florida recruiting ace. The Seminoles are reportedly in the market for a running backs coach as Dexter Carter is not going to be retained.
Like Wilson, Kiffin was planning on visiting with Gran after Friday's practice. With the staff on the road recruiting all week, Kiffin had not had a chance to visit with either of them. Kiffin also indicated that there was nothing going on with Ed Orgeron and other jobs.
And clearly, Kiffin wants to keep his staff intact but is not surprised that other schools are trying to hire his assistant coaches.
"I think that is going to happen here a lot," Kiffin said of schools seeking staff members. "I think we have hired a great staff. Guys are going to come after them. They see what we are doing on the field and what we are doing in recruiting. Whenever you are having as much success as we are, people are going to come after them. So we have to do everything in our power to keep them here."
Both Wilson and Orgeron declined to meet with reporters.
Junior wideout Gerald Jones is no stranger to having a new coach having endured coaching changes at his position each of his first two years in Knoxville. The Oklahoma City product doesn't expect to be greatly impacted should Wilson leave, but he also praises the first-year coach's role in the group's season-long evolution.
"Not at all. I'm used to it. If he does decide to go, I'm happy for him and if he decides to stay, I'm even more happy. I'm used to it," said Jones. "This is a business. My momma told me that before I even got to college. And I always wore that on my heart. No hard feelings to anybody who decides to leave for a better opportunity. We'll just see what happens.
"I really wouldn't say overlooked, but I think he deserves more credit because at the beginning of the year, the receiver corps was suspect. It was, 'Oh my God, the receiver's not in the right spot. Crompton's overthrowing them. Whose fault is it? Whose fault is it?' Now you barely see drops by the receivers. You see big-time plays by Denarius (Moore). Big-time blocks by Marsalis (Teague). Plays by me and Quintin (Hancock). As a corps, we're coming together and we're becoming one of the, I think, one of the best receiving corps in the nation. And all credit is due him."
So what makes Wilson stand out as a position coach?
"He's really strict, believe it or not, but he likes to have fun as well. But when we're between these lines, it's all about business," said Jones, who leads the team in both catches (41) and receiving yards (610). "And when you mess up, it don't matter if you're the captain or the youngest cat, he's going to get onto you. No matter what. He's going to be yelling and just pound it in your mind that you've got to do it right. And he's very specific. And we bought into it. Once we realized that every inch count, every yard count, it's starting to pay off."
If Wilson accepts LSU's offer, Jones will try to use his previous experiences in dealing with change to mentor the Vols' younger wideouts.
"Most definitely. Gotta help them understand the type of situation it is and gotta help them realize this is a business and everybody is trying to get to the top, just like we are," Jones explained. "We're trying to make it to the top, so just gotta move on and whoever the next guy is, if there is a next guy, play hard for him too."
GLAD TO BE WORKING
LaMarcus Thompson remembers all too well his mother's busy work this time a year ago.
Gerald Jones propped himself in a rocking chair on Friday afternoon and recalled the absence of football and relative chaos of the Tennessee program last December.
Both players are grateful to be spending this month practicing -- even if there is concern about possible staff shakeups.
"It's great to be working in December because you get kind of lazy and lax and your body gets out of shape because you don't have this practice when you don't go to a bowl," Thompson said. "This keeps us ahead and keeps us sharp and going into even next season.
"Trust me, it sucked (a year ago). Having to be home and do chores for mom and stuff like that. It's good to still be practicing and still be up here. Plus the money (for bowl travel)."
Added Jones, "I was talking to Kevin Cooper earlier today, and we were sitting up in those rocking chairs up there and we were saying to each other, 'You remember this time last year? We were at home or we weren't doing anything with our lives.' It feels good to be a team that's in a bowl game and get to practice to compete.
"Even though your body is banged up toward the end of the season and you're tired, you still appreciate it because you could be like a lot of other people and be sitting at home watching other people play."
While Jones had expressed a desire to play in the Cotton Bowl, the Vols' likely season finale in Atlanta's Chick-fil-A Bowl suits Thompson, a native of the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, just fine.
"Atlanta's definitely not bad because that's where everybody is at, all my family and folks and friends," he said. "You know, it's going to be real fun to have them get to see a game because a lot of them probably can't make it out to like Tampa or somewhere like that. So it will be real fun to see. Be a number of friends and family there."
Following a scary injury at Ole Miss in which he had to be immobilized and removed from the field on a stretcher, LaMarcus Thompson sat out the Vols' win against Vanderbilt and returned to action last week at Kentucky with new gear -- a supportive neck brace.
The junior expects to keep the equipment add-on for the remainder of his career after suffering multiple "stingers" this season.
"Health is good, health is great. I'm going to keep the butterfly collar on just for precaution," he said. "Plus I played with it all through high school, so I'm comfortable with it on. I'll probably keep it on for the rest of my career."
With the time off this week, several guys were healthier and much fresher. Kiffin cited players like Bryce Brown and Marsalis Teague as guys who looked like they had gotten their legs back a bit and looked fresh.
Several guys were out on Friday for various reasons:
Vladimir Richard - ankle
Art Evans - shoulder
Montario Hardesty - sore, given a day of rest
Marlon Walls - knee, injured in the weight room (not thought to be serious)
Chad Cunningham - hip
With the start of bowl practice, a lot of focus on Friday's workout was with young players who haven't gotten a lot of work on the practice field in the regular season and Kiffin said that plan will continue this month.
"Worked a lot of young guys. We gave the threes more reps than normal today," Kiffin said. "It was good to see those guys. It gives us a chance to have a evaluation of them over the course of the bowl practices.
"It's very important. We obviously started practice early. We could have waited another week to start practicing, but it's just too critical to find out more about our team. We didn't do as much individual stuff. We did more team work to give the younger guys more reps. We will continue to do that throughout the bowl preparations till the final week."
Kiffin said his focus with his team today was simply on practice and getting better. In fact, he said bowl destinations and match-up's have not even been a discussion.
"We just talked about having a good practice today. It was a physical practice with a lot of energy. We will be back out here tomorrow for another one."
Kiffin might not be talking about it, but the players are and junior Eric Berry smiled at the thoughts of playing most likely his final college game just minutes from his house.
"Not only the match up, but just going to Atlanta and going home," Berry said. "Playing in the Georgia Dome, growing up around that area. Our state championship games are played there. I never got to play there in high school. I got to play in there my first year here and hopefully I will again this year. That is something to look forward too."
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