As Lane Kiffin prepared to open his first spring camp as a college head coach on Tuesday morning, the 33-year-old newcomer made one thing abundantly clear: Let the competition begin.
Outside of All-America safety Eric Berry, 21 positions have undetermined starters, according to Kiffin.
"As far as depth chart, there is no depth chart," Kiffin said before an overflow crowd of local, state and national media inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. "We don't have a depth chart, and the reason that is is because competition is open. Guys have already started really learning our playbook and working hard in the weight room and going out on the field in drills. Now we get a chance to work with a football, and our depth chart will start to develop through spring. We're in no rush to figure that out. We've got to find out who can play and who can help us win."
Though he has 231 career tackles and has earned various All-SEC honors in each of the past two seasons, senior linebacker Rico McCoy has embraced the open depth chart.
"Yeah, that's cool. I mean, I'm a competitor," said the Washington, D.C., native. "I came in with that same attitude. It doesn't leave you. Everybody wants a chance to play. If you beat out the guy next to you, why shouldn't you play? It doesn't bother me. I like it. You'll have a good backup with guys playing like that. You know, I'm a starter and I'm a competitor. I like that mentality. Coaches brought it here.
"Everybody's excited in a workout to beat the man next to them in a cone drill or lift more weights. That makes the whole team better when you've got everybody trying to take somebody's spot. I like it. And I'm sure there are other players here that feel they should have been playing. Coach has made it clear, if you're the better man, you're going to play. Shouldn't be any excuses going into fall camp."
In addition to the open call for starters, Kiffin likewise reaffirmed that he won't protect any players in the 15-practice spring camp, which concludes with the April 18 Orange & White game, with non-contact jerseys.
"We're not going to protect anybody. We're not good enough to do that. Maybe someday that happens, down the road. Right now we've got to figure out who can play," said the coach. "We don't know enough about our players. None of these guys have done enough, outside of Eric (Berry), to say they know how to perform at a really high level. We've got to figure it out from every position, who can play for us. I think when you do that, you'll find surprises.
"I think there will be some of the players in this room, you think, ‘Boy, they haven't done much before.' And they'll surprise you and shock you and all of the sudden be playing more for us. And some guys on the other hand that maybe have played a bunch of games and played a bunch of snaps that get beat out."
COLEMAN SEES CHANCE
As year ago last spring, B.J. Coleman was hopeful. He was hopeful of having a chance to compete for the starting quarterback job. However, for the Chattanooga native that chance last spring never developed. Starting this afternoon with everyone having a "clean slate," Coleman is poised to show what he can do with a real chance to earn the starting quarterback job.
"I am really excited to go out and play football on this beautiful day," Coleman said. "I am going to go out there and lay it on the line. I am going to give it everything I have got. They say ‘ball to the wall' and that is exactly what I am going to do. It's important to me. It means a lot to me to get to play for my home state school. That is what I have on my shoulders and that is what I enjoy. I like the pressure situations and we will see who comes out on top at the end of spring."
Coleman and senior Jonathan Crompton will split reps evenly in practice because of the injury to junior Nick Stephens. Coleman said the injury to his teammate was unfortunate, but acknowledged it's an opportunity for Crompton and himself.
"I hate it for Nick. He has worked really hard this winter as we all have," Coleman said of Stephens, whose fractured wrist will remain in a cast for another three weeks. "Jonathan and I will split reps down the middle today and through the spring. That's going to be a great opportunity for us to show what we have got. I think the coaches want to see if we can do things consistently and I think that we are going to have a great opportunity to show that with as many reps as we are going to get."
For the last three months everyone has been trying to figure out or get to know and understand Lane Kiffin. That includes his players who are trying to develop a relationship with the new head man. Senior center Josh McNeil had a feel for Kiffin before he was ever hired because Kiffin had been in his Collins, Miss., home to recruit him when he was a Parade All-American. Further, McNeil spent a weekend with Kiffin in Los Angeles on an official visit.
"It was really funny. The first time I saw him it was coach Kiffin and coach O (Ed Orgeron) walking down the hall together," McNeil recalled. "The first thing I thought of was, ‘Wow, I honestly thought I would never see these guys again after my senior year of high school.' They were in Los Angeles and I came to play football at Tennessee. We talked about my official visit there and some recruiting things. We got reacquainted. It's just goes to show you how funny life works out sometimes."
McNeil was impressed with the Trojans coming out of high school and liked everything about the Southern Cal program except for the location.
"It had nothing to do with the coaches," McNeil said of his decision to not go to Southern Cal. "I loved the coaching staff and how the Southern Cal program was ran. Los Angeles just wasn't for me. Eight lane highways just aren't for me."
Just as freshman Aaron Douglas and junior Brandon Warren learn new positions, from tight end to offensive tackle and wide receiver, respectively, McCoy also is picking up defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's defense from a new spot. McCoy has shifted to strongside -- Sam -- linebacker.
"It's a playmakers position. They want me to learn all three positions," said McCoy, who already had learned the middle (Mike) and weakside (Will) linebacker posts. "New scheme and terminology and things. Nothing's set in stone as far as where they want players. They've seen film on me and maybe a couple of other guys, but like they said, none of the (other) linebackers have played (extensively).
"I'm probably going to fit, they're probably going to put me somewhere else before it's all over. Who knows? Like Nick Reveiz, he's working his butt off. He's studying film, studying the plays. We'll see. I don't know where I'll end up."
McCoy has not played the Sam position at any level before today, but he doesn't expect a significant adjustment.
"It's very similar to the Will. I'm down on the tight end a little more, which isn't a problem," he said. "I'm a physical guy anyway. I'll just be a little more hands-on with tight ends. That's the difference. It's cool.
"I've walked down on the tight end a couple of times, but I was still at the Will position. Shouldn't be too big a change."
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