SEC: Monte Kiffin

SEC East coaching carousel

February, 26, 2010
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With LSU opening spring practice Monday, I thought it might be wise to go over all the coaching changes in the SEC this year.

As usual, it was a revolving door this past offseason. In fact, Auburn was the only school in the league that didn’t have any staff turnover. The final number of head coaches or assistants departing for various reasons was 31.

Some were fired. Others got better gigs, while there were a few that were swayed elsewhere (within the conference) for more money.

Here’s an Eastern Division breakdown of who’s out and who’s in for the 2010 season. We'll do the Western Division a little bit later:

FLORIDA

Who’s out: Associate head coach/defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator George Edwards, recruiting coordinator/receivers coach Billy Gonzales, cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford and running backs coach Kenny Carter.

Who’s in: Teryl Austin, who spent the last seven seasons as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive backs coach, is Florida’s new defensive coordinator. He replaces George Edwards, who held the job for less than a month before going back to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. Edwards replaced Charlie Strong, who left following the season to take the Louisville head job. Stan Drayton returns to coach running backs. He was at Florida earlier this decade before moving on to Tennessee and most recently Syracuse. D.J. Durkin will coach defensive ends and special teams after spending the last three seasons at Stanford. Zach Azzanni will coach receivers. He was previously the assistant head coach/receivers coach at Central Michigan.

GEORGIA

Who’s out: Defensive coordinator/secondary coach Willie Martinez, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach John Jancek and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris.

Who’s in: Former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham takes over as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. He was the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive line coach the last two seasons. Scott Lakatos will coach the defensive backs after spending the last six seasons on the Connecticut staff, and Warren Belin will coach linebackers after spending the last eight seasons on the Vanderbilt staff.

KENTUCKY

Who’s out: Head coach Rich Brooks, offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins and defensive line coach Rick Petri.

Who’s in: Joker Phillips, who was already the Wildcats’ coach in waiting, takes over the head coaching reins. Mike Summers will coach the offensive line after serving as assistant head coach/offensive line coach at Arkansas the last two seasons. Former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin will coach the receivers. Martin was the quarterbacks coach at New Mexico last season. David Turner, who has coached at four different SEC schools, will coach the defensive line. Turner was at Mississippi State the last three seasons.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Who’s out: Offensive line coach/running game coordinator Eric Wolford.

Who’s in: Shawn Elliott replaces Wolford, who left to take the head coaching job at Youngstown State. Elliott has spent his entire coaching career at Appalachian State, including the last nine seasons as offensive line coach.

TENNESSEE

Who’s out: Head coach Lane Kiffin, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, quarterbacks coach David Reaves, receivers coach Frank Wilson, offensive line coach James Cregg, running backs coach/special teams coordinator Eddie Gran and defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza.

Who’s in: Derek Dooley was hired as the Vols’ head coach after Lane Kiffin left to take the Southern California head job. Justin Wilcox comes over from Boise State to be the defensive coordinator. Charlie Baggett will serve as assistant head coach and coach the receivers. He has 11 years of NFL experience and was on the St. Louis Rams’ staff last season. Harry Hiestand will coach the offensive line. He was the offensive line coach for the Chicago Bears the past five seasons. Darin Hinshaw will coach quarterbacks. He was the receivers coach at Memphis the past three seasons. Terry Joseph will coach the secondary and special tams. He was with Dooley at Louisiana Tech. Eric Russell will coach tight ends and coordinate special teams. He was also at Louisiana Tech with Dooley. Former Tennessee All-SEC performer Chuck Smith will coach the defensive line. He worked as an assistant defensive line coach with the New York Jets last season and has also tutored several defensive linemen over the years. He played professionally for the Atlanta Falcons.

VANDERBILT

Who’s out: Linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Warren Belin.

Who’s in: Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson is still working to replace Belin, who left to join the Georgia staff. Johnson promoted Jimmy Kiser to offensive coordinator, and Kiser will call all of the Commodores’ plays this season. Ted Cain remains on staff as the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator.

Tennessee releases coaching salaries

February, 23, 2010
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First-year Tennessee coach Derek Dooley will earn $1.8 million in 2010, according to figures released Tuesday by the university.

His predecessor, Lane Kiffin, made $2 million last season before leaving for the Southern California job.

Tennessee also released the salaries for Dooley's staff. The entire football coaching salary pool for this staff, including Dooley, will total $4,525,000 -- which is $1.1 million less than the Vols paid their previous staff.

The salary pool for Kiffin and his staff last season totaled $5,625,000, which included defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's $1.5 million salary (counting a $300,000 payment he pocketed in December) and recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Ed Orgeron's $650,000 salary.

Here's the breakdown of the annual salaries for Tennessee's new staff:

  • Derek Dooley, head coach, 6 years, $1,800,000
  • Charlie Baggett, assistant head coach/receivers, 3 years, $375,000
  • Jim Chaney, offensive coordinator/running backs, 3 years, $425,000
  • Harry Hiestand, offensive line, 2 years, $200,000
  • Darin Hinshaw, quarterbacks, 2 years, $150,000
  • Terry Joseph, recruiting coordinator/secondary, 2 years, $175,000
  • Eric Russell, special teams/tight ends, 2 years, $200,000
  • Chuck Smith, defensive line, 2 years, $225,000
  • Lance Thompson, linebackers, 3 years, $375,000
  • Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, 3 years, $600,000

Kiffin not paying attention to the rules?

January, 27, 2010
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There haven't been any documented violations yet by former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin at Southern California.

But did you catch the comments of Frostproof (Fla.) High School athletic director Chuck Loveless earlier this week?

Frostproof cornerback Nickell Robey was previously committed to Georgia, but he's looking around again. And one of the places he's looking is USC.

Loveless told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "He’s planning to visit Southern Cal next week. Monte Kiffin has been very persistent. He’s probably been in here more than is legal. Of course, they don't pay attention to the rules."

Imagine that.

Chick-fil-A Bowl preview

December, 30, 2009
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Breaking down the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Thursday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) between Virginia Tech (9-3) and Tennessee (7-5):

WHO TO WATCH: Tennessee junior safety Eric Berry has been one of the best players in the country for the past two years and won the Thorpe Award this season as the top defensive back in the country. Under Monte Kiffin, Berry has been used a little differently than he was a year ago when he intercepted seven passes. He’s played a lot closer to the line of scrimmage in more of a linebacker role, and led all SEC defensive backs with 54 solo tackles. The reality is that he can play anywhere you want him to. The Vols will use him in man coverage. They will blitz him. They will let him roam. It's fitting this game is in Atlanta. Berry is from just a few miles down the road in Fairburn, Ga., and this will almost certainly be his final college game. He's expected to announce afterward that he's turning pro.

WHAT TO WATCH: Virginia Tech’s reputation on special teams is well-earned. Year in and year out, the Hokies are as good as anyone in the kicking game. Tennessee, meanwhile, struggled all season to cover kicks and was even worse when it came to getting kicks off. The Vols had four field goal attempts blocked (including one that would have beaten Alabama), not to mention an extra point and punt blocked. On top of it all, Tennessee lost its special teams coach, Eddie Gran, to Florida State. Lane Kiffin said it would be a game-time decision on who handles the Vols’ place-kicking. In other words, the Vols hope it doesn't come down to a kick.

WHY TO WATCH: The Vols (7-5) are trying to make their most convincing statement yet that they’re on their way back. Knocking off the No. 11 Hokies would be an impressive way to end Year 1 under Kiffin, who’s made a lot of noise off the field and created a lot of headlines with his mouth. But his team also played solid football for much of the season and was in every game it played with the exception of the 42-17 blowout loss to Ole Miss on Nov. 14. Kiffin and his staff appear to be recruiting at a torrid pace, and several high-profile prospects are either committed or have shown interest in the Vols. Ending the season with a win over a nationally ranked foe and getting to eight wins would be a huge momentum boost heading into the offseason and give Kiffin even more “street cred.”

PREDICTION: Both teams have strong running games and the kind of running backs who can take over the game in the second half. Senior Montario Hardesty has 1,306 rushing yards for the Vols, while freshman Ryan Williams has 1,538 yards for the Hokies. Giving Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin a month to prepare for a team is never a good thing, but Virginia Tech’s edge in special teams is difficult to ignore. Mobile quarterbacks have also given the Vols more problems, and Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor has excellent wheels. After four straight losses to SEC teams, the Hokies are due. Virginia Tech 28, Tennessee 21.

Lunchtime links: Gators at a crossroads

December, 22, 2009
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Some SEC links to munch on:

What are the SEC coordinators making?

December, 15, 2009
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With Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State all looking for defensive coordinators and Arkansas recently promoting Garrick McGee to offensive coordinator to replace Paul Petrino, I thought it would be interesting to see what the offensive and defensive coordinators (the guys who call the plays) made this year in the SEC.

These numbers are according to a recent USA Today study on coaching salaries in college football.

It’s worth noting that Petrino will make $475,000 as offensive coordinator at Illinois. The only assistant coaches in the SEC who made more than that this year were Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Tennessee assistant head coach/recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron.

Vanderbilt’s salary figures weren’t available. Also, South Carolina doesn’t have an offensive coordinator, but passing game coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. called a lot of the plays, so he’s listed.

OFFENSE

Gary Crowton, LSU: $469,917

Jim Chaney, Tennessee: $380,000

Jim McElwain, Alabama: $360,150

Gus Malzahn, Auburn: $350,000

Mike Bobo, Georgia: $325,600

Joker Phillips, Kentucky: $323,460

Paul Petrino, Arkansas: $308,000

Kent Austin, Ole Miss: $300,000

Les Koenning, Mississippi State: $250,000

Steve Addazio, Florida: $210,000

Steve Spurrier Jr., South Carolina: $209,000

DEFENSE

Monte Kiffin, Tennessee: $1.2 million

John Chavis, LSU: $450,000

Willy Robinson, Arkansas: $378,238

Ted Roof, Auburn: $370,000

Kirby Smart, Alabama: $369,350

Tyrone Nix, Ole Miss: $365,500

Ellis Johnson, South Carolina: $359,300

Willie Martinez, Georgia: $327,415

Steve Brown, Kentucky: $315,100

Charlie Strong, Florida: $310,000

Carl Torbush, Mississippi State: $260,000

Who improved and who regressed in the SEC?

December, 10, 2009
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Who was the most improved team in the SEC this season? Who went the other way?

Let’s make it easier and break it up into categories.

We’ll start with Most Improved. Who says we don’t accentuate the positive around here?

Total offense: Auburn.

The Tigers under first-year coordinator Gus Malzahn were third in the league with an average of 432.3 yards per game, which was 129.4 yards better than a year ago when they were eighth at 302.9 yards per game.

Tennessee was close behind with a jump of 126.6 yards per game. Interestingly enough, the only three schools who didn’t improve their total offense numbers from a year ago were Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Dixon
John David Mercer/US PresswireAnthony Dixon helped the Bulldogs improve their ground game by 127 yards over last year.
Rushing offense: Mississippi State

The Bulldogs were first in the league this season, riding Anthony Dixon and averaging 227.6 yards per game. That’s after finishing 11th last season with an average of 100.6 yards, a difference of 127 yards.

In one of those odd stats, the perception was that Georgia’s running game had dropped off dramatically this season with Knowshon Moreno gone. In actuality, the Bulldogs averaged more rushing yards per game than a year ago. They were ninth in the league, averaging 157.1 yards per game and were fifth a year ago, averaging 148.3 yards per game. So they were up 8.8 yards per game.

Passing offense: Tennessee

The Vols were a runaway winner thanks in large part to Jonathan Crompton’s transformation.

They were third in the league with an average of 225.6 yards per game and finished 11th last season with an average of 145.8 yards per game, an improvement of 79.8 yards per game.

Total defense: Florida

Despite their struggles in the SEC championship game, the Gators were second in the league with an average of 253.8 yards per game after giving up 285.3 yards last season, a difference of 31.5 yards.

Alabama was the only other team in the league that improved its total defense numbers. The Crimson Tide finished first in the SEC, allowing an average of 241.7 yards per game. They gave up an average of 263.5 yards last season, a difference of 21.8 yards.

Rushing defense: Arkansas

That’s right, Arkansas. The Hogs were ninth in the league, giving up an average of 150.1 yards per game. That’s after giving up an average of 170.8 yards per game a year ago, an improvement of 20.7 yards.

Only three teams in the league improved their rush defense numbers from a year ago -- Arkansas, Mississippi State and Florida.

Passing defense: Ole Miss

Ole Miss was sixth in the league with an average of 179 yards per game. That’s after finishing last a year ago with an average of 221.7 yards, a difference of 42.7 yards.

Turnover margin: Arkansas

The Hogs were second in the league at plus-13 and led the league with 27 forced turnovers. They were 11th last season at minus-9, a difference of plus-22.

(Read full post)

Tennessee season recap

December, 9, 2009
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After creating a stir off the field leading up to his first season on the job, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin got off to a solid start on the field in his first tour through the SEC.

The Vols (7-5, 4-4) were a couple of disappointing home losses away from being a nine-win team. They’d love to have the UCLA and Auburn games back, where they simply didn’t play their best football. Kiffin was probably a little too conservative with his play-calling in the 19-15 loss to the Bruins, and Monte Kiffin’s defense didn’t have a lot of answers for Gus Malzahn’s spread offense in the 26-22 loss to the Tigers after losing middle linebacker Nick Reveiz the week before.

But during the second half of the season, with the notable exception of the 42-17 blowout loss to Ole Miss, Tennessee played its best football and seemed to get better as a team. Never was that more apparent than senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton’s transformation. He looked rattled during the first month of the season and was an interception machine, but settled down and wound up finishing second in the SEC with 26 touchdown passes.

Monte Kiffin’s defense held up well despite a glut of injuries at linebacker. Kicking woes cost the Vols in several games, in particular the 12-10 loss to Alabama. Tennessee had two field goals blocked in that game, including one as time expired that would have won the game.

If there’s such a thing as a quality loss in the SEC, the Vols had two of them this season against Alabama and Florida. Their best win was a 45-19 pasting of Georgia, but they also get a shot at No. 11 Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Offensive MVP: Montario Hardesty, RB. He’d battled injuries previously during his career and was also under-utilized, but Hardesty put together a sensational senior season with 1,306 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He carried the ball a league-high 264 times and didn’t lose a single fumble on a rushing attempt.

Defensive MVP: Eric Berry, S. His interception numbers declined, but that’s due mainly to the fact that the Vols used him in a different role than the previous season. Berry played closer to the line of scrimmage, almost like a linebacker, and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 83 tackles. He’s one of the most complete defensive players in the league.

Turning point: The Vols were 2-3 and coming off a home loss to Auburn when Georgia rolled into town the second week of October. Another home loss would have been devastating, but Tennessee delivered its best performance of the season in 45-19 rout of the Bulldogs and only lost twice more the rest of the way.

What’s next: Several of the seniors who were the backbone of this team are gone, and Berry is also probably gone. He’s projected to be one of the top picks in the NFL draft. Kiffin may also have to fight to keep some of his coaches. Eddie Gran and Frank Wilson have already bolted for other jobs, and there are rumblings that others may follow. The schedule only gets harder next season, and the Vols will be playing with a new quarterback. There's some good young talent in the program, but Kiffin has his work cut out.

McCluster hot, Tennessee trio not

November, 16, 2009
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We take our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not in the SEC:

En Fuego

Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster: We need to come up with an entirely new category for McCluster. He’s so hot right now that they’re having to repair burn marks on the turf at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. He torched Tennessee for a school-record 282 rushing yards last Saturday in Ole Miss’ 42-17 victory over the Vols. In his last three games against SEC defenses, the 170-pound McCluster has rushed for 591 yards and has 787 all-purpose yards. In those three games, he also has six touchdowns, and three of them were from 60 yards or longer. His 71-yard touchdown jaunt against Tennessee last week was the run of the year so far in the SEC and rates up there with some of the gems Darren McFadden turned in at Arkansas among the best runs over the last few years in the league.

Hot

Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: He’s throwing the ball so well that Arkansas fans are probably getting nervous. The NFL may come calling sooner rather than later. Mallett broke the Arkansas season record for passing yards last week and also tossed five touchdowns, giving him 23 for the season.

Not

Florida receiver Riley Cooper: Florida’s downfield passing woes aren’t all on Cooper. In fact, he’s one of the few guys making plays for the Gators down the field. But he had two long passes thrown to him in the South Carolina game, one off his fingertips, that he’s got to catch if the Gators are going to win a title.

Hot

Alabama’s offense: The Crimson Tide are scoring from long distance again and getting everybody involved. That’s two weeks in a row now that Alabama has dialed up long scoring plays, and Julio Jones has found the end zone from 40-plus yards in both games.

Not

Jarrett Lee’s fan club: Granted, his season a year ago was forgettable with the seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. But give the guy a break. Booing him in his own stadium when he’s filling in for the injured starter and you win the game? It’s not like he spit in Mike the Tiger’s face.

Hot

Alabama vs. Florida buildup: Don’t ask Alabama coach Nick Saban any questions about the Gators. His focus is on Chattanooga. He might be the only one because these next two weeks are going to seem like an eternity until we get to Alabama vs. Florida II on Dec. 5.

Not

Late-season scrimmages: Let’s hope Alabama doesn’t get caught overlooking Chattanooga and that Florida doesn’t take Florida International too lightly. If they do, they might win by only 40 points instead of 50.

Hot

Florida defensive end Justin Trattou: The guy’s biceps tendon was torn off the bone in his shoulder, and he only missed one game. Some guys might not have finished the season. But there he was last Saturday night making the play to turn the game around in Florida’s 24-14 win over South Carolina. He showed some pretty nifty moves, too, for a big guy on his 53-yard return.

Not

Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin: Before anybody in orange gets all huffy about seeing Kiffin on the ‘Not’ list, it’s only because the Vols have been gashed pretty good this season against two of the spread teams they’ve faced. Auburn and Ole Miss both rolled it up against a Tennessee defense that has been stingy against everybody else.

Ice, Ice Baby

The Tennessee trio: Lane Kiffin dismissed Nu’Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards from the team Monday, but safety Janzen Jackson is still in limbo. It remains to be seen whether or not he survives. Either way, their arrests last week on attempted armed robbery charges tarnish what had been a solid season for the Vols otherwise and no doubt helped lay the groundwork for their dismal performance against Ole Miss in a 42-17 loss. Their selfishness is one thing for even putting themselves in that position a couple of days before such an important game. But the stupidity of the whole thing rises to an unconscionable level.

Not one of Monte Kiffin's best days

November, 14, 2009
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Monte Kiffin has been one of the best defensive minds in football for the last 20 years, and his positive impact on Tennessee's defense this season has been undeniable.

But there's also no denying that his defense was abused Saturday in the the 42-17 loss to Ole Miss. The Rebels spread the Vols out and let Dexter McCluster go to work. When he was finished, he'd rushed for a school-record 282 yards -- the most rushing yards ever by one player against a Tennessee defense.

Monte has done a number on several SEC offenses this season. But on Saturday, it was Ole Miss spreading it out and doing a number on his Tennessee defense.

USA Today report: Assistant coaches' salaries

November, 10, 2009
11/10/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

When Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin put together what he called his dream staff back in the offseason, it was pretty obvious then that the Vols’ nine assistants were going to make more than any other staff in the country.

The USA Today confirmed as much Tuesday in its report on coaching salaries. Tennessee’s nine assistants earn $3,325,000, which beats out second-place Texas nationally.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t include head coaching salaries. If you add the head coach into the equation (Lane Kiffin makes $2 million per year), that would place the Vols’ total at $5,325,000, which would rank them fourth in the SEC.

Alabama ($6,602,551), LSU ($6,476,285) and Florida ($5,965,000) would all be higher when you add in the head coaching salary.

The Vols have the two highest paid assistants in the league in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Monte Kiffin earns $1.2 million plus a $300,000 bonus he will collect in December, while Orgeron earns $650,000.

Their combined salaries of $2,150,000 (counting Kiffin’s bonus) are more than the entire staff makes at Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and South Carolina.

Vanderbilt, being a private institution, did not release its coaching figures.

In addition to Monte Kiffin and Orgeron, the only other assistant in the league making more than $400,000 per year is LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, who earns $469,917.

Alabama has four assistants making $300,000 or more and seven assistants making at least $250,000.

The lowest paid assistant in the league can be found at Ole Miss. Somebody on the Rebels’ staff is making $80,500.

Here are the numbers according to USA Today:

Tennessee: $3,325,000 (ranges from $110,000 to $1.2 million)

LSU: $2,725,285 (ranges from $155,000 to $469,917)

Alabama: $2,702,551 (ranges from $225,500 to $390,000)

Auburn: $2,560,000 (ranges from $210,000 to $370,000)

Arkansas: $2,034,888 (ranges from $148,000 to $378,238)

Georgia: $2,029,816 (ranges from $91,600 to $327,415)

Florida: $1,965,000 (ranges from $180,000 to $310,000)

Kentucky: $1,946,213 (ranges from $159,625 to $323,460)

South Carolina: $1,870,000 (ranges from $110,000 to $359,300)

Ole Miss: $1,843,608 (ranges from $80,500 to $365,500)

Mississippi State: $1,805,000 (ranges from $125,000 to $260,000)

Lunchtime links: Orgeron returns to Oxford

November, 10, 2009
11/10/09
12:28
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Checking in on what's making headlines around the SEC:

Kicking it with Tennessee's Dan Williams

November, 6, 2009
11/06/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Senior defensive tackle Dan Williams has helped take the Tennessee defense to another level these last few weeks, and in the process, is setting himself up for a nice payday.
 
 Paul Abell-US Presswire
 Dan Williams has the kind of skills NFL defensive coordinators covet.

William’s NFL stock is soaring. Everybody is looking for disruptive interior linemen who can rush the passer, and the 6-3, 320-pound Williams certainly fits that bill.

"Our defense starts with Dan. He's a dominant force and making himself a lot of money," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said.

In the latest position rankings by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Williams was third among all senior defensive tackles in the country. He’s also making a strong bid for first-team, All-SEC honors.

Williams is third on Tennessee’s team with 39 total tackles, including three for loss, and leads the team in quarterback hurries with nine. Seven of those hurries have come in the last four games.

His play up front is a big reason the Vols have been as good as any defense in the SEC heading into this stretch drive.

Williams, who's as easy-going off the field as he is intense on it, took some time to chat earlier this week heading into Saturday’s home game with Memphis:

You’re playing the best football of your career. What do you attribute that to?

Dan Williams: For one, I’m in the best shape since I’ve been here, and that’s showing out there on the field. I’m improving every day, practicing harder, doing everything it takes to be a good football player.

How much better are you moving at the lighter weight?

DW: I’m around 320 right now and able to last a lot longer out there and play a whole lot harder. When I first got here as a freshman, I was 357, but I told myself I was never going to see that weight again. It was just too much good eating. I sort of fell off again after last season when I went home for the holidays and we didn’t go to a bowl game. I got back up to around 340 and wasn’t watching what I ate. But once spring came and the coaches talked to me, I knew had to get back down to be the player I wanted to be and for the good of the team.

What kind of impact has Ed Orgeron had on your development?

DW: He’s been pushing me since he got here. That’s the main thing, and I’ve also learned a lot from him film-wise and about offensive schemes. The main thing, though, is the way he’s driven me every day in practice and helped me become a better pass-rusher.

Back in the preseason, they had you listed with the second team. Were they just trying to motivate you?

DW: I really don’t know. I just know these coaches are going to play the best players. I guess my practice habits weren’t as good, and I wasn’t meeting their expectations. I had to change the way Dan Williams was practicing. The way I practiced with the old coaching staff wasn’t going to get it. I had to get my mind focused and show these coaches that I was one of the better players on the team.

What’s the secret to Monte Kiffin’s success as a defensive coordinator?

DW: I’d say it’s the energy level he coaches with, the way he treats practice and the intensity he brings. He just has this way of being able to explain things to guys where you know exactly what he wants. You might play for some coaches, and they tell you to do something. When you play for coach Kiffin, he gets out there and shows you where he wants you to drop, how he wants you to do it and explains why you’re doing it. I have a lot better understanding now of what the linebackers and DBs are doing and know that if I don’t do my job how much it’s going to hurt the whole defense.

You guys finished tied for third in the country last season in total defense. Is this defense better than that one, and what are the differences in the two defenses?

DW: It’s a different group of guys, and every year I’ve been here, the defense has always run to the ball and played hard. But we’re playing more with a chip on our shoulder this year because none of us ever want to go through what we did last year with the 5-7 record and our coach getting fired.

With the way your offense has improved, do you think you’re that team right now that nobody really wants to face the rest of the way?

DW: I think so. We’re playing for each other. We’re playing hard, and it’s like coach Kiffin always says, ‘Team first.’ Everything we’re doing, we’re doing with the team first. If we continue to play this way, it’s going to be very tough to beat us.

Making a case for the SEC's best defense

November, 3, 2009
11/03/09
1:59
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Who has the best defense in the SEC?

If ever there was a loaded question, that’s a loaded question.

Depending on what zip code you’re in, what statistical categories you’re looking at and which game tape you watch, you could get an assortment of different answers.

If you haven’t noticed, there are a few good defenses in this league.

But with November upon us, we’ve narrowed it to four. At least the four defenses that are playing the best right now.

Again, these aren’t necessarily the four most talented defenses or the four defenses with the gaudiest numbers. Rather, they’re the four defenses that are having the greatest impact on the game heading into the final month of the season.

In alphabetical order, they are Alabama, Florida, LSU and Tennessee.

We’ll make a case for each being No. 1:

ALABAMA

Numbers: The Crimson Tide are ranked fourth nationally in total defense (240.9 yards per game), fifth in scoring defense (11.4 points per game) and seventh in third-down efficiency defense (29.8 percent).

Players:Rolando McClain might be the best inside linebacker in college football, and Javier Arenas is one of the most versatile cornerbacks in the SEC. Defensive end Marcell Dareus is a budding star. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower was also an All-SEC caliber performer, but was lost for the season in the Arkansas game with a knee injury.

Scheme: Alabama operates out of a 3-4 scheme and loves to move people around, disguise coverages and come with pressure from all sorts of different angles. Nick Saban’s defenses have always feasted on getting teams into third-and-long situations and then lowering the boom. This defense has done that as well as any.

Results:If the Crimson Tide are going to win a national title, it will be with their defense. In a lot of ways, this season bears some similarities to the 1992 national championship season when that Alabama defense gained legendary status. The Tide have given up just one touchdown in their last three games, and coming off the bye week, should be rested for LSU on Saturday.

FLORIDA

Numbers: The Gators are ranked second nationally in total defense (236.6 yards per game), second in scoring defense (11 points per game) and second in third-down efficiency defense (24.6 percent).

Players: There are future NFL players all over the field. Take your pick: middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, defensive end Carlos Dunlap. cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Joe Haden and safety Major Wright. The Gators returned all but one player from their two-deep in last year’s BCS National Championship Game.

Scheme: Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong uses a traditional 4-3 set, although the Gators like to move Spikes around on passing downs. Sometimes he will line up outside, but he will also line up over the nose occasionally and blitz up the middle. The key to the Gators’ scheme is being so good in man coverage. Strong isn’t afraid to leave Haden and Jenkins out there alone.

Results: The Gators were dominant defensively in their 13-3 win at LSU several weeks ago. They haven’t been quite as dominant the last few weeks. Arkansas moved the ball some on them, and Georgia had some success in the first half. But the Gators just have that knack for coming up with the big play when they need it and lead the SEC with 14 interceptions. They’re getting healthy, too, which is bad news for the rest of the league.

LSU

Numbers: The Tigers are ranked 15th nationally in total defense (293 yards per game), seventh in scoring defense (12.1 points per game) and 68th in third-down efficiency defense (38.7 percent).

Players: Sophomore cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the best lock-down corners in the SEC. He’s also big enough and physical enough to be a force against the run. Chad Jones has had a big year at free safety, and the Tigers’ defensive front is one of the most underrated in the league.

Scheme: First-year LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis uses a 4-3 base, but often times will go to multiple defensive backs. He moved Harry Coleman from safety to outside linebacker before the season and loves to bring pressure up the middle. He’s also a big believer in his cornerbacks being able to play man coverage.

Results: It’s difficult to find much wrong with anything the Tigers have done defensively the last month. They haven’t given up more than 13 points in their last four games and have played much more instinctively as they’ve gained a better understanding of Chavis’ scheme. It's a defense that's clearly playing its best football heading into the Alabama game on Saturday.

TENNESSEE

Numbers: The Vols are ranked 13th nationally in total defense (281.6 yards per game), 22nd in scoring defense (17.7 points per game) and 13th in third-down efficiency defense (32.2 percent).

Players: Junior Eric Berry is the best safety in college football and likely a top 2 or 3 pick in April’s draft. Tackle Dan Williams has turned his game up and is playing as well as any interior lineman in the league right now. Outside linebacker Rico McCoy is another guy who’s taken his game to another level.

Scheme: Monte Kiffin’s famed “Tampa-2” defense has been plenty effective in the SEC, and Kiffin thinks he’ll be able to do even more once Vols improve their talent and improve their depth in coming years. He’s used Berry a lot more around the line of scrimmage this season. The Vols’ linebackers may blitz on one play and then drop all the way back into coverage on the next.

Results: The Vols have given up just one defensive touchdown in the last three games and allowed just three trips inside their 20-yard line during that span. They don’t give up big plays and are rarely out of position, as evidenced by the fact that they lead the country with fewest plays allowed of longer than 25 yards (5). This is a unit that’s gone from being a good defense to being a great defense.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 9

November, 1, 2009
11/01/09
1:43
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Alabama took the week off, giving Florida a chance to state its case as the best team in the SEC, and ultimately, the country.

It’s hard to find much fault with the Gators’ presentation. They routed Georgia 41-17 on Saturday to extend their winning streak to 18 straight games.

Here’s a look at what all we learned in the SEC in Week 9:

1. Florida awaits in SEC title game:The Gators clinched a berth in their second straight SEC Championship Game. All that remains to be determined is whether or not they will arrive there unbeaten and who they’ll play. Alabama can clinch the Western Division title next Saturday with a win over LSU and set up a rematch with the Gators. Florida had looked vulnerable in recent weeks, particularly on offense, but that wasn’t the case Saturday in Jacksonville. Tim Tebow was on top of his game. Several different guys were involved in the offense, and the defense still hasn’t allowed more than 20 points this season. That’s important, too, because the Gators are now 43-2 under Urban Meyer when their opponent scores 20 points or less. Florida needed a complete victory and got it against the Bulldogs. Even place-kicker Caleb Sturgis came back strong from a so-so outing against Mississippi State with a career-long 56-yard field goal. If the Gators play like this the rest of the way, they’ll be the team to beat nationally.

2. Tennessee’s defense is for real:How’s this for a stretch of defensive football? The Vols have now gone 12 quarters where they’ve given up just one touchdown, and during that span, have allowed only three trips inside their 20-yard line. Even with their best defensive end, Chris Walker, battling back problems and not playing against South Carolina, the Vols got consistent pressure on Stephen Garcia and forced three turnovers in the first 16 minutes of the game. Their secondary has been excellent all season and rarely are the Vols’ defensive backs out of position. They’re also physical back there and don’t give up anything down the field. Only five plays that were longer than 25 yards have gone against the Tennessee defense all season, which leads the country. Monte Kiffin is obviously one of the best defensive minds in football, but there’s more talent on this defense – both young and old – than probably anybody gave the Vols credit for to start the season.

3. Georgia’s in decline:Nobody’s claiming that Georgia’s program is in the tank, because the Bulldogs aren’t. But they’re also not what they once were under Mark Richt, who has some decisions to make at the end of the season there are becoming less and less difficult as the losses mount. Richt greeted the media Saturday following the 41-17 loss to Florida by saying, “Well, here we are again.” Where the Bulldogs are is on the outside looking in at the elite programs in this conference, which only a few years ago would sounded preposterous if somebody would have alleged as much. Let’s face it. The defense is in shambles. When’s the last time the Bulldogs have stopped anybody in a game that counts? They’ve given up 37 or more points nine times in their last 17 games dating back to last season. And the penalties are just as disturbing. Richt deserves every chance to fix this, but he’ll probably only get one chance to get it right.

4. Ole Miss was a fraud:Some people have a hard time admitting they were wrong. I’m not one of those people. I was wrong, dead wrong, about Ole Miss ever being a legitimate player to win the Western Division title. In fact, at this rate, the Rebels will be fortunate to land in a New Year’s Day bowl after losing 33-20 at Auburn on Saturday. Other than FCS foe Northern Arizona next week, it’s hard to find another definite win on the Rebels’ schedule. Tennessee and LSU both come to Oxford, and Ole Miss closes the season by traveling to Mississippi State. The Rebels (5-3, 2-3) will have to beat either the Vols, Tigers or Bulldogs to gain bowl eligibility. The win over Northern Arizona won’t count, because the Rebels already have one win over an FCS opponent (Southeastern Louisiana). It’s obvious all that offseason hype was just that – hype.

5. South Carolina’s annual swoon:The Gamecocks’ turnover-laden performance in their 31-13 loss to Tennessee was eerily similar to some of those bumbling losses in past years that played such a big role in their late-season collapses. If they’re going to fumble away the ball three times in the first 16 minutes of a game, they can go ahead and pre-order another five- or six-loss season. And even if they do take care of the ball a little better, it’s not going to be easy the rest of the way. The Gamecocks (6-3, 3-3) travel to Arkansas next week and will be without star defensive end Cliff Matthews, who dislocated his shoulder. They then get Florida and Clemson at home to end the regular season. Steve Spurrier has never had fewer than five losses since he’s been at South Carolina, a trend that may well continue. But the way the Gamecocks have closed seasons, or more accurately, haven’t closed seasons is what’s so frustrating to fans. They lost three in a row to end last season and five in a row to end the 2007 season. After what happened Saturday night in Knoxville, it’s hard to feel like the close to this season will be much different.

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