Sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen, sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton and redshirt junior LB Curt Maggitt fielded questions about the Alabama game this week as a group.
They were, naturally, asked about Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and if they thought much about playing the former head coach of Tennessee, albeit one who had already bolted to Southern California prior to any of their arrivals at Tennessee.
The trio smiled, laughed a touch and then there were a few seconds of silence before Vereen’s media training kicked in and he recited a University-approved quote that won’t draw any negative headlines.
“We are just focused on playing football,” said Vereen. “It’s our team against their team. We aren’t really focused on the exterior things, Lane Kiffin or whoever coming back. We’re focused on playing football.”
“I don’t have any familiarity with him,” added Sutton. “I feel it was never a distraction anyways because we’re about playing football, so I don’t have anything about him.”
That appears to be the approach by Tennessee this week. Suppress, downplay, deny and deflect the Kiffin storyline as much as possible. And it makes sense on a lot of levels. Kiffin is becoming relatively ancient history in Knoxville. Two head coaches have been at the helm since his departure. Only one player – redshirt senior offensive tackle Marques Pair – on the current roster committed to Kiffin at UT. None actually played for him.
Butch Jones took it even further with his downplaying of the Kiffin storyline.
“We have to focus on the task at hand and that is playing a top-five opponent,” Jones said. “We can’t worry about the distractions and all that. That will never even be mentioned in our team, I don’t even think our team even realizes it to be honest with you.
“If they are, then they are worried about something that has no meeting in the outcome.”
Jones knows there’s enough on the line for the Vols without subplots. He called Tennessee-Alabama one of the great rivalries in college football on Tuesday and in his weekly press conference on Monday he discussed why he sees it as such a big game.
“The game means everything to our football program and our fans because it is the University of Alabama, not because it is Lane Kiffin,” Jones said. “Three-quarters of our team, he is a great coach, but nobody knows who Lane Kiffin is. Again, that is for the fans. We have to concentrate on the game.”