Vol fans may or may not care what Lane Kiffin has to say about Tennessee football. But in this case, he might be worth listening to even for his biggest critics in the Vol fanbase.
Kiffin, who coached at Tennessee for one season before leaving to take the head coaching gig at USC, is currently the head coach at Florida Atlantic. During his first season as the Owls’ head coach, his offensive coordinator was Kendal Briles.
Now, that same offensive coordinator is reportedly one of the top candidates for Tennessee’s vacant offensive coordinator position.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has already met with Briles and is expected to speak with a few more candidates too. But Briles appears to be the front-runner for the job, and Vol fans have been looking into what Briles is like as a coach to prepare themselves in case he’s the hire.
Kiffin appeared on Sports Talk on WNML in Knoxville on Friday, and he shared his opinions on Briles as a play-caller, calling him “brilliant” on the field.
“(He’s done) an unbelievable job wherever he’s been,” Kiffin said. “At Baylor, he broke every record there is, and he came here and in one year here set every record in the conference. Then he went back over to Houston where he actually went to school and did it again.
“I don’t know that anybody can say they’ve done it that many places in that many years at that high of a level.”
Houston’s offense ranks in the top 10 nationally in both total offense and scoring offense, and FAU’s offense in 2017 did the same under Briles. This year, Kiffin’s FAU team dropped off offensively without Briles calling the plays. The Owls went from averaging 40.6 points per game and 498.4 yards per game in 2017 to 31.1 points a game and 478.8 yards a contest.
Briles has set records at all three stops he’s been to. But because he got his start at Baylor in the Big 12, most assume Briles’ offensive style is an air raid type of attack that focuses heavily on the pass and not as much on the run.
According to Kiffin, that’s a false assumption.
“There’s a misconception that they throw the ball all over the place,” Kiffin said of Briles’ offensive system. “He’s not a Mike Leach disciple where they throw it 60 or 70 times. He runs the ball. They almost always are top 10 in the country in rushing. All those years at Baylor and last year here, we were second in the country in rushing besides option teams. That’s a big misconception.
“Now, he spreads the field with big splits and an extremely fast tempo, but he’ll run it right at you.”
Houston ranks 20th in the nation in rushing yards per game this season, averaging 227.7 yards per game on the ground. The Cougars averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored 28 rushing touchdowns this year, and they’ve run the ball nearly 500 times.
At FAU, Briles’ offense ranked sixth in the FBS in rushing yards per game, averaging 285.3 yards per game. They scored an eye-popping 52 rushing touchdowns that season as well. Baylor was 14th in the country in rushing yards per game in 2016, and they ranked second in the country in rushing yards per game in 2015.
Though Briles’ offenses have shown they can run the ball effectively, the style of running he did in the Big 12 and at FAU and Houston are different than what Pruitt wanted to run at Tennessee this past season and what typically has success in the SEC. But Kiffin thinks Briles’ style will translate perfectly fine to the SEC.
“Look at Josh Heupel at Missouri, just look at the statistical turnaround in the SEC when he went there and was on offense a couple years ago and what they did,” Kiffin explained. “It’s happened with Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss. It’s not like these guys who go fast and spread you out haven’t come in and had great success in the conference.”
Heupel served as Missouri’s offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017 before he accepted the head coaching position at UCF prior to this season. His Missouri offenses were very potent, finishing first in the conference in points per game in 2017 and fifth in 2016. Freeze had plenty of success at Ole Miss as their head coach from 2012-16, finishing in the top half of the conference in total yards and scoring in almost every one of his five seasons with the Rebels.
Kiffin also added that Briles’ system would be good for a team like Tennessee’s that has struggled with protection on the offensive line and may not have the same overall talent as some of the top teams in the conference. Briles runs an up-tempo offense that keeps plays rolling in and out and doesn’t usually have a lot of long, drawn out plays. His Houston team ran 937 plays this season, FAU ran 1,026 plays in 2017, and Baylor ran 1,108 plays in 2016 and 1,103 plays in 2015.
For comparison, Tennessee ran 716 plays this season, their lowest total since 2004. Missouri led the SEC in the regular season with 924 plays run on offense.
It would be a big change from what the Vols looked like on offense this past season, but Kiffin is confident that Briles would fit in perfectly at Tennessee if Pruitt ultimately decides to hire him as his offensive coordinator.
“He’d be a great fit for anybody,” Kiffin said. “If you want to score a lot on Saturday and win games, he’s a really good fit.”