OXNARD, Calif. — Monte Kiffin still can run.
As Cowboys practice concludes, the new Dallas defensive coordinator sprints past a converging throng of media and up a hill toward the team’s makeshift locker room. Not bad for a 73-year-old.
Kiffin, a former Husker player and assistant, slows down only upon recognizing a reporter from his recent tenure at USC. He stops to talk, and if you think his gait is fast, you should hear the words spill out of his mouth.
“He kind of reminds me of the guy off ‘The Waterboy,’ the old country guy who kind of rambles,” veteran cornerback Brandon Carr said, referencing the hilariously incomprehensible Farmer Fran. “Sometimes you can’t understand what he’s saying. But he gets his point across. Guys really relate to him.”
That the Cowboys’ consensus so far when it comes to Kiffin: They love him. They love his enthusiasm. They love his passion. They love his motor.
Coach Jason Garrett mentioned how Kiffin would take his assistants onto the field in the offseason — without players — to teach them how to coach the 4-3 defense he is bringing to Dallas. Kiffin also was a big hit at a clinic for Dallas-area youth and high school coaches held last week at AT&T Stadium.
“The first guy, the first one right out of the box, the first person who stood up at the podium about 9 o’clock in the morning was Monte Kiffin,” Garrett said. “I think he blew them away.”
Kiffin’s mouth and legs are in constant motion on the practice field. After showing a defensive lineman how to use his hands to beat a blocker, Kiffin heads across the field to tutor the defensive backs. He later returns to see how the linemen are applying their techniques while running through a maze of pop-up dummies.
“I hope I have that type of energy when I’m 73 years old,” said Jason Witten, the Cowboys’ 31-year-old tight end.
Monte Kiffin can still run. But can he still run a defense?
Forgive USC fans if they view the Cowboys’ hiring of Kiffin with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Kiffin was supposed to be one-third of a dream team of coaches lured from Tennessee in January 2010, along with son Lane, the Trojans’ head coach, and recruiting ace Ed Orgeron. Yet in three seasons, USC never finished higher than 54th in the nation in total defense or 40th in points allowed per game.
In Kiffin’s bio in the Cowboys media guide, there is no mention of any of his defenses’ accomplishments while at Tennessee for one season and USC the past three. It’s almost as if it never happened, or shouldn’t count against him.
Kiffin resigned at the end of the 2012 season. He described his time at USC as “awesome.” But it wasn’t remotely satisfying.
“Heck no,” Kiffin said. “Especially the last year. I didn’t like to go out like that.”
After going 10-2 in 2011 — with the defense playing a crucial role — the Trojans began 2012 as the top-ranked team in the nation. They sputtered to a 7-6 finish, including a 62-51 loss to Oregon in which the Ducks piled up 730 yards. No opponent had scored more points or accumulated more yards against USC.
For reasons that never were entirely clear, the Trojans’ defense never coalesced under Kiffin for an entire season. The unit struggled against spread-style offenses that weren’t in vogue when Kiffin coached in the NFL. (He helped Tampa Bay win Super Bowl XXXVII, one of several NFL accomplishments his bio does highlight.)
It wasn’t unreasonable to wonder whether the game had passed Kiffin by. Yet less than two weeks after his final game at USC, the Cowboys hired him to reshape their scuffling defense.
Fair to compare?
The Cowboys ranked 19th or worse in total defense, points allowed and takeaways last season. They haven’t had a top-10 defense since 2009 — the last time they made the playoffs.
Dallas fired coordinator Rob Ryan, and its players are fully embracing the Kiffin doctrine during training camp. They don’t share the cynicism prevalent in other parts of Southern California.
“I don’t see it at all because of the way he coaches and the knowledge he has,” middle linebacker Sean Lee said. “When I look at myself and some of the kids back in college, football wasn’t 100 percent the main focus. Our focus is football, being great at this craft. That’s what we are. We’re professionals. This is a completely different situation when it comes to teaching, how much you can teach, how well we respond to the teaching. That’s why I think it’s kind of apples to oranges.”
Kiffin had a hard time dealing with the NCAA’s “20-hour rule,” which limits how much time coaches can spend with players. Back in the NFL, he can watch as much film with them as he wants.
“Even in college, the players want to come up and talk football,” Kiffin said. “But you can’t go on the board; you can’t do a lot of things with them. (Now) they can come in and watch tape anytime they want. It’s just a different deal.”
Kiffin won’t face as many exotic offenses in Dallas as he did at USC. But it’s worth noting that the new coach of the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles is Chip Kelly — the same Chip Kelly who devised the Oregon scheme Kiffin’s defense couldn’t stop last November. Another NFC East foe, Washington, runs a similar type of read-option offense.
Veteran Cowboys safety Will Allen, who played for Kiffin in Tampa, said his old coordinator has “some new things he’s implementing.” Perhaps those tweaks will make a difference. Perhaps returning to the NFL, where he had great success before, is all Kiffin needs to recapture his mojo.
Can Monte Kiffin still run a defense? We’ll see.