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Lane Kiffin’s first six months as head coach of Ole Miss football have been anything but typical

The impact of COVID-19 on a first-year head coach is vast.

Rogelio V Solis - Associated Press

Lane Kiffin was named the head coach of Ole Miss football on December 7, 2019 and stepped back into the brightest spotlight in the most passionate and best conference in college football after spending 19 years building a polarizing and established career.

It was the perfect hire in a dire period of transition for a program that needed a culture shift. However, Kiffin’s short time on the job has been unconventional, and that’s an understatement.

To sign on as the head honcho at a historic university with a talented roster that floundered to 4-8 in 2019 is a tall task to begin with. To do so under high national scrutiny with immediate expectations in the era of the early signing period is even more difficult. And then the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt.

Take a look back at Kiffin’s first six months in Oxford:

The (Brief) Honeymoon

Kiffin’s hire was officially announced by AD Keith Carter and Ole Miss on Saturday, December 7th, hours after his Florida Atlantic Owls had stomped the UAB Blazers 49-9 in the Conference USA title game. He was on a plane to Oxford on Sunday and was met by hundreds of fans on the tarmac. He held a baby.

Monday rolled around and the official introduction was held in front of a packed house at the Pavilion. Beers were half-price!!

Moments later, the extensive media carwash began and smiles came with it.

It started to set in. Lane Kiffin was the head football coach at the University of Mississippi.

In real life.

Let’s get down to business

Once the initial day of commencement came to its conclusion, it was time to go to work. Kiffin was handed the keys, without a staff, just 10 days before Early Signing Day. His first priority came with talking to the roster that was already in place and then he hit the recruiting trail, for both players and coaching counterparts.

The 41-year-old began to piece together his personnel and brought FAU running backs coach and former NFL veteran Kevin Smith with him to serve the same role in Oxford, lured in experienced offensive line coach Randy Clements and hired UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to the same position at Ole Miss.

All the while, Kiffin was traveling from Conway, Ark. to Baton Rouge, La. to Starkville, Miss. and everywhere in between during his first week on the job. There was no time to waste and shortly thereafter, Lebby and Kiffin landed their first commitment from quarterback Kade Renfro.

He, along with 11 other recruits, signed with Ole Miss on December 18th and Kiffin’s first signing day finished with the No. 40 ranked recruiting class. It was not a show-stopping day, but with the quick turnaround and short staff, it was fine.

The first wave of recruiting was finished, there was a short moment for Kiffin to catch his breath, and the priority moved back toward the people he wanted around him. He made big splashes by hiring former Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin and Michigan’s recruiting extraordinaire Chris Partridge as co-defensive coordinators, and stole Texas A&M’s tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley right out from under Jimbo Fisher’s eyes.

And then the dominoes started to fall when former Temple tight end Kenny Yeboah announced his transfer to Ole Miss. He may not have been the most statistically productive player in Pennsylvania, but his talent is undeniable and he filled a huge void at the position.

Georgia defensive back Otis Reese joined the transfer train just days later and the biggest day for recruiting was on the horizon. National Signing Day came and went without any loud noise, but commitments came from 4-star running back Henry Parrish and 4-star freak-of-nature defensive end Demon Clowney.

It was a confident, but not super exciting transition class that received a last-minute boost from four-star athlete Marc Britt a few weeks later.

Focus shifted immediately toward the 2021 class and prepping for spring football, but not without a complete staff.

Kiffin finished piecing together a deep group of coaches and off-field personnel that caters toward recruiting, but doesn’t neglect the on-field teaching or Xs and Os. He capped it off by converting defensive back coach Terrell Buckley and defensive line coach Deke Adams from in-state rival Bulldogs to Rebels. It is arguably the best staff in the nation. Seriously.

The full picture came together on February 20th, and the hype began to brew.

COVID-19 puts a hold on on athletics, but momentum keeps rolling

No more than a month after Kiffin finalized his backroom, the Coronavirus global pandemic hit the United States and temporarily shut down life as we know it, including spring athletic competitions and all in-person recruiting and team events for all sports. This meant no spring football practice, no spring game and no in-home or campus visits.

Having never dealt with something of this significance in the modern era, COVID-19 required an immediate transition among athletic departments to ‘the new normal’ and forced a pivot to virtual life indefinitely. The coaching staff prepared itself accordingly and began to hit the virtual recruiting trail.

As video calls became standard, all signs pointed toward business as usual and the coaches began to offer players from around the country extending as far as New England— something that was not the case with previous regimes.

Commitments started to roll in from a pair of 4-star receivers in Adonai Mitchell and Bralon Brown, and rising sophomore defensive back Deantre Prince seemingly announced his return to the team after a short stint in the transfer portal. Team meetings have happened virtually and guest speakers (a big part of Kiffin’s get-togethers) preach the value of hard work and commitment to the craft, especially as at-home workouts require dedication and an internal drive to get better.

Kiffin and company are making money moves despite the restrictions, and having some fun while doing it.

To add the icing on top of the bizarre offseason cake, Mississippi State defensive underclassmen Fabien Lovett and Jarrian Jones have both entered the transfer portal and seem to be trending toward Ole Miss as their next destination, following their former coaches Buckley and Adams. Stay tuned there.

Considering the circumstances, Ole Miss is on the right path.

The effects of Coronavirus on Kiffin’s first year loom large

While all signs point positive during a time where negativity could trounce a college football team’s headlines, it is not an ideal situation for a first-year head coach. There are a lot of decisions to be made before the start of the 2020 season, and there is no definitive answer as to if or when college football will return.

The biggest glaring challenge comes with the cancellation of spring football. For any team, the April practice period is a time to work through new schemes, learn new plays and get a feel for the roster before putting the pieces together in a full-speed game situation. While returning coaches have a general feel of the players on the depth chart and only have to decipher how to fill the holes from graduates, Kiffin, his coordinators and the position coaches have not seen single their guys play in-person. This makes it difficult to know who to play where and when, and makes it even more difficult to implement a brand new spread offense pass-forward system after Matt Luke and Rich Rodriguez forgot how to throw the ball. It is easy to imagine that the new offensive minds will see the success that the Rebels had on the ground and keep a lot of what worked more so than they may have with a traditional, complete offseason.

The Rebels ran a 3-4 defensive scheme under Mike MacIntyre in 2020. Durkin, on the other hand, runs one of the most unique defensive schemes in college football that is not defined by one category and must therefore be called a “multiple” defense. He demands versatility from his players and calls plays from multiple defensive fronts. Both Durkin, as defensive coordinator, and Partridge, as the director of player personnel, were on staff at Michigan when the Wolverines ranked No. 6 in total defense after the 2015-16 season.

His base defense comes primarily out of the 4-3 front, but he mixes in 3-4 and 3-3-5 fronts. By not using two-gap schemes, he often utilizes a nose tackle that is only responsible for one gap and switches fronts without substituting players in and out for each set. This requires his players to know multiple defenses and understand a variety of play calls.

While a young, raw talented roster like the current Rebel roster would typically be moldable and able to grow under a new defensive coordinator, the spring period is a crucial time for learning. Without 15 days of practice and a scrimmage before the fall rolls around, it will be harder to adjust to the changes and work out the kinks.

One of the biggest questions that Kiffin and Lebby will need to answer revolves around the most important player on the field. The Rebel quarterback room has three legitimate contenders to take the first snap from center on opening day. John Rhys Plumlee is the young runner coming off a historic freshman season, Matt Corral is the experienced gunslinger and Grant Tisdale is the fairly untested dual-threat who rarely lost in high school.

Without the spring for evaluation, the time to get a feel for who best fits the new offense is cut in half and it makes it more difficult to move away from the incumbent.

That isn’t to say Kiffin won’t look at all of his options. And no matter who gets the nod as the starting signal-caller, a clear-cut play maker will need to step up to support him offensively.

Another significant concern comes with strength and agility training, although every team in the nation faces this worry. Players have not been in the weight room or on the field and have not been pushed in the same way that they would in the facilities. Instead, accountability lies on the athletes to self-monitor their workouts and get back to playing shape. Strength coach Wilson Love has been forced to pivot his regimen toward ease and simplicity for at-home workouts without proper equipment.

Football is a physical, fast sport that requires physicality and peak health. The body will require an extra period of adjustment before it can handle the hits and movement of the game. Without spring practice and a proper offseason routine, players could enter fall camp without being ready to go, posing the risk of injury or simply being out of shape.

COVID-19 has posed a plethora of difficulties for the entirety of the NCAA, but first-year coaching staffs like Kiffin and Ole Miss are most affected. There are a lot of unique situations to work through as a program and there is no timeline for when the process may be able to continue as normal.

Party on, Lane

It has been an interesting journey for Kiffin to get to this point in his career, and the start of his tenure atop the Ole Miss football program has been no different. Even with all of the chaos and uncertainty, the future is bright in Oxford and only continues to get more fun.

It’s been said before and will be said again... Get on board the Lane Train or get run over.