Lane Kiffin most recently guided Florida Atlantic to a 10-3 season, a Conference USA title and its fourth bowl game in program history. Less than a week later, he was named the head coach at Ole Miss.
His hiring came with national media attention, a visibly excited fanbase with thousands in attendance for his first press conference, and competition in the Southeastern Conference trying to play it cool while silently worrying Ole Miss may have just made it biggest hire in decades.
The new face of Rebel football brings with him a roller-coaster career but also carries a proven track record of success at the highest level. And points. A lot of points.
Kiffin, 45, is entering the latter half of his career (which is crazy at such a young age) and has brought a fantastic staff with him to lead a very boom-ready offense in Oxford. Kiffin has relinquished the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby who will lead the offense in 2020.
We have a general sense for what the system could resemble under his watch, and we’ve seen quarterbacks thrive with Lebby’s guidance, but there is very little direct confirmation of what the play sheet will look like come September 26. Despite his intentional distance from the role, Kiffin will undoubtedly have significant influence as he did when Kendall Briles and Charlie Weis Jr. were his offensive coordinators at Florida Atlantic.
Editor’s note: this is one of the longest posts the Cup has ever taken on, looking in-depth at the career of our new head coach. Your legs will definitely fall asleep if you read this during your morning trip to the bathroom. Please read responsibly.
To get a general idea of what Ole Miss could look like with Kiffin’s influence, let’s take a look back at some of his former offenses. First, gaining an understanding of his coaching lineage is important. Kiffin began learning the game under his father Monte Kiffin (now a defensive-minded advisor to the program) and studied under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay in the early 2000s. His first Power 5 job came at Southern California where Kiffin absorbed the offense of Norm Chow, who brought a version of LaVell Edwards’ pass-heavy BYU offense to Los Angeles.
If Hal Mumme and Mike Leach are considered the revolutionaries of the uptempo, ‘Air Raid’ offense so prevalent in today’s game, Edwards is a founding father and deserves a place at the table alongside passing-game innovators Sid Gillman, Don Coryell and Bill Walsh. The numbers of Edwards’ top performing quarterbacks speak for themselves:
- Marc Wilson (29 touchdowns for an 11-1 team in 1979)
- Jim McMahon (47 touchdowns and 4,571 yards in 1980; 30 touchdowns and 3,555 yards in 1981)
- Steve Young (33 touchdowns, 3,902 yards in 1983)
- Robbie Bosco (33 touchdowns, 3875 yards in 1984; 30 touchdowns, 4,273 yards in 1985)
- Ty Detmer (121 career touchdowns with 15,031 yards) — won the 1990 Heisman Trophy
Young played for three of the four ‘Mount Rushmore’ coaches just mentioned. He once spoke about how all three offenses were connected and way ahead of its time. That notion rings true today - every time a team lines up with four or five wide receivers, goes fast and throws the ball deep, which Kiffin and Lebby will, Edwards is in part to thank.
Chow, who was USC’s offensive coordinator in the early 2000s, learned from Edwards. Kiffin was under Chow’s tutelage. A high-tempo, intricate twist on simple schemes is the only offense Kiffin has ever known, and he has proved he can call it.
Southern California, 2005-2006 — Offensive Coordinator
When Chow left for the same position with the Tennessee Titans in 2004, Trojans head coach Pete Carroll wanted to update his offensive attack with NFL concepts. He wanted to build from Chow’s skeleton and implement some of the ideas of Gruden, who had won a Super Bowl the year prior. Carroll called upon Kiffin to take the reigns as passing game coordinator first and then co-offensive coordinator with Steve Sarkisian, who played under Edwards at BYU.
USC averaged 579 yards per game and became the first offense with two 1,000 yard rushers, a 3,000 yard passer and a 1,000 yard receiver (almost two) with the Sark/Kiffin duo calling plays in 2005. Getting the ball to his playmakers, creating chaos and targeting mismatches is what Kiffin is all about. Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Matt Leinart, Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith and an incredible group of Big Uglies came together to create one of the best offense in college football history.
A big part of the success came from keeping the defense on its toes while also taking what the defense gave. See here how the offense lined up in an empty set out of the huddle and then shifted into a basic I-formation set pre-snap.
Watch the confusion of the defense. When the offense revolves around specific athletes, it’s important to disguise where they are lining up in effort to create a mismatch. Motion is a big factor in the camouflage.
In this instance, early in the first half of the ‘Bush Push’ game, The President moved from the backfield out wide to the far left sideline and created a one-on-one matchup with a buck linebacker. As a result, the safety followed Bush to the numbers and left the tight end with a middle linebacker in single coverage over the middle. The safety, keyed on the Heisman Trophy winner, couldn’t get up to the middle of the field and Leinart hit Dominique Byrd for more than 25 yards.
Using a running back as a receiver in space is something that occurs often in a Kiffin scheme and for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Against Houston Nutt’s Arkansas, which USC obliterated 70-17 (LOL), Bush broke from the backfield and followed Jarrett on a go route. This forced the outside linebacker (who would play as a ‘viper’ in 2020) to keep up with someone who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash. It also left the cornerback that man-marked Jarrett in a precarious situation when the ball was released. Neither the defensive back nor the safety had enough time to cut back to the sideline, and Bush scored.
The original score was called back, but Kiffin went right back to a version of what worked a few plays later. In this instance, however, the Trojans worked from an empty set with Bush and Smith on the edge from the get-go. Bush again took off for a fly route and Smith ran the same skinny post that Jarrett ran on the flagged touchdown. The defense keyed on Bush (because he scored on the same route less than two minutes ago) and left Smith, who burnt the defensive back, wide open.
It’s not hard to imagine Kiffin using Jerrion Ealy in a similar manner. The sophomore back is already showing his hands in fall camp, and there is a small comparison to be made for the type of running back Bush was, and what Ealy could be in his new head coach’s system.
Another important nuance to the 2005 USC offense is the check down. For what is a relatively minimalist drawing board, each play has a complex order of reads, like any good offense does. On this play against Fresno State, the entire offense is catered to the left side. The first look went to the sideline for the deep ball. It is not there, so Leinart pumped to try and draw the safety over to the sideline and then looked to the middle of the field for his slot receiver running a post corner post route.
The throw didn’t go over top, which means the safety must not have bit. With his primary reads covered, a lefty Leinart turned away from the designed direction and came back to off-hand flip it to the flat. With the play set up to the opposite side of the field and the defense sliding over, White broke loose and found some wiggle room in space.
Oakland Raiders, 2007-2008 — Head Coach
USC’s 2005 and 2006 offense was so explosive Kiffin became the head coach of the Oakland Raiders at 31 years old. While his time in the East Bay wasn’t successful and (mutually) came to a screeching halt midway through year two, he was dealt a bad roster and forced to draft Jamarcus Russell (who can throw a ball 70 yards from his knees, according to scouts, which still doesn’t matter in an actual game).
Even though a lack of talent didn’t translate to results, his use of space for a combination of Daunte Culpepper, Josh McCown and Russell in 2007 is notable. All three quarterbacks were not standup pocket passers, which allotted some additional room to maneuver in the backfield, and the receiving core and protection weren’t strong enough to hold their own. In a sense, it played right into the hands of Kiffin’s simplicity.
Looking at his third down passes, the goal is to get the ball off. By marking good splits, the intention is to create a larger pocket and provide the quarterback with more time by spacing each offensive lineman out at the line of scrimmage. For a bad team in particular, space should allow a comfortable cadence. Kiffin’s routes are no longer than 12 yards and don’t take long to develop to minimize pass rush effectiveness. No double moves, no pick plays, just guys getting open. The quarterback’s reads move from the outside in, the eyes move quickly to identify a mismatch and pull the trigger before a defense can let its coverage develop.
The Raiders’ personnel woes in the passing game was one thing, but the run game was another. Justin Fargas was Kiffin’s top running back. Not to knock Fargas, who played at USC in 2002 when Kiffin was the team’s wide receivers coach and recorded a 1,000-yard season with the Raiders in 2007, but he isn’t the talent you’d like in an NFL back.
It was a bad team, so the playbook reflects a heavy amount of base runs.
Kiffin learned a valuable lesson in Oakland; if an offense gains three yards on every play, it scores.
Southern California, 2010-2013 — Head Coach
The on-field results didn’t equate to a long tenure in the NFL, but Kiffin’s playbook expanded to include pro-style looks he learned from, well, the actual pros. He spent a year at Tennessee before returning to Los Angeles in 2010. When he became the head coach at USC, Kiffin’s playbook had molded into as much his own as it was what he learned. However, the imprint of each former confidant remains in his offense.
Let’s take a look at Kiffin’s plan for USC’s 2010 rivalry game against its crosstown rivals.
The weekly reading begins by providing his offensive weapons an honest assessment of those on the other side of the ball. He labels the secondary with terms like “runs around blocks,” “soft, plays high,” “limited,” and “takes plays off, don’t keep him in the game.” It’s all fairly common place and important to expose weakness at the forefront, but it wouldn’t be right unless Kiffin made his mark. fUCLA.
When it comes to the Xs and Os, much of the run game and base passes are NFL and pro-style staples, but Kiffin had begun to absorb his surroundings and sprinkle in concepts from teams he faced along the way. Here, he drew up an inside zone with the option to throw a backside bubble screen. It is not a particularly unique or different, but it’s something that grew from facing West Coast teams and wouldn’t have been in the OG playbook.
The middle of the book is a little bit more complicated and uses active movement to perplex the defense. Both plays below open with a symmetric Ace doubles formation and 10 personnel— two receivers on the line of scrimmage, two offset and one tailback. After the ball is snapped, the equilibrium stays stable and the blocking mirrors itself in numbers on either side of the field.
As mentioned, Kiffin scores points. He moves the ball decisively down field and then gets creative in the red zone. This is the most nifty part of his offense. Whether the defense plays man-to-man or a short zone, Kiffin always has fun answers.
‘Far LT Slot R RT Q8 Z Rub’ is an adapted version of a ‘Sprint Right Option’, which is much easier to say and common in any West Coast system. In Kiffin’s iteration, the middle receiver sets a pick for the tailback in the flat. The outside receiver runs a double move to the post and then breaks back to the sideline. The quarterback’s first read is the running back off the edge. If a linebacker sticks with the back, or a defensive back comes up to cover the gap, the quarterback will look next to the outside. The receiver should be hauling ass to the back corner of the end zone. If neither option is there, or the lane is wide open, the quarterback can take it himself. Notice too how each target has multiple option routes if the coverage lapses or shows a certain look.
Kiffin uses his tailback as the foreman again here, getting him into the flat with a wall of receivers. With the Z and the Y setting blocks, it’s really difficult for a linebacker in any sort of man-to-man coverage to get out and cover a player coming out of the backfield. If the defense is running a zone coverage, with the play moving right and the defense keying on the back, there’s a good change that the crossing route will be open coming from the backside.
The 2012 season didn’t go as planned and Kiffin went 4–7 in his last eleven games at USC, which sealed his fate. The Trojans hung tight with No. 1 Notre Dame (lol) but fell short 22-13. Facing 4th and goal from the Irish 1-yard line, trailing by 9 points with 2:33 left, Kiffin decided to go for it. The decision defied conventional (read: conservative and easy) thought, and when the move failed, it opened him up to condemnation.
But it was actually the right move and the math is definitive.
When it comes to fourth down situations with less than five yards to go, an offense should go for it a majority of the time. It increases the chances of scoring points, thus increasing the chances of winning.
Kiffin likes numbers and points but not kicking field goals kind of points.
Alabama, 2014-2016 — Offensive Coordinator
While his calculated and confident decision making was part of the reason he was let go at USC, it was a big factor into why Nick Saban hired him. Saban noticed the game was evolving, saw it passing him by (though he’d never admit it), and wanted a modern take on Alabama’s offense. Kiffin could help build that.
A good offensive coordinator at Alabama implements his own strategies in a sector of Saban’s system where he can actually receive credit. He needs to be good at controlling the ball and establishing the tempo, and has to be able to develop a quarterback. Maximizing and deploying the top-tier talent available to the Tide is one thing, but elevating the play of the signal-caller to where the full weight of that talent can come to bear is another.
Part of the ‘Alabama way’ is imposing its will on opponents. See here in 2016 when Kiffin is backed up against the goal line and called the same play three times at warp speed. He learned in Oakland that three yards per play is all it takes and meshes that idea with Saban’s ideology of overpowering opponents.
Kiffin proved he could handle running the offense of the nation’s top team right away in 2014, despite losing at Ole Miss. After spending 2010 to 2013 as a running back and backup, Blake Sims was named the starting quarterback, threw for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns, and led Alabama to the College Football Playoff Semifinals. The production his new offensive coordinator was able to get out of him was impressive and notable for Ole Miss with a quarterback like John Rhys Plumlee, who is more of a runner than a passer.
The job Kiffin did in Tuscaloosa in 2015 may actually be more impressive, considering he didn’t have as many prolific playmakers at his disposal... from an Alabama perspective, at least. When he needed to do something other than give the ball to his 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back (Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry), he copy-catted successful film.
The Tide lost to the Rebels for the second time in two years but went on to win the National Championship. Before taking down Clemson in the title game, Alabama’s win over Michigan State in the Playoff Semifinal was one of Kiffin’s best games. He loosened up a stellar Sparty defense with short passes, packaged plays and screens, and then surgically dismantled it.
Here’s where the copy-cat film study comes in.
Much of the success the Tide had that day came on recycled plays that recently worked for Baylor and Oregon against Michigan State. In its most simple form, the Spartans run a hybrid man/zone coverage defense where the cornerbacks are typically marked on a receiver while the linebackers are free to stop the run. The weak point of this system is the stress it puts on the safeties to play the run and still be able to step up into man-to-man coverage. Kiffin took from the tape and exposed them.
Alabama’s first deep ball was a ripoff of a play that went for six against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl a year prior. The Baylor receivers took the cornerbacks out of the play, quarterback Bryce Petty sold a ball fake and K.D. Cannon blew by the safety on a vertical route.
In the same game, in the same stadium, a year later, Kiffin used the same concept to engineer a 50-yard bomb to Calvin Ridley. Alabama’s outside receivers ran routes to hold the cornerbacks on the sideline, the quarterback made a play-action fake to hold the linebackers and Ridley ran the exact same post and fade route that leaves Michigan State’s safety in a tough spot. He gets stuck trying to read the play-fake and is forced to react with man coverage on Ridley, which doesn’t work.
When Michigan State played Oregon in 2014, the Ducks turned it on in the second half with several long throws from Marcus Mariota. By using bunch sets with receivers criss-crossing at the snap, Chip Kelly (who Kiffin faced at USC) and the Ducks were able to confuse the Spartans secondary and disrupt their coverage responsibilities.
On this scoring play, Oregon ran four vertical routes while the No. 2 and 3 receivers on the left side switch their releases and the running back motions into the flat. The defensive backs got mixed up with the crossing routes and were forced to stay up in case the ball went to the tailback. Their split second of hesitation leaves them in no man’s land.
By combining staple Oregon concepts that he learned along the way and confirming them as effective on film, Kiffin continued to show off his seasoned offense in the Cotton Bowl.
Alabama lines up here with bunched receivers to each side and orchestrates a version of the deep crossing route that Kelly used the year prior. The back runs a fake screen to the near sideline to keep the linebackers’ first step forward. On the opposite side, Ridley runs the post while the other receiver runs the deep cross. Ridley again gets into a one-one-one situation with the safety and won’t lose that matchup.
With Joey Freshwater in charge, Alabama also had some fun play signals from the sideline.
He also had so much confidence in his offense that he often signaled for a touchdown well prior to the play being over. In the 2014 SEC Championship game, Kiffin threw his hands up before the ball even left the quarterback’s hands.
During the 2015 National Championship, he knew Alabama had six points before O.J. Howard had even caught the ball.
Confidence is key, and Kiffin has it in bunches.
Florida Atlantic, 2017-2019 — Head Coach
Kiffin moved on from Alabama in 2017 and accepted a head coaching job at Florida Atlantic. The Owls were historically awful, but the man in the visor immediately turned things around. He handed over the play calling duties for the first time in his career and gave the keys to Kendall Briles, who, like Lebby, learned the game at Baylor under his father Art Briles. Kiffin wanted to free up his time and take more of a hands-off approach to his program, resembling that of Saban.
Both coaches use spread offenses, but Briles’ is bare-boned. It is a scheme so simple, the team didn’t issue playbooks. Fewer formations meant less motion, which allowed FAU to go faster. Kiffin’s influence was mixed in for difference situations and scenarios that came up, instead of whole formational details. For example, Kiffin helped Briles with having a certain play ready for when the Owls needed a chunk play late in the game.
FAU’s offense in 2017 was a mix of Jaylen Hurts at Alabama and Baylor, for lack of better picture to paint. Baylor’s offense has typically been a run-heavy system and in 2015, when Lebby was the passing game coordinator, running backs coach and handled some of the play calling duties, the Bears ranked fourth with 54.9 rushes per game. That aspect of Briles’ offense translated well to a backfield coached by Kevin Smith (who will lead the group in Oxford) and headlined by the ever-nasty rising NFL superstar Devin Singletary.
At Alabama, Kiffin ran a lot of inside zone. With Briles, FAU centered its base runs around an iso concept that didn’t force the tackles to push their defensive counterparts horizontally. If the end wanted to move outside, the Big Uglies would move with them and lock them out.
Watch the left tackle here seal his man outside, which allows the back a clear lane inside.
With such a strong runner in the backfield, the same thought process that Kiffin learned with the Raiders and had engrained by Saban applies... If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
As is typical of Kiffin’s offense, he runs a small base package of plays at very high speeds. Under Briles, the base package is even smaller. Every play in the offense has a progression follow-up, and when the tempo is as fast as Kiffin and Briles like to go, the defense gets lost in the misdirection.
For example, the inside read comes with this unique twist. Both Baylor and the Seattle Seahawks run this play, and both coaches have direct ties to each. The Owls show the inside-zone read, but the running back cuts back and becomes a lead blocker for the quarterback on the edge.
Another example of this reactive differentiation is with the Jet Sweep. The Jet Sweep is fun to begin with, but Briles and Kiffin went even crazier with it. They often would run the traditional play early in the game and then follow it up with one of the following successive versions later in the game.
After running a true sweep in the first quarter, the Owls ran a play-action fake that drew the safety in and left a receiver wide open over the middle.
The really fun one came in a tight game against Marshall. Jet sweep reverse flea flicker!!!
As he did with Hurts at Alabama, Kiffin kept the inverted veer in the playbook. It’s a power run that eliminates the frontside end by reading him. If he tries to squeeze down, the quarterback gives the ball and the running back breaks to the edge.
If the end attempts to stay out and contain the edge run, the quarterback keeps it himself and takes it through the B gap.
Expect the inverted veer to be something that follows Kiffin to Ole Miss. As mentioned before at nauseam, the goal is to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers. Out of this formation, either Plumlee or Matt Corral could be a valuable runner on the keep, and Ealy will be raw speed outside of the tackles.
Briles left in the 2017-2018 offseason for the same role at Houston and Charlie Weis Jr. took over. Kiffin again ceded play calling responsibilities to his offensive coordinator, but had a much heavier authority over the system. He incorporated the high-tempo and formation simplicity of Briles’ offense into the volumes of offensive schemes he banked from his previous stops along the way, worked with Weis to mesh some of their ideologies and put it on paper.
Former FAU quarterback and Kiffin disciple Chris Robison gave a good understanding of what it looks like earlier this offseason, and a big part of it revolves around playing with confidence. Yes, that includes fourth down decisions.
4th down conversions are child's play for Chris Robison— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) November 16, 2018
This big play led to a @FAU_Football TD! pic.twitter.com/g7VxWoPaWK
“Ninety-nine percent of coaches don’t do it because if it doesn’t work you guys will rip us in the media,” Kiffin said in 2017. “That’s the easy way out. The other way is, `Ok, this is what percentages say, put the belief in your players that they’re going to do it.’”
Kiffin plays to score points. Scoring points wins games, according to a Google search the Cup just did about how to win a football game.
Until Ole Miss football takes the field against Florida on Sept. 26, there is no way to know exactly what the offense will look like under Lebby with Kiffin’s guidance. One thing is for certain, however. The Rebels’ playbook will have the direct influence of Lane Kiffin, Jeff Lebby, Jon Gruden, Nick Saban, Pete Carroll, Norm Chow, LaVell Edwards, Jim Chaney, Kendall and Art Briles, Steve Sarkisian, Josh Heupel, and anyone who has touched them along the way. Quite the tree for quite the offense.
History shows a Kiffin offense is based around simple concepts blooming into complex intricacies, goes fast, and gets the ball to the best athletes. With Corral, Plumlee, Ealy, Snoop Conner and Henry Parrish in the backfield, and a group of fast, physical wide receivers led by Elijah Moore at his disposal, the next few years will be fun.