In December of 2019, Miami Hurricanes head football coach Mark Richt elected to retire from coaching after a Pinstripe Bowl loss to the Wisconsin Badgers. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had already taken the head coaching job at Temple, but former Miami AD Blake James chose to buy Diaz out of his contract and hire him as the ‘Canes new head football coach.
Diaz had been the Hurricanes defensive coordinator since the 2016 season and his only head coaching experience was over two weeks with the Owls after replacing Geoff Collins in Philly.
What if Blake James had taken a true risk and had hired Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin instead of bringing Diaz back to Miami?
Lane Kiffin’s story has been well told so we’ll only go into a short background here. The son of legendary defensive coordinator Monty Kiffin, Lane Kiffin played QB at Fresno State prior to joining the Bulldogs staff as an assistant coach.
Kiffin became a highly regarded “offensive mind” under Pete Carroll at USC. While at USC the Trojans won two BCS National Championships and played for a third title in a close loss to the Texas Longhorns. USC finished 23-3 with Kiffin as the OC, and the Davis family tabbed him as the then Oakland Raiders head coach in 2007.
Kiffin failed miserably with the Raiders before taking over as the head coach with the Tennessee Volunteers for one season. Kiffin’s reputation was tarnished after he ran from UT to USC in the middle of the night after only one season- a 7-6 season at that.
After 3 1⁄2 years at USC, Kiffin was fired “on the tarmac” as he says before heading back to campus. Kiffin’s record as head coach at USC was 28-15, including a 10-2 season in 2011. The Trojans were coming off of sanctions caused by the Pete Carroll regime and were ineligible for a bowl game and had many scholarship reductions to deal with.
After his firing at USC, Kiffin spent the 2014-2016 seasons as the offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama.
Nick Saban Rehab Program
Saban had been unhappy with the Crimson Tide offense, so Doug Nussmeier accepted the Michigan OC job and Lane Kiffin was hired in his stead. Kiffin was brought in to work with Blake Sims, Jake Coker, Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa.
Alabama won the College Football Playoff National Championship for the 2015 season, and lost the College Football Playoff National Championship Game for the 2016 season after taking the FAU head coaching position. Kiffin was relieved of duties prior to the game against the Clemson Tigers, and Steve Sarkisian replaced him for the Championship Game.
When Kiffin took over the FAU program, the Owls were 69th in SP+ offense. In year one Kiffin sparked FAU up to 30th in 2017. The Owls dipped to 46th by 2019 and Kiffin’s last year in Boca Raton.
Kiffin’s record as FAU head coach was 26-13 including 18-6 in conference (8.6 wins per season) and two Boca Raton Bowl appearances. For a reference point, Charlie Partridge won nine games in three years at FAU, Willie Taggart won 15 games in his three years, and Howard Schnellenberger won 32 games over seven years (4.5 wins per season) at FAU as an FBS level team (FCS prior to the 2005 season).
Two double-digit win seasons at FAU is an impressive feat. Unless you count Schnelly’s entire run there (FBS and FCS), it’s never been done before or after, or at least hasn’t as an FBS program.
Kiffin moved on from FAU to Ole Miss after the 2018 11-win season and dealt with COVID restrictions throughout the 2020 season. At Ole Miss, Kiffin’s record is 34-15 (20-13 in the SEC). Kiffin has taken the Rebels to four bowl games with a 2-2 split and an 11th and 9th ranking in four seasons. Outside of the 2023 season, Ole Miss had finished in the top-10 once (2015) since 1969.
Prior to 2021, Ole Miss hadn’t had a 10+ win season since 2015 under Hugh Freeze. Prior to that, the Rebels hadn’t won 10 or more games since 2003 under David Cutcliffe, and in 1971 under Billy Kinard. Over the past 50 seasons Kiffin has two of the Ole Miss Rebels four double-digit win seasons on his resume.
Miami in 2019
Would Blake James have been taking a risk on Kiffin after a 5-7 season in 2018? Absolutely. Kiffin’s best season at FAU was in the next year, but typically AD’s are able to see, or have people around them to see, the real picture behind a team’s win-loss record. Was the prior season a fluke? Was the bad season a fluke? That’s why AD’s should hire analytics people to figure those details out.
Then again, the Hurricanes took a massive risk on Diaz who had no prior head coaching experience. Diaz had actually only coached full-time (not as a student assistant for GA) at five places prior to coming to Coral Gables. Kiffin on the other hand had connections from Alabama, Tennessee, USC, and the NFL.
While Lane mustered up 40 points per game in 2017 with Jason Driskel at QB, the Owls came back down to earth with Chris Robinson behind center in 2018. NFL running back Devin Singletary rushed for 1,918 yards and 1,348 yards in Kiffin’s RPO-happy offense.
Diaz was hired and subsequently hired Dan Enos as his OC. Miami scored a pedestrian 25.7 PPG (90th in FBS) and dropped to a 6-7 record.
Finding talent and a QB at FAU isn’t quite the same as Miami. The Hurricanes had Jarren Williams and N’Kosi Perry on campus as their top two options at QB. Much like Diaz brought in D’Eriq King for the 2020 season with Rhett Lashlee as OC, Kiffin would’ve attracted a QB of a different standard than Enos could muster.
Lane is much more of a culture and disciplinarian than his reputation allows, and than Manny Diaz. Some of the rumored antics that led to losses to FIU more than likely wouldn’t have happened under Kiffin’s much tighter watch.
But I do think Perry could’ve found a ton of success under Kiffin at QB. Perry finished his career with only 22 INT’s over five seasons of play, and tossed 69 TD’s. Perry also ran for 13 scores, 10 of which were at FAU under Taggart.
Imagine Kiffin with NFL quality skill guys like Deejay Dallas, Cam’Ron Harris, Jeff Thomas, K.J. Osborn, Brevin Jordan and Mike Harley. Kiffin loves to spread the ball around as you could see at Ole Miss in 2021 where three backs and a QB rushed for over 500 yards each, 32 combined TD’s on the ground.
Kiffin with the power of Dallas and Harris, and the speed of Thomas and Harley and the NFL potential of Osborn and Jordan would’ve put up more than 25 PPG. Even during COVID the Rebels scored 39 PPG, good for 14th in FBS. Kiffin has never been short on offensive performance and has gotten more of the culture-wins aspect of his persona down as his career has gone on.
It’s true that Kiffin’s Ole Miss defense struggled in 2020. It’s hard during a COVID season to fix it all at once at a new job. But in ‘21 the Rebels picked it up to 51st in points allowed, and 41st by 2023. Kiffin has been astute at hiring and knows when to push guys out the door, and his DC’s have been poached in the past (see: DJ Durkin).
Unlike the Rebels who were in a weird place after Matt Luke was fired, Miami had NFL quality talent on the defense. Gregory Rousseau had his breakout season with 19.5 TFL’s and 15.5 sacks under Diaz’s defense in ‘19. Shaq Quarterman logged 15.5 TFL’s, DJ Ivey came away with a team lead three picks and Trajan Bandy picked up nine PBU’s for the ‘Canes. The Miami defense only allowed 20.2 points per game even with their horrible offense.
The Kiffin Offense
So what did Kiffin’s offense look like in 2019? The Owls scored 36 PPG (14th in FBS) and allowed 22.7 PPG (40th). Robinson was much improved from 2018, throwing 28 TD’s with only six INT’s compared to a 12:12 ratio.
Six different players carried the football 30+ times for the Owls, including Malcom Davidson’s seven yards per carry and nine TD’s. Harris Bryant led the WR’s with 1,004 yards on 15.4 yards per catch and seven TD’s.
Above- Lane is a big 11 personnel guy. He uses his TE, typically one back, and a good amount of motion, pulling, RPO and read option with his QB’s.
I liked to create my offense as a coach based on the Tecmo Super Bowl playbook. I know that sounds stupid, but let’s think about it this way:
Above- Just think about how these playbook were set up. For the Vikings, you’ve got that brutal buck sweep type run, a toss, a reverse, and the ‘counter’ to the buck sweep. In the pass game, similar formations are used for two of 4 plays including a play-action. Oh, and you have a Lashlee type reverse pass trick play.
Above- For the Oilers, you’ve got the typical Run & Shoot single back, 10 personnel picture. Three of four passes are from the same singleback look, one run is from the gun, and a deep shot “six” from the gun as well.
The beauty in the TSB style of play calling is that it’s hard as hell to know what someone is running. It’s all the same pre-snap.
In reality, I liked a similar approach. If you’re basing from inside zone read... the counter is split zone, the ‘tricks’ can be RPO tags (bubble, smoke, pop) and a play-action with a deep post shot is nice, along with some slot motion for both jet sweeps and fakes.
Lane Kiffin’s approach at FAU in 2019 wasn’t too far off from the TSB mindset.
Split Zone as the Base
Kiffin uses a typical inside zone read as his base, but we’re going to look at this approach via the lense of split zone.
Above- Here you’ll see the TE kick out the back side DE in a typical SZ blocking scheme. The back cuts back to the “bend” side or back side B-gap.
Above- One “trick” to add, and it can even be considered a counter in some regards, is the “slip” RPO tag. This can be done across the formation like a true split zone, or to the same side as the back starts. Kiffin uses motion as window dressing. The DE squeezes and sits so the QB pulls and throws the slide route.
Above- Now you have motion and the receiver avoids being a kick out to be the RPO read. The overhang LB ‘hanging out’ forces a give read. The back gets the ball, breaks tackles, and scores.
Above- What do you do when the defense starts to jump the run game? Play-Action. From similar looks he’s used all game for inside and split zone, Kiffin PAP’s off it. This post is an nice, hard fought TD.
Above- Motions, slide routes, etc. turns into play-action and the TE faking the slide and working up the seam. Defenders are around but it’s too much when guys have the OODA Loop advantage.
Above- Of course Kiffin isn’t done being cute. Earlier in the year against FIU (who Miami lost to in 2019), Kiffin is using a Bash look.
Above- Now the QB hands off to the WR on the jet motion going away from the counter pull from the OL. It’s a counter read, not a jet read, so it goes for just a couple of yards vs. a TD. Had the DE to the top of the screen squeezed off the pulling tackle’s butt, that’s a sweep read for the Q.
This is a true Bash play which I recommended for Miami moving forward under OC Shannon Dawson in this post.
Would Lane Kiffin have ‘turned Miami around’ like he has with FAU and Ole Miss? Probably. Since leaving USC, the Trojans have finished 6th (their 2011 ranking) or better only once, in 2016 under Clay Helton, who took over from Steve Sarkisian. In ‘16, the Trojans finished 3rd in the AP poll.
Ole Miss is riding higher than they have since integration and FAU hasn’t seen the level of success Kiffin had there since his departure. Meanwhile, Manny Diaz was fired after posting a 21-15 record (Kiffin was 25-11 between FAU and Ole Miss over that three year span). Mario Cristobal was hired to replace Diaz and has a record of 12-13 in Coral Gables. Cristobal, also a former Saban assistant, has been no match for Kiffin’s 19-7 record in that same time span.
Blake James was clearly not a risk-taker type of AD, and eventually he was forced out of Miami and resurfaced at Boston College. The Eagles head coach, Jeff Hafley, just left for the NFL and this will be James’ first big hire as AD at BC. I wonder who James can land this time around. I doubt it’s anyone ‘risky.’