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With Cowboys, Monte Kiffin takes defensive know-how back to the pros

SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Kiffin is coming off four years of running the defense under his son, Lane, at USC and Tennessee. At 73, this will be the 27th NFL season for 'the godfather of the 4-3' defensive scheme.

July 22, 2013|By Sam Farmer

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Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks dismantled Monte Kiffin's USC defense last season, generating the most yards ever against the Trojans.

It was the lowest point in Kiffin's three-year tenure as the head of the Trojans' defense.

When Kiffin resigned from USC after last season, at least he knew Kelly was merely a memory.

But less than a week after Kiffin was hired as defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles hired Kelly as head coach.

Kiffin smiled at that coincidence Sunday, the first day of Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, but said his plate is far too full for him to focus on one challenge.

"It's not just Chip," Kiffin said after the opening practice of camp, a walk-through. "This whole division is tough. You've got [Eli] Manning in New York, that young quarterback in Washington [Robert Griffin III].…"

At 73, an age when many coaches have retired their whistles, Kiffin has a chance to once again recapture his NFL success. He's coming off four years of running the defense under his son, Lane, the first year at Tennessee and the next three at USC.

The elder Kiffin's USC career ended on a sour note, with him stepping down after a 7-6 season dragged down by bad defense and penalties.

The Cowboys know the feeling. They surrendered a club-record 5,687 yards last season and forced only 16 turnovers, the fewest in team history. Their 3-4 defense was a disaster under then-coordinator Rob Ryan, paving the way for a return to the familiar 4-3 scheme of their famed Doomsday Defense.

"Monte has a long history of running the 4-3, and he was wanting to get back into the NFL," said Stephen Jones, the Cowboys' director of player personnel. "He wanted to be with his son, that's why he left Tampa Bay. He spent some time with his son and grandkids. He made the run and saw that it was a little more difficult to get guys prepared in the complexities of a pro defense. So we feel like we got the godfather of the 4-3."

Although it was Tony Dungy who planted the seeds of the 4-3 in Tampa — an offshoot of the defense he learned as a player for the Pittsburgh Steelers — Kiffin was the Buccaneers' defensive architect for 13 years, winning a Super Bowl ring in the 2002 season. His defenses finished in the top 10 in total yards and scoring in 11 of his 13 years.

In 2009, Kiffin left the NFL to become a college assistant coach under his son. There were some highlights, but a significant downturn came last fall when the Trojans went from a preseason No. 1 ranking to losing four of their final five regular-season games, followed by a loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

The biggest meltdown last season was USC's 62-51 loss to Oregon, in which the Ducks gained 730 yards, including 321 on the ground by Kenjon Barner. Oregon's points, yardage and Barner's rushing yards were all records for a USC opponent.

"We were much better against pro-style offenses than spread offenses, and pro style is more what the NFL is," said Lane Kiffin, whose father is entering his 27th NFL season. "If you spend all those years in the NFL figuring out NFL offenses and how to defend them, and you come back and college has changed so much, there's obviously a big difference."

During much of Monte Kiffin's tenure at USC, the Trojans failed to make the necessary week-to-week and in-game adjustments. What's more, the longtime NFL coach was frustrated by the limited time he had with his college players. He was allowed to work with players for 20 hours per week during the season, and not at all in the off-season.

"With all due respect to the NCAA, we've got to have more time with these guys," Monte Kiffin said. "If you've got a kid who wants to be a doctor or go to business school or whatever, I don't think you can say, 'You can't meet with your professor.' Last time I checked, some of these guys have a chance to play at the next level. So if you can help them get there, you're helping them professionally. But I understand you've got to have rules."

Now, Kiffin once again should have all the time he needs to work with his players. He has time too to put a different closing chapter on his coaching career — and a certain much-anticipated matchup.

"Oregon is coming off our schedule," Lane Kiffin said. "We don't play them for the next two years. All of a sudden, my dad has [Kelly] twice a year."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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