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March 3, 2009

Gran has plan for Vols' special teams

John Brice
Rivals.com College Football
Senior Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The kicker jogs forward, then reverses. Full speed, slow motion and various angles until Eddie Gran examines each facet of a textbook second-quarter onside kick his Auburn charges recover last season at West Virginia.

"Man, that's beautiful," Gran says.

Moments later the screen flashes to an similarly well-executed special teams sequence in Auburn's game last season at Mississippi. This is the other side of Gran, a coaching veteran with the rare ability to trumpet an impeccable resume both as a position coach and director of football's third phase.

Sure, Gran resides on coach Lane Kiffin's inaugural Tennessee staff because he boasts seven former tailbacks in the NFL, but he hardly limits his scope of expertise to one area.

"I guess it was at Auburn when Joe Pannunzio left [in 2000], and coach [Tommy Tuberville] asked me to come be the special teams coordinator. John Harbaugh, the head coach at the Baltimore Ravens, is kind of my mentor," Gran said. "I was with him at Cincinnati for two years [1992-93]. So when I got my special teams job, I went to Philadelphia where John was, and John and I are really good friends. The things that I did were the things that he taught me. Him and Joe DeCamillis, now with [the] Dallas Cowboys [as special teams coach], those guys have kind of been my mentors."

Gran's mentoring of special teams units at Auburn resulted consistently in some of the Southeastern Conference's best, including in 2006 when the Tigers ranked first in kickoff coverage, field goal percentage, extra-point percentage and punting. Now the Escondido, Calif., native who brings 20 years of collegiate experience to the Vols prepares to elevate a Tennessee special teams unit that last year ranked ninth in punt return average, 10th in punting, eighth in kickoff coverage and 12th in field goals. Tennessee did tie for first by not missing a PAT in 2008 and was third in kickoff returns.

"Special teams, you've got a great opportunity to change field position. I always look at winning that field position battle, those hidden yards," said Gran, a 2002 nominee for assistant coach of the year honors. "Especially in your net punting average and when you're on the coverage teams, where they start and where we start. Coach Kiffin has really put a huge emphasis on special teams, and that's great. When you're around a head football coach who puts a huge emphasis on it, the players really feel that and we're going to use our best players.

"Our best players are going to play on special teams. There will be some units that don't have everyone like that, but you've got to use your twos and you've got to mix it up. I think through practice and repetition and technique, you can win that way and you can beat people that way."

Gran's running backs will be versatile enough to conquer opponents in a variety of ways. As the Vols set to open spring camp March 10, Gran knows exactly what he wants to see of his backfield troops.

"Gotta be physical. To me, the great ones have vision that you really can't coach but they have vision," said Gran, a South Florida recruiting force who helped deliver Nu'Keese Richardson to the Vols on National Signing Day. "And then, probably the next one is the ability to be unselfish because you've got to pass protect and you've got to be a receiver and you've got to be able to be a runner. You've got to do all three of those things.

"They've got to be able to compete. I want to see them compete. This thing is wide open, and I want to see a guy take it over. Who's going to be studying? Who's going to learn this offense? I think that will all come about in 15 practices, we'll be able to see which guy wants to compete for that top spot. That's what I'm looking for, a guy who can finish every day in practice. On every play."

His office dotted with photos of his family, well-wishes from his daughters on a dry-erase board and a tome of Auburn game tapes, Gran prepares for the most-anticipated spring camp at Tennessee in more than a decade with voracious film study.

"I've watched all their runs, every run that they had," Gran said of Tennessee's running backs last season. "You get an opportunity to watch the fullbacks block, see how they finish. Who's athletic enough to play that position? Fullback is going to be an key ingredient to what we do in the running game. So you get a feel for them that way."

Spending the previous 15 years of his coaching career alongside Tuberville, Gran sees in Tennessee a chance to be among the best in the SEC.

"When you think Tennessee, you think of Tennessee being in the top three in the SEC," said Gran, who played at California-Lutheran and coached alongside Ed Orgeron at Miami. "You put Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Georgia. I think with that and their national recognition, then Coach Kiffin coming over and being the head football coach and his success on offense and what they did at USC, Coach Orgeron, having coached with him at Miami. I know what kind of coach he is, and the coaching reputation of Monte Kiffin. And then the staff that he was assembling, I was excited about the opportunity to work with those guys."

At this, Gran's eyes sparkle - just like they did when the tape revealed a beautiful onside kick.

John Brice, the senior writer for VolQuest.com, has covered University of Tennessee athletics for nine seasons and has seen his writing honored in both state and regional competition. Brice also co-hosts a weekly high school sports show in Knoxville.
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