Lane Kiffin will stress it from the first day of spring practice to the final game of the season. It will weigh greatly in who plays and who sits.
“Ball security — and I’m not just talking about the offense,” said Florida Atlantic quarterback Chris Robison, who played for Kiffin — the new Ole Miss head football coach — the past two seasons. “He expects the defense to take the ball away, too. That’s his No. 1 thing. We worked on it every day.”
A redshirt sophomore, Robison threw 26 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions in 2019 while leading FAU to a 10-3 record and the team’s second Conference USA championship in Kiffin’s three years there. He passed for 3,396 yards.
FAU led the nation in turnover ratio, with 31 takeaways and just 11 turnovers (plus 21). Alabama was second (plus 16) and Notre Dame third (plus 15). Undefeated LSU finished tied for 16th (plus 8). Ole Miss tied for 58th (plus 1).
“My advice to the Ole Miss quarterbacks is to take care of the ball,” Robison said. “And I would say to listen — really listen — to what he’s telling you to do, what he’s asking on each play. He has a certain way he wants things done, and that’s the way it will be done.”
“After that, play and have fun.”
During a phone interview with mississippiscoreboard.com, Robison talked about what it’s like to play for Kiffin, who was hired to replace Matt Luke after three consecutive losing seasons.
Robison was a 4-star high school recruit out of Mesquite, Texas who originally signed with Oklahoma. He was dismissed from the team in 2017 after off-the-field issues.
Kiffin wasn’t the main reason Robison wound up at FAU.
“Coach (Kendal) Briles, our offensive coordinator, had recruited me out of high school. When things didn’t work out at Oklahoma, Coach Briles recruited me to FAU.
“I’d definitely heard of Coach Kiffin. And over the two years I’ve been here, our relationship has grown. I think he and I are different than a lot of people. We have our own way of doing things, our own way of going about our business. The way we do things may not work for somebody else, but we know it works for us.”
Kiffin pointed out during his introductory press conference at Ole Miss that he doesn’t necessarily coach by traditional standards. He believes in analytics and what the numbers can reveal.
“When you dive into it and spend hours studying it, it doesn’t tell you how to coach the way most coaches coach— the old school way,” Kiffin said. “There is so many more times that you’re supposed to be going for (a first down instead of punting.) You’re not supposed to be going for long field goals … a lot of coaches are afraid of the press conference afterwards, and so they do the easy and conservative thing because then (the media doesn’t) rip them. So, get ready to rip me.”
Says Robison: “My first year, I remember us going for a first down on about our own 30 and it really surprised me. We didn’t get it, and I didn’t understand why he would go for it there. But then you learn that he had a reason to go for it. And it turned out, more times than not, that when he chose to go for it, we made it. He makes good decisions on when to take those chances.”
Entering Saturday’s Boca Raton Bowl against SMU, FAU is 11 for 20 (55 percent) on fourth-down conversions in 2019.
I asked Robison to rate Kiffin on his ability to make halftime adjustments.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, he’s a 9 or a 10,” Robison said. “But I think in-game adjustments, from play to play, is what he’s best at. If he sees something that will work, we’ll run plays that we haven’t even practiced before.”
Robison warns that starters should never get too comfortable.
“Every year, you’re going to compete for your job, even if you were the starter the year before,” he said. “Coach Kiffin wants the best players on the field, and that competition goes on all the time.
“It definitely helped me because I was always competing with the other QBs. Maybe they would have a better day than me, and that made me want to come back and do better. I like that because if someone knows he has to work to get the starting job and then to keep it, it’s going to boost his play.”
Following the C-USA championship game, FAU senior Harrison Bryant — the John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end — told the media: “Coach Kiffin changed my life.”
I asked Robison if Kiffin did the same for him.
“I would have to say he did,” Robison said. “I wasn’t always the best guy off the field. Coach Kiffin gave me a chance here, gave me a second chance to accomplish the dreams of my life. If not for him, I’d be back home in Texas.”
“He was definitely more strict on me than anybody else had ever been before. I think he knew he had to be.”
“One time during my first season here, I missed a study hall session and he made me sit out a practice. That was my punishment because he knew that mattered to me and that it was something that would get my attention and get me back on track.”
“I think Coach Kiffin could relate to me. He has made some mistakes in his life and he’s learned from them as well.”