The Dallas Cowboys drafted Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the first round to upgrade a struggling offensive line.
After drafting Gavin Escobar in the second round, they decided to change their base offense to incorporate two tight end sets with Escobar and Pro Bowl Jason Witten.
Both players made their debuts with the Cowboys at the team’s rookie minicamp this past weekend.
But the newcomer who arguably garnered the most attention was no youngster at all.
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Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, 73, conducted his first official NFL practice since 2008, when he left a 26-year NFL career to join his son Lane at college stops at Tennessee and USC.
“Coaching is coaching,” said Kiffin, known as the father of the famed Tampa 2 defense. “I just love coaching — high school, college or the pros. I couldn’t be more fired up. Coaches got to show up too.”
Certainly no one was more energetic and excited among the coaches or players than Kiffin during the three-day minicamp. Considering his age, Kiffin’s energy level is an important part of the equation.
“Kiff looked great,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s got great energy. He’s got great balance. He’s fun to be around. He loves football. He’s very passionate about it. He’s a passionate teacher. You see that in the meeting rooms. You see that on the practice field.
“He’s seen a lot of football in his life. He’s a very wise football guy. He has that bounce in his step and that gleam in his eye in everything that he does — very contagious. I love being around the guy.”
Another key surrounding Kiffin is whether he has lost any zip on his fastball. His NFL pedigree is not the question, especially his 13-year stint in Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers ranked among the league’s top 10 in total defense in 11 of the 13 years Kiffin was the defensive coordinator. Tampa Bay also finished among the top 10 in fewest points allowed 10 times from 1996-2008.
But Kiffin struggled at the college level, especially the past two years at USC where some wondered if he could longer relate to younger players or the fast-paced college game.
The Cowboys, however, have dismissed his college failings and are counting on him to pick up where he left off his NFL defensive mastery.
Kiffin could be the biggest difference-maker the Cowboys added this off-season. He is certainly the only notable addition on defense.
Owner Jerry Jones believes the shift to the 4-3 base defense under Kiffin, as well as the teaching of more fundamental schemes, will help put the Cowboys over the top in 2013.
Because of the changes, Jones decided not to go out of his way to improve the defensive personnel through the draft or free agency. That’s what Kiffin and his right hand man, respected defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, are here for.
“Yes, I do,” Jones said without hesitation when asked whether Kiffin is the biggest off-season addition on defense.
“He, of course, has been around and had a lot of repetitions with the dynamic of the team, practicing the tempo, the kind of practices you have. All of those things are something he really brings to camp.
“Monte is a lot of energy no matter when you’re around him. And it is very productive and positive energy. So I think he’ll bring that. Of course, it is contagious. He has Rod Marinelli with him and they’re entire forte is getting a team ready and getting them ready to play. So not only are they good teachers, they’re good motivators.”
Of course, Kiffin laughs off any compliments, saying it’s not about him, “it’s about the players.”
Kiffin, however, was quick to point out that unlike in college, there is no time limit on teaching in the NFL and that he doesn’t have to worry about kids going back to class.
“I know one thing, guys will be back [in the afternoon] and they don’t have to go back to class,” Kiffin said. “That’s the way I like it. It’s important to go to class, but we get back [in the afternoon] and have meetings and away we go.”
Jones thinks Kiffin’s college experience will benefit the Cowboys. He added that Kiffin’s schemes might have been too much for college players to digest in a limited time but that they are simple enough for a Cowboys defense that was overloaded with too much to learn under former coordinator Rob Ryan.
“I think it’s a perfect combination of getting us at the right level of the playbook,” Jones said “Having come from college, having the background he has had, plus what we need probably was a reduced amount of things to do out there with the veteran players we’ve had.
“That’s not to criticize anybody. It is a common goal and a common criticism of coaches. But I think he’s the ideal fit for that and his circumstances coming from college really helps that.”