MOBILE, Ala. – Former USC safety T.J. McDonald knows when Monte Kiffin’s around.
The calling card Kiffin left around his office and the football facilities at Southern California gave him away. That calling card also symbolized the countless hours he dedicated to football during his three-year tenure with the Trojans.
“He’s got these coffee cups in Styrofoam cups,” McDonald said. “Anywhere you go in the building, you start seeing those Styrofoam cups, you know Monte’s not far. He’s somewhere close.”
Those cups could be found all over the place at any and all times of the day. Football enveloped Kiffin’s mind, and McDonald could sense it. If Kiffin’s 13 seasons as a successful NFL defensive coordinator didn’t immediately earn a player’s respect, his passion for the game and energy he provided did the job.
Kiffin stayed across the street from the school, walking over to his office early in the morning and leaving late at night, according to McDonald. That allowed plenty of time for the safety to enter Kiffin’s office and pick his brain about plays or schemes.
“Whatever the case may be, I could go up to that office, and he’s going to be there with the remote in his hand, sitting the same way,” McDonald said.
More than anything, McDonald enjoyed being around his defensive coordinator, even if it was just to talk about the game in general. It was easy to love him as a coach, because he could see the passion and dedication Kiffin gave to football.
As McDonald said, “everybody liked Monte.”
Most 72-year-old coaches wouldn’t devote that kind of time to a program. Then again, most coaches getting ready for their 73rd birthday in a month aren’t like Kiffin.
“Even though he was an older guy, you’d never be able to tell if he came up to our meetings or if he came onto the field,” McDonald said. “He did a good job of coming up to us and keeping the energy up and trying to be active with us, making us laugh every once in a while.
“He’s not just a sit down guy. He gets up in front of the team, does dances, does his James Brown dance he just loves. He loves it. It’s a lot of fun. We had a great time together, and I wish him the best moving forward.
It’s possible McDonald’s future with the James Brown imposter isn’t complete.
The safety is one of 53 players on the North Team roster preparing for the Senior Bowl this weekend, getting watched and analyzed by numerous scouts and coaches, including Kiffin and the Cowboys’ staff. McDonald said he’d love to continue working with Kiffin in Dallas, but he can’t be picky in the situation he’s in.
“Whether they need a safety or not, we’ll see,” McDonald said. “For now, I’m just going to keep working my butt off and doing the best I can to get drafted as high as possible.”
He feels prepared for this moment in large part because of his time with Kiffin. Specifically, McDonald said his former defensive coordinator helped him understand the technique it takes to play safety.
As a college player, he looked up to Kiffin, who helped develop stars like John Lynch and guided the league’s top-ranked total defense twice with the Bucs.
“He has that credibility to him, because that’s where everybody wants to get, and he’s been there at the highest level and coached some of the best safeties,” McDonald said. “For him to be able to do that, you definitely want to be in those shoes, you want to make a good impression, and you want to be able to live up to those expectations of the NFL, because that’s where you want to be.”
Now that he’s out of college, McDonald said he feels more prepared than most college players for the difficult concepts and schemes he’ll see in the NFL. He learned both the mental and physical side of the game from Kiffin, whose defense required strong safety play.
“You’ve got to read your keys, play fast and no false steps,” McDonald said. “One false step will get you out of position and make it a tough tackle for you. Make sure you read your keys, whatever the play may be, and be able to go full speed.”
Kiffin needed an all-around player at safety. He didn’t want a speedster who lacked hitting ability. He didn’t want a highlight-reel tackler who lacked cover skills.
McDonald was asked to do a little bit of everything, and he was confident Kiffin would put him in the right place to make a play. When he did get in position, he knew he had to take advantage. He did just that playing deep and picking off a pass on his first day of practice for the Senior Bowl.
“His schemes definitely allowed you to do that and opened things up to me, because I was able to play so many different spots on the field,” McDonald said. “I was able to play in the box. I was able to play deep. I was all over the place.”
The experience McDonald gained put him in the position he’s in right now to fulfill his dream of reaching the NFL. He’s ecstatic to be where he’s at, but he’s also happy for the energetic, high-spirited defensive coordinator who landed another job in the NFL.
“This is what he knows,” McDonald said. “This is what he breathes. I can’t help but be happy for him.”