We don’t get to hear from Lane Kiffin that often, at least outside of tweets and videos and such. So far he has addressed the South Florida media twice, on the December day he was introduced as Florida Atlantic football coach and again for Wednesday’s announcement of the Owls’ 2017 signing class.
It’s important, then, to get the best questions in first, such as what does he think about De’Andre Johnson, the quarterback who was dismissed by Florida State in 2015 after being caught on security video punching a woman at a Tallahassee bar.
A plea deal followed, with probation plus a fine and 10 days in a sheriff’s work program to put those legal issues behind him. Johnson, a former four-star recruit, played last year at East Mississippi Junior College, a program featured as “Last Chance U” in a Netflix documentary, and signed with FAU a few days before Kiffin was hired there.
“I’ve had a chance to be around him a little bit,” Kiffin said Wednesday, “and also to see him around our recruits. Every weekend that we’ve been here, he’s opened his door and showed our recruits where he stays. He’s hosted guys every weekend.
“He’s a very humble kid, and I also got to go to his junior college because we ended up signing a player from there (defensive end Tim Bonner) and go to meet with the people there. Not just the head coach but the president of the university. The way they talked about him, he’s a really special kid that had a really bad decision that he made and has really learned from it and he’s moving forward, so I’m excited that he’s being given this opportunity.”
Kiffin went heavy on the signing of junior-college transfers, including wide receiver/tight end DeAndre McNeal. He played for Texas as a true freshman but was dismissed for an unspecified violation of team rules. UCLA and Missouri were among the teams offering 2017 scholarships to McNeal but Kiffin won out.
“DeAndre was a tough get,” Kiffin said. “He did some major offers. Kind of at the last minute it came down to us and UCLA. That was kind of tough for him because he had west-coast ties from playing junior college out there (at Fullerton College).
“We had some background with him, which is why I hire coaches, because they have backgrounds. So he had been in our camp at Alabama and I had worked with him there and had a plan for him there and we ended up signing him for that reason. He’d always been a guy that I had a plan for, how we’d play him. We always wanted him every time I saw him. Now he can come play in the offense here and work with (offensive coordinator) Kendal Briles, who has been successful with receivers.
“It makes it pretty easy to recruit receivers if you’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really good receivers. Myself and Kendal have coached a lot of good receivers.”
Briles, who will handle FAU’s playcalling, is another scrutinized addition because he last worked at Baylor. Kiffin declined comment when asked about an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Baylor football players against women between 2011 and 2014.
“We obviously have a policy of not discussing any allegations at any other university,” Kiffin said. “Today’s focus is on our signing class, and we’re excited about that class and we’re excited about our coaching staff. I thought we brought a very dynamic coaching staff here and, as you can see, guys are excited about playing for them.”
It won’t every be boring with Kiffin in Boca Raton. Most major recruiting sites ranked his first FAU signing class as the best in Conference USA. Some of these junior-college transfers will surpass the talent level commonly found in the league. Now it’s a matter of getting everybody on target with everything from grades to discipline to motivation.
If Kiffin wishes, he can relate to things he learned about tightening down on those goals while working for Nick Saban at Alabama. Or he can forge his own path. Again.