The way Chris Kiffin sees it, he's been groomed to coach on the defensive side of the ball from the literal beginning.
Asked when he knew it was his calling, the new Browns defensive line coach said, "probably when I was born and weighed 10 pounds."
"I knew I was going to be a defensive lineman," Kiffin said. "I just played that position and being a ball boy, working for my dad and Rod Marinelli and growing up in it is what attracted me to the defensive side. Playing on the defensive line was just natural."
Since his playing days at Colorado State came to an end, Kiffin has immersed himself on the defensive side of the ball and spent most of his time with the position group he knows best. After two years as a pass rush specialist for the San Francisco 49ers, who boasted one of the best and productive units in the NFL last season, Kiffin comes to Cleveland, where he'll work under his former colleague in San Francisco, defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
"I've known Chris for a long time. I worked with his father Monte down in Tampa Bay and that's when I first met him," Woods said. "This previous year, he did a great job at San Francisco as assistant defensive line coach. He has a great football IQ. He relates to players very well, he can coach anybody and I'm excited for him to get his first full-time role in the NFL coaching the defensive line here."
Kiffin's father, Monte, was already in the midst of a long, established career as a defensive coach when Chris was born. Monte Kiffin's most memorable tenure came in Tampa Bay, where he spent 13 seasons and won a Super Bowl. One year before his brother, Lane, became head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Chris landed his first NFL gig in 2006, when he served as an offseason quality control intern with the Buccaneers.
"It was all football, all the time," Kiffin said. "Everybody always asks about Thanksgiving dinner where we were talking about football. We were all in different places, whether I was still playing, Lane was coaching, dad was coaching. It was always good together in the offseason to be able to talk ball, especially with Lane being on offense and dad and I on defense. It was always good conversations, always helped us learn."
From there, Kiffin carved his own path at the college level.
Kiffin held positions at Ole Miss, Nebraska and USC before landing the defensive line coach job at Arkansas State in 2011. One year later, Kiffin was back at Ole Miss as a defensive line/defensive recruiting coordinator. He'd hold the job until 2017, when he joined Lane at Florida Atlantic and served as co-defensive coordinator. Kiffin went on to become a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to college football's top assistant coach.
In 2018, Kiffin returned to the NFL for the first time since 2006 when he joined Kyle Shanahan's staff in San Francisco.
"At all levels, you've got to be a teacher. You've got to be able to relate to players," Kiffin said. "They've got to know that you're genuine and honest and that you have their best interest at heart. All players at all levels can see through that if you're not. To me, it's about being a great teacher, getting to know these guys on a personal level because we do go through a lot. It's not just the three hours on Sundays. That's just a culmination of an entire offseason with lots of work, practice, blood, sweat and tears. It's everybody coming together and pulling in the same direction."
In San Francisco, Kiffin worked with a defensive line that featured five first-round picks, including rookie Nick Bosa. On the way to winning the NFC and advancing to Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers led the league in forced fumbles and passing yards per game. San Francisco also ranked among the NFL leaders in passing first downs allowed (150, tied for first), total yards per game allowed (281.8, second), average yards per play allowed (4.66, second), red zone trips allowed (40, second), defensive touchdowns (five, tied for third), sacks (48, tied for fifth), total takeaways (27, sixth), opposing passer rating (83.0, seventh) and points per game allowed (19.4, eighth). Bosa was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after collecting nine sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
"That didn't happen overnight," Kiffin said. "Guys had been percolating, working hard and developing. It was just beautiful to watch it all come together for the perfect storm. I tell people all the time, because of the back-end guys, we were the deepest D-line in the league because we had role players that could be starters with other teams. To me, it was top to bottom a culture created and they all loved coming to work together every day and great things happen from units like that."
Kiffin looks forward to building that culture inside a defensive line room that features Pro Bowl pass rusher Myles Garrett, promising young defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and veterans such as Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon leading a unit Cleveland hopes can become a strength in 2020.
"Myles is an athletic freak as everyone knows, but what excites me about him is he's just getting started. He's just scratching the surface of what he can be," Kiffin said. "In talking with him, he's really eager to get back to work and he wants to chase greatness and I think when you have that mindset, it's going to be really easy to coach. It's going to be really fun to coach and it's going to carry off on everybody else too in the room.
"We're going to create some great competition in that room, build quality depth, guys that want to perform at a high level and hopefully we get that group to gel and come together and be a strong point for the defense."
Chris Kiffin's Coaching Background:
2005-06: University of Idaho, coaching assistant
2006: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, offseason quality control intern
2007: University of Mississippi, graduate assistant
2008-09: University of Nebraska, offensive quality control coach
2010: University of Southern California, defensive administrative assistant
2011: Arkansas State University, defensive line coach
2012-16: University of Mississippi, defensive line/defensive recruiting coordinator
2017: Florida Atlantic University, co-defensive coordinator
2018-19: San Francisco 49ers, pass rush specialist
2020-: Cleveland Browns, defensive line coach