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Monte Kiffin leads Cowboys' charge, change in defensive philosophy

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Monte Kiffin is back in the NFL for the first time since his days with the Bucs in 2008. (AP)

OXNARD, Calif. – There's an old man at the edge of the Dallas Cowboys' practice field. He stands somewhat hunched over, and his voice comes out a little hoarse after years of yelling. But as one of the first defensive drills of training camp begins, he motions to the assembled crowd, asking for noise. And as fans respond, Monte Kiffin comes alive with an energy usually seen in a much younger man.

Sure, Kiffin is widely respected in the business and won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the man is 73 years old. Not to mention he'd been out of the NFL since 2009, when he went to work as his son's defensive coordinator at Tennessee before following him to USC.

But being back in the NFL as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator has Kiffin looking young and spry.

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Monte Kiffin is leading Dallas' conversion to a 4-3 scheme this season. (USA Today Sports)

"It feels great," he said. "You've got to love it, man. Do you like football or do you love it? You've got to love it. Gosh darn, I do love being out here."

His passion is just one reason why head coach Jason Garrett wanted Kiffin to lead the defense's shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme.

"I think Monte is just one of the great coaches in the history of the National Football League. He has been for a long, long time," Garrett said on the first day of Cowboys training camp. "I had the good fortune of being around him for part of a year – my last year playing football. And I saw it up close and personal, the kind of impact he has on a football team, how he helps players get better, how he molds a defense and a mentality."

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The defense needs some re-shaping after a disastrous end to the 2012 season with Rob Ryan leading the unit. For the second straight year, the Cowboys went into Week 17 needing a win to secure a playoff spot. But they let the chance slip away – this time at the hands of Washington Redskins rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris.

Was it a purely defensive problem? Well, Dallas finished 19th in the league in total defense, 19th in passing defense, and 22nd in rushing defense. Turnovers were also a problem, as the team ranked 28th in takeaways, with just 16 combined interceptions and fumble recoveries.

So even though it was no surprise when the vociferous Ryan got canned, Kiffin being named as his replacement certainly raised some eyebrows. But when you watch Kiffin in action, it's easy to see why the Cowboys wanted him. Players acclaim his ability to be positive, make guys laugh. He's invariably active on the field, whether it's moving to the different stations during individual positions drills, or coaching players up after each play during the team session.

"He's always down with us," cornerback Morris Claiborne said. "Even when we're in the middle of the meeting rooms, getting ready, putting in defense, he's always coming in all pumped up and hyped up."

Of course, defense isn't just about enthusiasm – if it were, Ryan wouldn't have been fired. Successfully shifting to the 4-3 front will have much more to do with scheme and technique. And two significant factors will be how former All-Pros DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer convert from outside linebackers to defensive ends. It's a transition that takes time, and even though he liked the progress made in OTAs and minicamp, Kiffin knows that.

"I don't think we have the system down yet, no, I'll be honest," he said. "But I like their attitude about it. They really want to be into it, they want to do well, and that's the most important thing."

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Ware and Spencer have an advantage over other players who might make that change, as both played hand-down defensive ends in college.

"The great question about Spence coming out of Purdue when we drafted him in the first round was, 'He's a 4-3 defensive end. Can he play linebacker in a 3-4?' " Garrett said. "He proved that he can play SAM linebacker in a 3-4, now he's going back to maybe what his most natural position is."

Ware feels comfortable making the shift back as well, which has a lot to do with his NFL experience.

"You know how guys are going to attack you, so your tendencies are a little bit different," he said. "Your technique is a lot better – especially mentally. You're a lot more aware because of your maturity."

Kiffin marks Ware's sixth defensive coordinator with the Cowboys since his career began in 2005. He said he has learned a lot from each one.

"I've figured out how to be a chameleon," Ware said. "I think that's how I have to be out there when I'm playing, figuring out where I fit in, and how I can slip and dive through guys in order to make plays."

Things are also changing a bit in the interior for defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, but the veteran is looking forward to it as much as anyone.

"For me, it's just like waking up in the morning, man," Hatcher said. "I had to hone in, lose some stuff that I had from a 3-4. But for the most part, it's been fun just getting off the rock, causing havoc in the backfield every other play."

It's only the beginning of training camp, a time when hope springs eternal for each NFL team, no matter where it finished the previous season. And in order to restore "America's Team" to its former glory, Kiffin's new-look defense must be ready for the Cowboys' season-opener against the New York Giants on Sept. 8.

"We're going to try to be the strong point in this team," Hatcher said. "I think this is the best start we've had since I've been in the league. So I'm very excited with what I've seen today, but we've got a long ways to go."

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