Tennessee Football: Becoming a Complete Team

Note from Will, 11:00 AM:  Bumped back down to deal with the obvious breaking news of the day.

Let's start with the negative:  our special teams play has not been good.

David Oku and Nu'Keese Richardson have done a fairly good job returning kicks:  the Vols are 31st nationally in kickoff return average at 23.7 yards per return.  But the good news ends there in the all-important third phase of the game.  Take a look at Tennessee's position in the national special teams rankings (thanks once again to the fine folks at cfbstats.com):

  • Kick Returns:  31st
  • Punt Returns:  60th
  • Opponent Kick Returns:  103rd (one of only nine teams to allow two for TDs this year)
  • Opponent Punt Returns:  75th
  • Punting Average:  63rd (40.5 yards per punt)
  • FG Accuracy:  97th (10 of 16, 62.5%)

The Vols allowed Brandon James to hurt them in the kicking game again, watched Ohio run a kickoff back for a touchdown, lost to Auburn by four points in a game where Daniel Lincoln missed a field goal and an extra point, surrendered nine points to Georgia on special teams thanks to a kickoff return TD and a blocked punt safety, missed three field goals at #1 Alabama in a two point loss, and continued an unbelievable streak the following week when South Carolina made it three blocked field goals in a row for Vol opponents.  Yikes. 

Our special teams play has not been good.  But nine games into the season, Tennessee has become a good team everywhere else.

The good news also starts with the obvious:

Jonathan Crompton

In Crompton's two starts for the injured Erik Ainge during the 2006 season, he went 11 of 24 against LSU and 16 of 34 at Arkansas, with two touchdowns (thanks, Robert Meachem) and an interception in each game.  Last year in seven starts, Crompton completed just 51.5 percent of his passes for only 889 yards, 5 INTs with 4 TDs.

If you set aside the game against the worst team in FBS in the season opener, the numbers in the next four games...well, you remember right?  Five interceptions and no touchdowns against UCLA and Florida combined, a pedestrian performance against Ohio, and a first half against Auburn that featured dropped balls aplenty and no hope to be found.

Throwing out Western Kentucky, take a look at the split between the next four games and the last four games:

  • UCLA, FLA, Ohio, AUB:  61 of 122, 50.0%, 667 yards, 4 TD, 6 INT
  • UGA, Bama, USC, Memphis:  74 of 114, 64.9%, 1,048 yards, 12 TD, 2 INT

Plenty has been said about Crompton's transformation, and the kid deserves even more.  At some point during the first half of the Auburn game, while trying to come to terms with the fact that Kiffin simply wasn't going to pull him, I was imagining Crompton running thru the T on senior day against Vanderbilt as the quarterback of a 3-7 team, being the first Vol in history to get booed in his final run.  And now I feel like I owe it to him to be there next week against Vanderbilt, to join in what will be a hero's welcome if the Vols take care of business this week. 

Tennessee has made a habit of putting the same quarterback on the field for several consecutive seasons:  Casey Clausen started every week he was healthy during his four years, Erik Ainge started for most of his four years, and we've seen Crompton under center for part of 2006, most of 2008 and all of this year.  As such, the fanbase builds a long term relationship with these guys that has the ups and downs of a marriage; even Peyton Manning spent a few nights on the couch after long weekends in Florida.

We've tried to divorce Crompton, and more than once.  I was going to joke that we've tried to kill him, but at one point the kid received actual death threats.  But in these last four weeks, Crompton has changed his ways...and so have we.  And now we're like the older couple that's been through the worst of times together only to have a greater appreciation for the best of times.  Crompton knows he wasn't playing well, and maybe we feel like we were a little too hard on him at some points, though we both had our reasons.

Point being, now...now Crompton is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in America.  When he rolls out, you feel confident.  When he releases the ball, you're not braced for the worst, you're expecting the best.  Tennessee is becoming a complete team, first and foremost, because our quarterback is becoming a complete player.  And all joking aside, after Tim Tebow wins his customary first team All-SEC honors at quarterback...if Crompton outperforms Jevan Snead in a Vol victory on Saturday, who's to say he won't take second?

Montario Hardesty

The more you think about it, the more you realize what a great story this team is becoming.  They're not going to win any championships, and they had their lapses early...but the way we're playing now in conjunction with the things some of these guys have gone through to help the team along the way, this is going to end up being a very memorable group.

Hardesty is a guy that just keeps coming to work, with 901 yards in 9 games.  And while Crompton's transformation might be the most unexpected surprise in Tennessee Football history (no exaggeration), Hardesty's emergence has been just as important in creating a balanced offensive attack.  The Vols are averaging 232 yards in the air and 168 on the ground this season, solid numbers on both counts seeing how they add up to 400 per game.  And Hardesty - who sat behind Arian Foster for three years, listened to LaMarcus Coker and Lennon Creer get all the hype during that same span, then heard all about Bryce Brown all summer - has become the best Vol running back in eight years, still has a shot to crack the top ten in the all-time yardage list here, and has ensured that the Vols can also run the ball if and when they want to.

Wide Receivers & Luke Stocker

This may not be the most talented group of Vol WRs in school history, but once everybody got healthy, they've done their job admirably.  After the debacle of the first half of the Auburn game, there have been almost no drops.  There's an incredible balance amongst this group:  Gerald Jones leads with way with 28 catches, Denarius Moore has 26, and Quintin Hancock has 20 in only six games.

This group may be the best example of how well this coaching staff handles player development.  Before this year, Denarius Moore was a guy who only caught deep balls, and Quintin Hancock didn't catch a single pass last season.  Now Moore is showing playmaking ability all over the field, and Hancock, when healthy, might have the surest hands of the group.  The Vols haven't needed superstars at the wide receiver position to excel in the passing game in the last four weeks.

And then there's Luke Stocker, who at 6'6" was always going to draw NFL eyes if he produced.  Stocker leads the team in yards per reception (among regular contributors), and has shown the ability to make in-traffic, downfield catches from the tight end spot.  Crompton needs to quit throwing it to him so he has fewer reasons to think about leaving early.

Simply put:  the Vols are getting good play from every one of their offensive skill positions.

Offensive Line

If I told you on August 1 that Josh McNeil would see no significant action this season and that his career would essentially be over, that both Cody and Cory Sullins would be starters, and that one of our starting tackles would be a guy that had never played the position before, how many wins would you have given this team?

Again, this staff has coached guys up and turned career backups into solid players.  The Vols have executed the zone blocking scheme about as well as you could hope for a team in its first year with the system.  For the most part, Crompton has had the time he's needed.  And while the line hasn't been perfect and was faced with tough assignments early when everyone was stacking the line, this group has played well, and played well over their heads at some points.  The way this group has performed makes you more hopeful that next year's group of nobodies will mature quickly as well.

Defense

The numbers are a bit skewed after Memphis had a field day with our backups, but the Vols still rank 16th nationally in total defense at 295.1 yards allowed per game.  And at every position, Tennessee has gotten solid-or-better play.  Chris Walker has stepped in at end and, despite not being fully healthy, given the Vols 3.5 sacks and 5.0 TFLs, forced a fumble and somehow picked up two interceptions, one for a touchdown, from the defensive end position.  No one has missed Robert Ayers because of him.

Inside, Dan Williams could be a first round NFL Draft pick and has anchored a group that hasn't allowed a 100 yard rusher that didn't play in Gus Malzahn's crazy scheme or go against the backups last week.  At linebacker, Rico McCoy is 7th in the SEC in tackles and has led the way for a group that's seen more injuries than any unit on the team, yet still performed well every week.  LaMarcus Thompson and everyone that's played in the middle have been better than we thought they would be.

Eric Berry may not win the Heisman, but his move up towards the line of scrimmage has made him the SEC's leader in tackles for a defensive back.  Berry still has two picks and two fumble recoveries, and his performance this season shouldn't hurt him on Draft Day, where NFL teams have now seen his ability to do it all.

But perhaps the best news in the defensive backfield is that everybody else has played well.  Art Evans and Dennis Rogan, best known as a non-contributing wide receiver and a kick returner coming into this season, haven't allowed any breakdowns in the passing game.  The Vols haven't been burned by the deep ball all season, the lone TD given up on a long pass coming as the result of a great catch by South Carolina's Moe Brown...and this too is a credit to freshman Janzen Jackson at free safety, who is often left alone back there but has held the line, and delivered his share of huge hits.  This defense has produced four stars and an entire unit that rarely bends and never breaks.

Still Improving

The best news is, this team is still improving, and its players have seen enough frustration in the last year and a half to not think they've suddenly arrived at their fullest potential in only four weeks.

This staff has done a tremendous job developing players on both sides of the ball, and while our depth didn't look great against Memphis, when guys have had to step up and become first-teamers, they've done a good job.

And this team is an excellent study in how much things change.  When spring practice began, if I told you the 2009 Vols would be without BJ Coleman, Lennon Creer, Brandon Warren, Austin Rogers, Josh McNeil, Demetrice Morley, the starting middle linebacker (because you wouldn't have been sold on Nick Reveiz yet), the backup middle linebacker, plus Vlad Richard and Quintin Hancock for several games...you get the idea.

From day one of spring ball and for the last nine months, these coaches have made these players better.  And these players have performed at a higher level than we expected at almost every position.  The Vols have become a dangerous offense, capable of hurting you with the run and the pass.  And the Vols have always been a great defense, making sure points are a luxury for the offense.

Tennessee is playing well at every position group on offense and defense.  The Vols have become one of the nation's hottest teams in the last four weeks, and having stood toe-to-toe with the best team in the country twice, are a team that is capable of beating anyone it faces on any given Saturday.  And we got back to the last part of that sentence a lot faster than I thought we would.

When does Michael Palardy get here?

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