Tennessee's Quarterback Conundrum: Crompton or Coleman?

With the whirlwind of change and improvement Lane Kiffin has ushered into Knoxville, the biggest question he will encounter is one he may not be able to answer immediately.

Lack of production at the QB position was the impetus behind last season’s disaster and Phil Fulmer’s subsequent removal. Clearly, that position will be heard from yet again as Kiffin was unable to attract any top QB recruits due to his late entrance onto the recruiting scene.

For the triumvirate of thus-far mediocre quarterbacks on the depth chart, this was a lifeline and opportunity to show that last season was a result of ineffectual coaching and not a lack of ability.

The consensus seems to be that Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will be a significant upgrade over Fulmer and the comically overmatched Dave Clawson. But questions remain over which QB will reap the benefit of the new coaches. Who will emerge as “the guy” within Chaney’s new offense?

If all things are equal (and apart from Eric Berry everyone seems to be tabula rasa with Kiffin) then consider me a B.J. Coleman guy (Full disclosure: Coleman and I may be fellow graduates of the same high school).

While Jonathan Crompton seems to be the clubhouse leader, I have some strong doubts about his ability to effectively quarterback an SEC team. Let’s make like Dr. Phil and analyze the motivating factors behind these doubts.

There are many foibles a traditional QB can have, but one that is almost unforgivable is a propensity for ladder-climbing overthrows, ground-balling throws, and throws of the interceptive variety.

This is akin to an actor stuttering. Is it the end of the world? Certainly not, but you won’t find that actor in a Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese movie.

When an offense is centered around the notion that the quarterback will deliver the ball to his receivers in a timely and accurate manner, failure in this regard results in a long and slow death from 8 yard bounce passes on 10 yard routes.

Historically, Crompton has surfed between the 50 and 60% barriers in completion percentage throughout his career, which would be swell if he played baseball. Unfortunately, he does not. But what he does do by shot-putting his passes is threaten the mental well being of orange-clad fans everywhere.

Before I come off as too down on Crompton, let me say this: I will grant the guy a certain leeway as he found himself chained to offense more suited to an intramural flag football team. I daresay that Peyton Manning himself would have had issues with some of the stick in the dirt plays Clawson featured in his playbook. But let us not lay all the blame at Clawson’s feet. He wasn’t exactly coaching a group of young Tom Bradys.

Regardless of the coaching staff, there is a basic level of ability that needs to be exhibited by the quarterback. Does American Idol expect the blind contest, Scott MacIntyre, to dance and cavort around the stage like the other contestants? Absolutely not. The producers wouldn’t think of asking that of him because he simply doesn’t possess the capability to do so.

Similarly, is it fair to ask Jonathan Crompton to competently run a pro-style offense?

In the right system, I could see Crompton being very effective as a homeless man’s Tim Tebow, but not within a traditional pro-style attack. He is more of a tough guy QB and this is evidenced in his willingness to go helmet-to-helmet with SEC safeties. But this same willingness is the greatest indicator of the poor fit he is at quarterback.

It’s sweet when Tim Tebow rolls over SEC defenders, but not everyone is bulletproof. For the rest of the mortals playing QB, it should be scramble, slide, and duck in that order. Crompton’s ardor to engage defenders is symptomatic of his poor decision making skills and to run a pro-style offense against SEC defenders, a QB must be a good decision maker first and foremost.

Case in point: John Parker Wilson. He rode a superior defense and running game to the cusp of the national title game. Was it sexy football? Not entirely, but then again getting spanked by Wyoming at home isn’t exactly sexy either now is it?

Wilson was able to overcome some physical shortcomings by making good decisions. I don’t believe Crompton can make the adjustment of checking down, throwing away, or sliding out of harm’s way.

Understanding the Hype
Crompton is undoubtedly talented and his abilities were recognized coming out of high school in 2005, as he was a 5-star recruit and ranking just behind Mark Sanchez and Ryan Perriloux among QBs. But talent alone doesn’t make the man; just ask Jeff George or Ryan Leaf. The more important question is how is he talented? How did he become highly sought after?

If we take a closer look at Crompton’s origins, we see him emerging from a high school and conference (or district, region, what have you) from which nary one significant prospect has sprung forth from. Isn’t that slightly disconcerting?

Compare this to B.J. Coleman who arrived in Knoxville fresh off a high school career that saw him consistently tangling with future major conference recruits while lighting up the stat sheet.

My friend Scott Simmons has an interesting theory on players like Crompton. He posits that players from smaller schools and/or rural areas are more prone to failure in major conferences because they are never forced to develop the finer skills of their game in high school. They can largely rely on their superior athleticism against a substandard pool of players much in the same way that you or I repeatedly rely on the spread option to dominate computer opponents in NCAA ‘09.

These stars rarely meet a worthy opponent amongst the litany of mediocre challengers they face on a week-to-week basis. Therefore, their adjustment to the rigors of SEC football is a difficult one as they begin to experience opponents who are equally skilled if not more so.

Crompton’s aforementioned propensity for slamming into safeties cleanly evidences this idea. In 3A North Carolina rural football, this tactic may have brought him success and glory as he bulldozed 130 lb safeties. But in the SEC, all this guarantees is playing time for your backup and a healthy helping of neck stingers.

Simply put, Crompton is an unnatural fit at the position. He’s a throwback version of a QB when they were able to run free without fear of concussion from blazingly fast linebackers or headhunting safeties. Due to the evolution and sophistication of both the QB position and opposing defenses, the stylistic tendencies of his game have been rendered endangered and obsolete.

Has B.J. Coleman proven that he is head and shoulders above Crompton? Not yet, but he offers something Crompton doesn’t have: natural skills and instincts for the position. I believe that he deserves the opportunity to start more than Crompton deserves another chance to possibly fail.

There has long been a rumor swirling around Coleman that in being groomed by Cutcliffe as the next player in a long line of Cutcliffian successes at QB, he was denied the opportunity once Cutcliffe left for Duke. It seemed that Fulmer was eager to prove his own skill at producing QBs, and this meant competing with his own selections and not Coleman. In other words, Epic Fail.

It was only after the advanced stages of rigor mortis had set it on the Vol’s season that Coleman was given a chance to play, which hardly provided an accurate read on whether or not he can run an offense.

Who can say how valid the rumor is, but if David Cutcliffe deems a QB worthy of playing within his system, I think it’s only smart to kick the tires and see how well Coleman performs.

Regardless of the decision, Kiffin has acquired enough fan capital to try his luck with a reborn Crompton if he so chooses. But my hope is that he recognizes Crompton for the square peg in a round hole that he is and instead invests in making the more naturally talented and savvy Coleman his QB for the future.

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