I think we're gonna need a bigger scapegoat. All the folks on Rocky Top were blaming quarterback Jonathan Crompton for the Vols' miserable 1-3 start to the season. And why not? The guy was 64 of 123 and had twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. He'd both fumbled and thrown away scoring opportunities on Florida's one-yard line. He'd given away six points by fumbling on his own one-yard line against Auburn. Add to that a bizarre mix of inconsistency and inaccuracy and one could not argue with the coaches' eventual ldecision to put the teams' collective sins on his head and send him into the wilderness.
Enter Nick Stephens, who actually did quite well Saturday night against Northern Illinois. Yeah, I know, it was NIU or UNI or whatever, but Stephens was not only 10-17 for 156 yards and one TD, he looked like a quarterback. He was accurate. He was quick. He hit a deep receiver in stride, and he threw no interceptions.
And yet the Tennessee offense scored only 13 points against the Huskies:
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So yeah, maybe the QB position was a problem, but was that the only problem? Anybody got any more goats? Look, I love my team, but I've got questions.
The coaching staff. Just how many catastrophes does the team need to endure before a change is actually made? Seriously. I really can't get a handle on this.
For instance, Brandon James returns a punt for a TD against Tennessee is 2006, but it's called back. Near miss. Okay, fine. Learning without any true consequence is the best you can hope for. But . . . we give him another opportunity in 2007, and he does the same thing and makes it stick this time. In 2008, we kick off to him, and he immediately returns the ball across midfield. So what do we do when it comes time to punt? Why kick it to him, of course, and allow him to return it for a TD.
How about that wacky punt formation? Yes, I know we went to that for the Georgia game last year because our coverage hadn't been good, but our foes have figured it out. We had one blocked at UCLA. Almost had one blocked against Auburn. So what do we do about it? We wait for another catastrophe and get one blocked against Northern Illinois, coming dangerously close to losing that game.
How about that nasty "ball security problem" of a certain tailback's? Remember South Carolina in 2005? A fumble within a blade of fescue of the goal line lost the game. How about Penn State? Mmm-hmm. Florida last year? Blame it on Ainge if you want, but yeah. How about South Carolina last year? Near miss, that. Learn? No. UCLA this year. Florida this year, blame it on Crompton, but yeah. Auburn this year. Apparently, we need another catastrophe in that department as well before we'll do anything about it.
To change, we need to experience disaster after disaster even though college football season leaves no time for such hard lessons to do their work. We do not learn from near misses.
- Good is the enemy of great. One of the team's biggest problems is that we have good players doing good work. How is that a problem? It too often keeps great players on the bench. Arian Foster is a really good running back. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He's on pace to become Tennessee's most productive running back in its history. Cool. I'm glad. Makes me happy. Really. But Montario Hardesty is averaging 4.0 yards per carry and is not allergic to the red zone. He covers the ball with both hands when a defender is near. Third-stringer Lennon Creer is averaging 8.9 yards per carry, and did not even get on the field in a game against Northern Illinois.
- Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made. Or not, as the case may be. I've said this before, and I'll keep saying it until it makes sense to stop: if the old adage that having two quarterbacks means you have none is true, Tennessee has negative sixteen special teams coaches. It shows. Against the Huskies, Daniel Lincoln missed another field goal -- this one from 32 yards -- putting him at 5 of 9 for the season. Anyone care to bet that we're done with the spread punt formation or that we won't get another punt blocked or returned for a touchdown this season? We do have Dennis Rogan and Gerald Jones running back kicks and punts, so there's that.
Seriously, I love coach Fulmer, and I have confidence in him and the coaching staff. They can and do make tough decisions. They made one such decision this week concerning the quarterback position. The problem is that they often wait too long. They wait until catastrophe mandates a change rather than suggesting it.
Yesterday's game against Northern Illinois gave this coaching staff one last chance to learn from near misses in several areas. If they take the scare to heart and learn from it, they may be okay.
But if they wait for disaster to strike, it almost certainly will, and when that time comes, 2008 could very well be the last time they wait too long.