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Spring Position Battles: Quarterback

With spring practice kicking off on March 10, and Coach Kiffin's assertion that there are no starters (unless you're Eric Berry) and every position is up for grabs, we begin our look today at each of the position battles that will ensue next month. And we start with the one that caused the most problems last year, and is generating the most uncertainty now, both this spring and for the whole of the 2009 season:

Who's going to play quarterback for Tennessee this fall?

Kiffin told the highly-touted Tajh Boyd that he didn't fit our system during recruiting. And the Vols appear to be actively pursuing five-star prospect Jake Heaps and some kid named Montana for the 2010 class.

But for the present, that means we're still left with the same triumvirate that did us few favors in 2008.

If you're looking for hope, Coach Kiffin has mentioned in interviews that when he arrived at Southern Cal, he was told that Carson Palmer couldn't grasp the offense and Matt Leinart didn't have the arm strength to play quarterback at USC. And they each left with a Heisman Trophy.

We don't win Heismans here in Knoxville and I don't think anyone is expecting those accolades for the QBs on our roster (remember this time last year when we were making Tim Tebow comparisons with our starter?)...but perhaps a fresh start and a new coaching staff is exactly what at least one of these guys needs.

Let's hope.

Breaking down the options...

Jonathan Crompton

  • 6'4", 220 Senior
  • 2008: 86 of 167 (55%), 889 yds, 4 TD, 5 INT, 98.1 rating
  • 37 rushes for 27 yards (sacked 10 times), 2 rushing TDs
  • Did not play against NIU, Georgia, Miss. St. or Alabama

Crompton took the biggest fall out of any of the Vols last season. Inflated expectations both of him and the Clawfense created an unrealistic and largely unfounded perception of what #8 could do before the Vols ever took the field. Crompton's 2006 performance against LSU when Erik Ainge was injured appears now to have been the great work of Robert Meachem more than the savvy play of the quarterback.

The moments of frustration were painful: eight straight incompletions in the second half against UCLA while the Bruins were rallying, finishing with a 19 of 41 day. An inability to get one first down on any of four fourth quarter drives at Auburn, where just one first down at any point would've allowed Daniel Lincoln to kick a go-ahead field goal, and instead Crompton finishes 8 of 23 for 67 yards.

That performance got him benched, and we didn't see him again until South Carolina after a Nick Stephens interception. By then all kinds of venom had built up against Crompton; when I saw him come into the game I called my Dad and immediately asked if he thought Fulmer was trying to get fired.

He fumbled against the Gamecocks at a crucial juncture, then when Stephens got the turnover-based hooked again against Wyoming, Crompton went 11 of 27 for just 91 yards, unable to produce more than one scoring drive in the Vols' most disappointing effort against a lesser opponent.

His stat line against Vanderbilt: 0 of 1, 1 interception, -200 QB rating.

Finally against Kentucky the coaching staff (read: Fulmer) decided to quit screwing around and run. A lot. As a result, Crompton went the whole way and finished 6 of 8 passing for 101 yards and a 63 yard touchdown. I wouldn't call it tangible hope, but I might call it a much-needed spark of hope and confidence for this kid.

And don't forget...Crompton played well against UAB and, statistically, he played okay against the mighty Gators: 18 of 28, 162 yards and 1 interception, while rushing for 22 yards.

He appears flawed, sure...or perhaps incomplete might be a better term. His decision making, poise and pocket presence were all questionable. His confidence hopefully has improved. My question too with this kid is, does he fit Lane Kiffin's system? Is Crompton really a pro-style quarterback? If Crompton was a high school senior again (when, remember, everybody in the country wanted him), would Lane Kiffin have told him "Sorry, you're a great player but you just don't fit our system?"

I don't think it's fair to call any of these kids a "frontrunner" in this race. I'll only say that Crompton is the most experienced, for better or for worse. If Erik Ainge could be salvaged after 2005, Crompton may not totally be a lost cause. But even if the coaching staff can bring out the best in him, his best may not be what Kiffin is looking for...

Nick Stephens

  • 6'4", 215 Junior
  • 2008: 63 of 130 (49%), 840 yds, 4 TD, 3 INT, 108.2 rating
  • Sacked 13 times in 6 starts
  • Started six consecutive games in midseason

Back on Labor Day, when the sun was shining and birds were chirping and the Clawfense was going to be unstoppable, one of my friends asked me what would happen if Jonathan Crompton got hurt. I said "The G-Gun. Repeatedly."

Tennessee fans knew nothing about Nick Stephens before this season. After Crompton's performance against Auburn, Stephens won a QB competition in practice the following week (according to Fulmer), and really had little to lose going under center against Northern Illinois.

His performance there was enough to keep him going forward: 10 of 17 for 156 yards and a touchdown with a 52 yard bomb. And though his completion percentage was down the following week, I thought he was downright gutsy at Georgia (13 of 30 for 208, 2 TDs). It's hard to tell how much of that was having suffered through Crompton's performance early, but I thought this kid could be molded into a very decent SEC quarterback. And I realize "very decent" isn't what we strive for here at Tennessee, but we work with what we've got, and I think we'd all take "very decent" from any of these kids in 2009.

His numbers were at that same level of decency against Mississippi State and also Alabama, but the Vol offense wasn't scoring any points. Still, his play through four starts I thought was better than what Crompton had given us.

He was questionably benched at South Carolina for what Dave Clawson called "dirt-kicking" after an interception, which I interpreted as a combination of feeling sorry for himself and not hustling back to attempt a tackle on the INT return. I don't know what that did to any confidence he had, but the following week against Wyoming, he caught the bad break of a great defensive play by one of the Cowboys, then threw a horrid ball on another interception, and Nick Stephens' 2008 season was done.

The kid is fiery and, like Crompton, has been under center for the bigtime SEC games before, so that wouldn't be anything new. He gave the appearance of being a better leader than JC, but while his pocket presence allowed him to evade some defenders with some nice agility, it also perhaps kept him in there longer than it should have, taking 13 sacks.

Stephens could possibly fit what Kiffin is looking for. And if it does end up being him, you have four games of "very decent" football and two games with two really bad decisions to go on. Let's hope Stephens has more of the former in store.

BJ Coleman

  • 6'3", 210 Sophomore
  • vs. Vanderbilt: 4 of 8 (50%), 21 yds, 1 INT, 2 sacks, 47.1 rating
  • vs. Hargrave (JV): 22 of 31 (71%), 325 yds, 2 TD

The third option last season was David Cutcliffe's personal project once upon a time, who was then sent to the back of the line when Cutcliffe went to Duke. We have two snapshots of this kid: one is a junior varsity performance against Hargrave Military Academy with the above stats and a 37-21 win. He was playing against a JV opponent, but he was also playing with JV talent around him.

The other is his trial run against Vanderbilt, which did not look good. Everything appeared to be too fast for Coleman, his interception is probably the worst pass I've ever seen a Tennessee player make, and he was simply unproductive.

But that was one glimpse of one game, and if Coleman ends up being the surprise of spring practice and vaults to the front of the line, Kiffin and Family have plenty of time to make sure that he is ready for Western Kentucky and that it's not too fast by then.

Is Coleman the best fit of the three for Kiffin's pro-style offense? Maybe.

For what it's worth, he also appears to be the "best teammate" of the three, you always hear him spoken highly of by other players, and while he may not have the fire of Nick Stephens, he does appear to have their respect (not that Stephens doesn't) - a journeyman JV player like that, you can see how that would unfold.

If you want to believe in Coleman, Ghost of Neyland at Third Saturday in Blogtober wrote your manifesto several weeks ago. Of the three, this kid appears the most motivated to win the starting job, and of the three, this kid has the least to lose. Does he have the actual talent necessary to go with all these intangibles that seem to be present? We'll see.

Who's it going to be?

Here's my personal opinion: in my mind, Jonathan Crompton is damaged goods. That's highly unfair I'm sure, and I still think Crompton probably has the most natural talent out of all three of them (though maybe not the most natural talent for Kiffin's offense). But he's scorched earth - he's Erik Ainge 2005 without Erik Ainge 2004 to believe in.

That said, I'll trust the coaches and if #8 comes out of spring the winner, I'll be fully behind him. I want all of our guys to do well, and I did feel a little bit bad for Crompton last season when everything was built up so high for him, and then he fell so low.

I'm the most comfortable with Nick Stephens. But I'm the most excited about BJ Coleman.

It's a ridiculously thin excitement. In reality, it's based on something like "Well, I've seen the least of this there's the greatest possibility with him that he's actually really good, and we just haven't seen it yet." It's straw grasping as an art form.

But, the thing is...if it's true and Kiffin lives up to his word and gives Coleman a chance with the ones, then he'll have his chance to prove it. And if it's not, then maybe we fall back to the relative stability of Stephens.

I'm okay with Nick Stephens. I've seen enough good there and thought the bad was more isolated. If it's him, I'll nod my head and hope for the best. If it's Crompton, I'll nod my head and feel anxious. And if it's Coleman, I'll smile because I'll believe it's because he really earned it, and maybe there's something more there...

What I hope we don't see is this quarterback derby continue to play out throughout the regular season. I've never seen a quarterback competition that ended well (thought that's probably because Ainge and Brent Schaeffer both got hurt). And remember, there are names on the board for 2010. We know Crompton won't be an option then. If it's Stephens or Coleman, they've got a whole year to show us something.

But I just think we're all tired of "well, this guy didn't work this week, so now we'll try the next guy next week and then the third guy the third week."

This job is open. And I want somebody to take it.