In three weeks, spring practice will be over for the Volunteers. The players will begin their downtime training regimens and will complete their semester coursework. The coaching chimera will pick up the intensity on the recruiting trail as the NCAA rules limit their ability to interact with the team in meaningful ways. And, if all current signs hold up, Jonathan Crompton will be the #1 quarterback for the Vols.
Granted, this is a heady projection at this time; the team has only conducted two of its five weeks of practice so far and Nick Stephens has yet to get an opportunity to enter the fray. This race is certainly not over, and my current guess that Crompton will get the nod is simply a guess and is subject to change. It's not, however, a blind guess; the news reports coming out of the practices have been slowly leaning towards Crompton with each progressive practice session. This Saturday, the rhetoric reached its strongest level as Crompton was the only quarterback mentioned by Lane Kiffin during the post-practice interview, and all of the words were ebulliently positive. The head coach is not the only one who's commenting on the positive steps that Crompton is taking either; Hardesty noted quite the difference between last year and this year.
Naturally, all this bright and shining news about Crompton is setting very well with the crowd at GVX. They, like Lane Kiffin, are quite willing to note that last year's team and this year's team are two completely different animals with different coaches and different playbooks. (Or that last bit was a total lie and the pitchforks and torches are still by the ready. One of the two; I get them confused...)
Either way, the possibility of Crompton getting the starting nod is very, very real. Real enough that we can assume it will happen unless we hear significant news to make us believe otherwise. So, how do we take the news?
Whatever you do,
please don't let last year's fiasco-tastic performance convince you that Crompton will assuredly fail this year. Yes, Fulmer had a tendency to favor his named starters too much. Yes, Crompton was the starting quarterback without any competition. Yes, Crompton performed worse as the season progressed - to the point that he wasn't even reliable on handoffs. But if we're going to use data from previous regimes, let's look at all of it. Remember that Cutcliffe was very, very positive about Crompton before he bolted for Duke. Crompton had turned in a rather good performance against LSU in relief duty before, and we all had solid evidence to believe that Crompton would perform admirably as a starter.
You certainly already know where I'm going with all of this, but I'll go there anyhow. The difference between the offensive coaching staffs from last year to this year is night and day. Last year, the quarterbacks wore the green jerseys so much that you would have thought it was St. Patrick's Year. The Clawfense, as Joel pointed out (and I didn't listen), was a very complicated beast and had a two-year installation timetable; it was also a legitimate West Coast offense. Then there was the flipping O-line that ended up being most effective at flipping the matador cape for the charging bulls of whatever defense was lined up against the Vols.
The short of everything is that last year's performance cannot be considered a reliable indicator of this coming year. (It's even more true than when said by financial types; they're merely giving themselves legal protection.) The difference would be much like taking Tebow, placing him in a Mike Leach offense, then projecting his end-of-year stats. You get reduced to looking at physical metrics and trying to guesstimate on those because you haven't seen him play any football in a system that resembles the future.
What We Can Learn From Last Year
The one ringing truth about Crompton that last year taught is that his performance declines rapidly when he overthinks: the more Crompton was asked to do during his presnap reads, the worse his performance. Even on simple plays, overthinking produced highly unpleasant results. In fact, this is probably the reason that Crompton was a wizard during practices and inept in the games - the practices were not gameday simulations and he had the time between plays to reset and prepare for the mental gymnastics of the next repetition.
Knowing that, we can at least assume that a simpler offensive system should get more out of Crompton's talent than last year, and that's exactly what we're looking at under Lane Kiffin. All reports from the veteran players say that the new offense is easier to learn, understand, and run than either the Clawfense or Cutcliffe's system (and remember that under Cutcliffe, Crompton looked pretty good on gameday). We can reasonably expect that the mental phase of the game won't be the problem that it was last year.
If the mind game is fixed for Crompton, then any failure he may have this coming fall will have, at its root, a different fundamental cause than last year's problems. Because of this, we can't look at last year, point out all the problems, then simply assume that the same problems will be present. If Crompton has accuracy problems in the fall, the cause will be different than last year. If Crompton holds the ball for too long, the cause will be different. If Crompton goofs up handoffs, the cause will be different.
What I'm getting at is that we shouldn't confuse symptoms with diseases (using the broader sense of the term). Throwing passes with the accuracy of a blunderbuss is a symptom; spending too much time thinking and not being ready to perform is a disease. Holding the ball too long is a symptom of the disease of mental lock from synapse meltdown.
I'm not making any prediction on how well Crompton will do next year - even if we do assume that he'll start in the fall. What I'm suggesting is that, if we're going to predict failure, we need to find a different causation than last year's re-enactment of the military history of France. Carryover shell-shock from last year? Sure, that'd do it. Do we have any evidence of that? Not yet. Hot new gator-loving girlfriend distracting him? Again, sure if that indeed exists. Undiagnosed loss of vision? Ok. Offense too complicated? Technically possible but astoundingly difficult to imagine right now.
And no matter what, he's a Vol and he's one of our own. If he starts, I'd want him to have a season worthy of a Heisman for any other team in the country. I'd want a 500-yard game against the Gators. I want a performance so astoundingly good that nobody would ever admit to doubting him. I don't want him to fail for the sake of an I-told-you-so.