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Friday, October 9, 2009

Behind Enemy Lines: Tennessee Volunteers

Well, we're one day away from a game that probably means a lot more to Georgia than we might have thought a couple weeks ago and a game that means a ton to Tennessee. It doesn't look right now like either team is going to be a world-beater, but it's definitely shaping up like a matchup between two hungry teams with something to prove. That usually makes for good football.

We've talked a lot this week about the issues facing the Bulldogs, so I figure it's time to find out what the hot topics are in Knoxville. To get answers, I tracked down Tennessee beat writer Wes Rucker of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

David Hale: Obviously Jonathan Crompton isn’t exactly intimidating opponents yet, but his numbers have been better the past two weeks. Are there signs of improvement?

Wes Rucker: There have been signs of improvement, but how much does that really say?

Crompton has done nothing this season to soften the vitriolic feelings Big Orange Nation (as they call themselves) have for him. He’s a talented, smart young man who simply looks like he won’t put the pieces together before cementing his legacy as one of the biggest busts in college football history. And that will obviously be a major disappointment for the long list of well-respected coaches who never thought they’d see Crompton’s career take this route.

Crompton’s numbers have somewhat improved from the UCLA and Florida disasters, but a vast majority of his damage against Auburn came after the Tigers backed off into soft zone coverage in the fourth quarter. Even UT’s late second-quarter touchdown drive came in a hurry-up setting, with Auburn sitting back to avoid the big play.

If Crompton starts putting up similar numbers (and avoiding turnovers) against defenses in normal situations, then he’ll have started showing real improvement — in my opinion, anyway.

DH: Despite Crompton’s problems, Tennessee hasn’t had too many problems running the ball. Is it the O line, the combination of Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown or a little of both?

WR: Like I’ve tried telling people for years, a healthy Hardesty is an NFL tailback who can run exceptionally well, block exceptionally well and catch-and-run better than you think. In the right college offense, and with the right number of postseason games (SEC championship, bowls), he’d be a 2,000-yard, all-purpose back. Without his injury history, he’d already have locked himself into the first day of the NFL draft. But ... he’s been hurt. A lot. And in different areas. Hardesty is a tough kid who pushes himself into injuries because he runs and plays the game so hard. He is by no means a “soft” player. Just watch the way he finishes runs.

Brown was seriously pushing Hardesty for the starting position until getting thudded in the hip during a preseason practice. The freshman phenom hasn’t been the same since. His explosive strength and speed just isn’t quite what it was, but he’s still a capable player at 80 percent. If UT develops an offensive line the next few years, Brown and shifty-quick David Oku will rack up yards.

The offensive line has been a patchwork unit ravaged by injuries. Of the four proven, solid seniors who were supposed to anchor that group, only left tackle Chris Scott is still standing at 100 percent. Right guard Jacques McClendon is less than 100 percent (high ankle sprain), but he’s gotten by. Center Josh McNeil’s latest knee injury might have ended his promising career, and left guard Vladimir Richard could miss his third consecutive Saturday with Achilles' and knee issues. But the line has managed OK despite using primarily a group of formerly inexperienced players. The fifth-year senior Sullins twins, Cody and Cory, are former walk-ons who start at center and left guard.

But that combination has been enough, obviously, especially after a full-speed, full-contact spring and fall camp focused on running and stopping the run — the two things Lane Kiffin said any first-year team must do.

DH: Georgia has had some trouble against mobile QBs in the past two years, and Jordan Jefferson burned the Dawgs for a few big plays in the second half last week. So might we see a bit more of Nu’Keese Richardson in the Wild Cat this week?

WR: I would certainly expect to see more “Pahokee Package” this week. The Vols named it after Richardson’s talent-rich Florida hometown, though my vote was always “Nukular.” (No one ever listens to me around here. Not even my girlfriend. Sigh.)

UT wants to put the offense on Hardesty’s shoulders Saturday, but they’ll need others to help. The less they need from Crompton, the better. Putting those factors together, I think there’s a great chance we’ll see Richardson playing his old position for a few plays Saturday.

And be careful, Dawgs’ defenders. Richardson can throw it all over the yard. I saw it in camp. I don’t know how the little guy’s hands got around the ball — he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and is closer to 5-7 — but he can throw it.

DH: Georgia’s running game has been brutal recently, while A.J. Green has been great. So will Eric Berry be spending a bit of extra time shadowing Green or will we see him more in the box as he has been routinely this season?

WR: This is one of the day’s biggest questions, and one for which I can only speculate at this point, since we in the media aren’t allowed to watch the team periods in practice.

My guess is that UT will continue using Berry as essentially a fourth linebacker — or “bafety,” or “sacker,” as he laughingly calls the position. The Vols have to stop the run and keep their defense off the field to beat Georgia, and without junior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz (torn ACL), they’ll be hard-pressed to stop the run without Berry’s linebacker-like skills in the box.

The Vols have a nice set of defensive backs, led by criminally underrated junior Dennis Rogan, but certainly Berry would be their best shot to contain Green.

My bet is you won’t see Berry on Green all that much, because he’ll be in the box. But the bottom line is Berry plays free safety, strong safety, cornerback and a few linebacker spots during the course of most games, so who knows where he’ll be Saturday? All we know is that he’ll usually be somewhere hitting someone hard, and occasionally taking that ball from them and scoring.

DH: We all know about Berry, and Monte Kiffin is obviously a legend among defensive coordinators. But Mark Richt was very complimentary of freshman safety Janzen Jackson. What does Jackson bring to the table, and who else should Georgia fans be looking out for on the defensive side of the ball?

WR: Jackson is an intriguing player to watch. Athletically, in some ways, he’s superior to Berry. He doesn’t hit quite as hard as his role model — who does? — but he brings it pretty hard. His hit on Florida’s Brandon James is a YouTube classic.

I don’t think Jackson will be as good as Berry in the long run, but I think he could be an All-American or at least All-SEC player in his own right. Like Berry, he comes from a football family and was raised the right way. He stays out of trouble and stays in his playbook, so he knows where to be (and how to act) on and off the field.

Berry is an exceptionally rare player, but Jackson can still be a star. And some think he’s already there.

DH: It was obviously a controversial offseason at Tennessee, and there’s been drama that has continued into the season, most recently the dismissal of receiver Brandon Warren. Add to that three losses without an SEC win to start the season, and it can’t be exactly the start Lane Kiffin was hoping for. So what’s the atmosphere like in Knoxville right now? Still some excitement or a bit of disappointment?

WR: This is a complicated question that requires a complicated answer, but I’ll shorten it the best I can.

Kiffin certainly hasn’t been perfect since taking this job, but he’s repeatedly said that nothing he’s seen so far has knocked his plan off course. He knows what he wants to do with this program, but one of his main challenges will be keeping the win-starved locals at bay for a year or two.

More than 10 players have voluntarily left or been dismissed from the program since Kiffin arrived, and most of those players would have made this season’s team better. But Kiffin said he didn’t come to UT with a quick-fix in mind. He wanted to transform this program into what it was from 1995-2004. The Vols went 101-25 in that dominant, 10-year stretch, winning two SEC championships, one national championships and coming oh-so close to more of each.

It will take time to even approach those gaudy records, but Kiffin got off to the right recruiting start in February. He’ll likely sign another top class this winter, and it likely won’t be long until he puts a large group of his prized prospects on the field every Saturday.

With that said, I have no idea what will happen in the meantime. And I don’t know how long that “meantime” will last. People around here simply do no tolerate losing, with few exceptions. How long the UT fans and influential boosters can stomach the rebuilding process remains to be seen.

I can say with certainty that many fans will feel better when someone else — anyone else — is under center. Fair or not, Crompton has become the face of UT’s football calamity, and his mistakes have drawn the loudest boos I’ve heard at Neyland Stadium.

Huge thanks to Wes for his time. You can read his Tennessee coverage HERE, check out the TFP's Vols blog HERE, follow him on Twitter HERE or just be his Facebook pal HERE.


Anonymous said...

It's troublesome that Crompton did a vast amount of damage to AU after they went to a "soft zone". Isn't that what UGA plays all the time?

Anonymous said...

Yes, we are in trouble. I can just see the defensive backs 10 yards off the receivers like so many other games. If they are abke to establish the run and we play off the receivers, they will score points.

Phil said...

Anyone agree with me that we need to start opening up the playbook a lot more and just have some fun out there?

It was after the TN game two years ago where CMR changed his philosophy, the team started having fun, and we ended up going undefeated for the rest of the year.

We are 3-2 now. That's not terrible, but it's not what we are used to either. So, why not go out there and throw some things at TN that they aren't ready for? Use Branden Smith on another reverse, or use Ealey for a flea flicker to Cox, maybe a few more blitzes at teh right moments, just something different that isn't so stale (ie: zone D and run, run, pass).

I'm not saying we should play like we have nothing to lose. Like David has pointed out, if we go undefeated the rest of the season we will be in the SEC Championship. So there is still everything to play for, I would just like to see us go out there against TN on Saturday and prove that we are the better team and leave no questions about it.

What do you guys think? Agree? Disagree? Other comments?

Randall said...

I like the Tenn. guy's honesty and candid critique of his team. Dave, you could use a bit of that. Take a side once in a while.

David Hale said...


1.) I take sides all the time. Read through the stuff I've written this week. I've overtly criticized the kickoff issues and I've offered as ringing an endorsement of Joe Cox as I can.

2.) I'm a beat reporter, not a columnist. My job is to be objective. If I offer an opinion, it is because I've thoroughly researched it and provided significant details to back up my argument. I am not in a position to armchair quarterback. It's not my job, it's not my style and it's not something I'm going to do.

Please keep in mind, too. What would you say about this team if you had to show up and look the players and coaches in the eyes the next day after saying it? I'm not afraid to critique things I can back up, but I'm also not going to join the chorus of people angry that Logan Gray isn't playing or that Richard Samuel sucks when I don't really think it's necessary.

And on top of all that... there are enough opinions in this country these days and precious little facts. I'd much prefer to pass along more of the latter than add to the cacophony of "here's what you need to believe because I do."

Anonymous said...

head coach must coach his coaches during the games. hc needs to tell them obvious things like if the i offense is not working go to spread/gun or defense has to cover the tight end/slot.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, we are in trouble. I can just see the defensive backs 10 yards off the receivers like so many other games. If they are abke to establish the run and we play off the receivers, they will score points."

LSU's offense > Tennessee's, and Georgia held the Tigeaux to 12 points before the SEC front office took over.

Anonymous said...

DH, I love what you are doing for the Dawg Nation.

What do you think the implication of Dez Bryant being declared ineligible has on UGA's record? If OSU has to forfeit the W, does UGA drop the L? Do we get a W or one less game played?

David Hale said...

Not sure the answer to that, Anon. Either way, I don't think it'll matter to this season. It'll be sorta like what they're doing with Bobby Bowden's wins or Tech a few years ago... the numbers get changed in the record books, but it really doesn't mean anything in any sort of tangible sense.