Head coach Lane Kiffin wanted everything about Saturday's scrimmage to feel like a real game day. Kiffin spent the better part of the week calling it "the most important day of fall camp."
The scrimmage was key for many position battles, but really was sort of a test for quarterback Jonathan Crompton. Kiffin made comments at various times during the week leading up that the leader in quarterback race, which everyone felt was decided prior to last week, would emerge out of this scrimmage and he would name a starter.
Last season, Crompton played well in practice according to the old coaching staff, but faltered severely when the lights turned on. His confidence admittedly shaken, his teammates looking to him to step up, Crompton needed to step forward and perform in a pressure situation.
Crompton did just that.
Going 17-for-29 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with one interception don't begin to tell the whole story. Crompton led the offensive side to its only three touchdowns of the day, where Stephens could not get the team in the end zone.
Crompton also showed the maturity one would like to see in a fifth-year senior quarterback by giving up on bad plays and not trying to force something to happen. Coach Kiffin felt both QBs played well.
"I thought they did well," Kiffin said. "Jonathan ended up with more plays, just because of how it worked out. It wasn't done on purpose."
A few other key position battles are going to be graded by the coaching staff, and will surely play a huge role in the success of this team going forward. Josh McNeil is trying to fight off walk-on Cody Sullins, while senior defensive tackle Dan Williams has Freshman Montori Hughes hot on his tail.
What is striking about both battles is that two longtime, entrenched starters are having to fight off guys who have never started a game. Fans grew apathetic of the former staff's penchant to allow starters to retain their position, simply on seniority and name alone.
The idea of true, intense competition at every position will no doubt push everyone on the team. Just ask junior Ben Martin.
When Martin arrived at Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer declared he would be an All American at Tennessee, something I personally have never heard Fulmer say about any other player that young. Fulmer may have not been a genius on the sidelines, but at the time, it was eye opening since one would imagine Fulmer would know what an All-American looked like.
Insert Gerald Williams, a highly regarded recruit who spent almost three years trying to find a way to become eligible to play at Tennessee. He's been tried at defensive end and linebacker, yet hasn't been able to seriously push anyone for a starting spot. Some have attributed that to a lack or work ethic and willingness to go 100 percent every play.
Recently, Williams was given a shot at first-team defensive end, a spot most thought Martin was a shoe in for, and hasn't given that up. Williams has stepped up his intensity in what could have been his last chance with the Vols to prove he's the playamker they recruited.
In the end, Tennessee's defensive side "won" the scrimmage 37-30, but the Vols got what they wanted in learning who could step up with the pressure on.
Freshman Bryce Brown was back from his injured hip to show he is as advertised. Along with several other impressive runs, Brown had a scoring run where the play was stuffed up the middle, but Brown turned to outside and beat everyone to the pylon for the score.
The Vols also found this year's team would look very different from last, though they have a lot of returning contributors.
"We've just got a lot of young people. Once we get our first group out there, and I'm not making excuses, we've got a lot of young players, a lot of rookies played today," said defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. "They're going to be good players, but Lane's throwing a lot at us, which is good."
Kiffin and staff are also starting to identify where several guys can help the most. Dennis Rogan is decidedly better as a safety according to the coaches, and is a very versatile player. Greg King is coming along as a Sam linebacker and Coach Lance Thompson has offered he knows what he's going to get out of Nick Reveiz, Rico McCoy and Savion Frazier.
After the last full speed scrimmage before the real games start, Western Kentucky on Sept. 5, the Vol coaching staff has a better idea of what they are working with.
Crompton showed he could step forward in a pressure situation and the offense showed it can move the ball against what should be one of the better defenses in the nation.
Perhaps the biggest impression from the scrimmage should go to the fans, who can find hope in the clear evidence that when Kiffin told them there would be true competition at every position, he meant it. No one's spot is safe, and the young guys that everyone has talked so much about are getting a chance to step out and shine.
It's going to see what comes out in the following days, after the coaches grade the film and see how many of the position battles were settled for now, anyway.
The Vols expect a resolution to the Bryce Brown NCAA probe early in the week, so once the starters are determined that will clear the way for this team to proceed at full speed.
I, for one, will be anxious to see what this coaching staff can transform this group into over the next couple weeks when they can just let loose and coach, now that a big part of the evaluation process is over.
As coach Kiffin said, "It's time."
Writer's note: Quotes and statistics from this article were taken from various sources, including the Knoxville News Sentinel and Volquest.com, and other general statements to the media.
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