Throughout the glory years of the 80's and 90's there were many constants about the Vols football program that we orange-bloods could count on--a great run game, shutdown defense, and great quarterback play.
The first quarterback I remember watching play for the Vols was Andy Kelly. The 6'3, 240-pound signal-caller, who played his high school ball about an hour north of my home, led Tennessee to two SEC championships in '89 and '90. He was the MVP of the last Sugar Bowl the Vols participated in.
Kelly handed off the field general duties to Heath Shuler. The democratic congressman from North Carolina was poised to take the Vols to the next level. Had it not been for a 17-17 tie in the Alabama game in 1993, Shuler might have led the Vols to a national title.
That '94 campaign began with Jerry Colquitt running the offense. That era lasted until halftime of the first game when Colquitt was lost to a torn ACL. Over the next few weeks Tennessee would trot out Todd Helton (Yes, the same Todd Helton that became a perenniel MLB all-star), Brandon Stewart, and some guy named Peyton to play the most important position on the field.
Peyton Manning became the full-time starter about halfway through the '94 season and the Vols finished 8-4. Peyton would lose only five games over the next three seasons while breaking every passing record that could be broken.
Peyton gave way to Tee Martin who stepped into the role and promptly delivered the Vols a national title in his first season as quarterback.
In 2000 another QB quandry left the Vols in need of a consistent leader behind center. Joey Mathews tenure didn't last long that season. He gave way to A.J. Suggs, who finally gave way to Casey Clausen that season. Clausen, the oldest brother of current Notre Dame QB, Jimmy Clausen, set many records for the Vols as well.
In 2004, after Clausen graduated, the Vols had two highly touted QB-prospects who were going to be ready to take the Vols back to the promised land.
Brent Schaefer and Erik Ainge provided many great moments that season and the Vols landed back in the SEC title game, under the direction of Rick Clausen (Casey and Jimmy's brother) after Ainge went down in October with a seperated shoulder and Schaefer was lost to a broken collarbone, where they lost by 10 to an undefeated Auburn team.
In '05 the Vols had high expectations, but the fact that the coaching staff could not decide between Ainge and Clausen, undermined everything the Vols tried to do that season and they ended up 5-6, missing a bowl game for the first time since 1988.
Ainge would take over again in '06 and the Vols won nine games. In '07 Ainge led Tennessee back to the SEC championship where they lost to eventual national champion, LSU.
Which leads me to the disastrous 2008 season when the QB position at UT took a nosedive. By the time the Vols manuvered out of that nosedive the dean of SEC coaches, Phil Fulmer, had lost his job and the Vols were kept out of the postseason for the second time in four seasons.
Jonathan Crompton had the pedigree. He was a five-star recruit coming out of Wayneville, NC. He had a pretty good tutor, former Vol star Heath Shuler.
When he filled in for Ainge against LSU in '06 he looked spectacular. The following week he started against Arkansas and the 13th-ranked Vols lost by 17. Tennessee hasn't been ranked higher than 15th since that fateful night.
In '08 Vols fans had reason to hope. We all thought we'd see the Crompton of the '06 LSU outing.
Instead we saw a kid that looked clueless against a bad UCLA team. Despite four interceptions off of the third-string, freshman Bruins QB, Kevin Craft, UCLA still won the game and Crompton looked awful in the process.
It was a harbinger of things to come. Crompton underthrew, overthrew, and stared receivers down all season long. He single-handedly lost the Florida and Auburn games despite being a legend in his own mind.
When Lane Kiffin arrived in Knoxville many of us, myself included, thought he could change Crompton's attitude and mold him into the quarterback that he was destined to be coming out of high school.
By most accounts the job was Crompton's to lose all along. Nick Stephens made him a sweat it out a bit, but eventually Crompton won the job.
The embattled QB looked great against Western Kentucky, but a decent high school QB could have defeated the Hilltoppers.
Since throwing those five touchdowns, one more than Crompton threw in seven games last year, Crompton hasn't thrown one touchdown, but his interceptions have grown exponentially to seven total.
Which begs the question, why? Why is Crompton still the starter at the University of Tennessee? I've heard everything from ridiculous to the sublime. One person says his parents are bigtime donors to the university, while others say that Heath Shuler's connections are to blame. A co-worker hilariously suggested that Crompton is "mobbed up."
As a starter Crompton is now 4-5 with 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He constantly stares down his receivers, misses the target, holds onto the ball too long, and generally looks clueless on anything but playaction passes.
Last year, Nick Stephens threw four touchdowns against three interceptions while completing only 48-percent of his passes. He was benched in favor of Crompton after showing an attitude against South Carolina and after looking terrible in the homecoming loss to Wyoming.
Stephens was 4-for-4 with 44 yards in relief of Crompton against Western Kentucky, but that's the only field time he has received this season.
I realize, like many Vols fans need to, that this is a rebuilding season. I did not want to believe that the Vols had experienced a dropoff in talent. I wanted to blame it all on Fulmer's inability to develop the players and call the plays. I was wrong. The cupboard was left nearly bare on the offensive side of the ball.
That dropoff in talent has hampered Lane Kiffin's first season in Knoxville. But no one said he was going to wave a magic wand and instantly turn the Vols into a 10-win team.
With a decent Ohio team coming up the Vols surely cannot afford to look ahead to the daunting task of back-to-back games against Auburn and Georgia.
This defense alone is good enough to beat Ohio, Memphis, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. A few defensive touchdown's and some decent games on the ground should be enough to get by in those games. Auburn, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Ole Miss are completely different stories.
It's hard to beat the big boys without a quarterback.
The time has come to give Stephens another shot. Who knows; with a different coach and offensive philosophy the junior from Flower Mound, Tx could just hit his stride.
If he can step it up in practice and defeat the perenniel practice MVP Crompton, he might get that shot.
There's the concern for next year as well. If Stephens can't live up to unseating Crompton we might find ourselves in the same predicament next season as well.
Recent commitment Tyler Bray, a four-star QB from California, brings hope for next season and beyond. He's 6'6, 187-pounds and reportedly has a great arm and tremendous accuracy. He's a tad skinny for an SEC QB, but that's nothing that some time in the weight room and a few extra meatballs at dinner can't fix.
Is he going to be the next great QB at Tennessee? After the last two seasons the Vols can go nowhere but up.
Replacing Crompton with Stephens has proven to be quite difficult for whatever reason, but the days of replacing All-American's with All-American's might be just around the corner.
That still doesn't help for this season, but at least the next time we see Crompton stare down a receiver, throw an interception, or fumble a snap we can look forward to a time in the future that will hopefully mirror the past.