KNOXVILLE — The spring of change ends today.
The University of Tennessee football players will wear orange and white in today’s spring game. Coach Phillip Fulmer will still patrol the sideline with a headset, as will longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Most everything else should look different — and some of them drastically different.
A new first-team quarterback will take play calls from a new offensive coordinator. Jonathan Crompton will then throw the ball to receivers or hand the ball to running backs who are playing under new position coaches in a new-look, West Coast-like offense.
The offensive guards and tackles will also switch sides on certain plays, a wrinkle that isn’t new to football but remains relatively foreign at Tennessee.
Neyland Stadium isn’t spared from change, either. The massive steel structure on the Tennessee River shore is undergoing another part of its several-step renovation plan — this one including concourse enhancements, expanded locker rooms, a new letterman’s club, a new mezzanine level, field-level brick work and a new media center.
Fulmer knows better than anyone that fans won’t enjoy Neyland’s makeover if the Volunteers don’t win. Those clamoring for change have gotten at least part of their wish, though, with four new offensive assistants — starting with coordinator Dave Clawson.
“We’ve got everything in,” Fulmer said. “We certainly can’t do everything just like we want yet, but they’ve heard, verbally, the entire package — with the exception of things that could come up during the course of the year.
“The system is in. We’ve made significant progress.”
Every day hasn’t been pleasant, but Crompton said the “growing pains” haven’t lowered his expectations.
“We have good players, good coaches and a good system,” Crompton said last week. “We’ll get where we need to be.”
A talented, tough and SEC-tested secondary hasn’t helped the offense, either. Errant passes often find their way into the hands of Eric Berry or Demetrice Morley, and cornerback DeAngelo Willingham was named one of the team’s most improved players this spring. Dennis Rogan showed as a freshman last season that he’s no slouch, either, but he and Willingham both have to hold off Brent Vinson, Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines for playing time when that injured trio returns this summer.
Fulmer said he would “handcuff” the defense today, giving a young offense the chance to give fans a good time. That won’t matter if the offense gashes itself with self-inflicted wounds in what Fulmer often calls “paralysis by analysis.”
“It’s kind of the whole before the parts, actually,” Fulmer said. “It’s important that they understand the system, and to really understand the system, you have to put everything in; then you go back and pick and choose. Obviously, when we go into a game, we won’t be running so many things from each little package.
“The first time I came to college, it happened. Obviously, at different jobs I had, it happened. It just hasn’t happened here on offense in a long time, but we had this drastic verbiage change.”
It’s not just words, though. Clawson’s system is multiple, but its basic concepts have some sharp contrasts to the same basic concepts UT has run the past two decades.
Fulmer doesn’t seem to mind, though. He still sounds like a man who sought change — something that was clearly evidenced by his lengthy search process.
“It’s been refreshing to be honest with you, to learn new thoughts,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat, and we’ve certainly seen that it works. It works very well.”
But will it work very soon?