By Will Woodbery, Correspondent
KNOXVILLE — Jonathan Crompton was eager to start Tennessee’s first 2008 spring football practice Tuesday afternoon.
He’d been patient long enough. Three years, to be exact.
Now the waiting was over.
“All I can say is ‘finally,’” he said. “It’s finally here.”
Crompton enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback in offensive coordinator Dave Clawson’s inaugural season at Tennessee. But Crompton’s hold on that spot is tenuous at best. After his name on the depth chart, there is a conspicuous “OR,” a not-so-subtle indication that the quarterback situation is still up in the air.
“All three have yet to prove themselves in this league,” said head coach Phillip Fulmer, in reference to Crompton, sophomore Nick Stephens and former McCallie School star B.J. Coleman.
But Crompton said any doubts serve as motivation.
“I love it when people say the main question mark is the quarterback,” Crompton said. “That’s fine. They can think that. I’ll be ready to go. That’s all that counts.”
Besides shouldering the burden as a possible first-year starter, Crompton will have to adjust to new offensive passing schemes under Clawson, the former Richmond head coach.
Clawson brings to Tennessee a West Coast-influenced offense.
“Whether it’s West Coast, Gulf Coast, Smoky Mountain offense — call it what you want,” Clawson said, “but it’s how we’re going to teach the passing game and it’s how the quarterbacks are going to be trained.”
The transition to a new offensive system comes with new terminology, but Crompton said he’s learning.
“It’s not difficult to pick up. It’s football. It’s football terms. You can only call so many things so many ways,” he said.
Still, Fulmer is realistic in his assessment heading into the spring.
“I do expect some growing pains early, as we go from one system to another,” he said.
To ease the offensive transition, UT can rely on a stalwart running back corps. But Clawson doesn’t expect to rotate several tailbacks in a game as in years past.
“I think you need to have a lead back and you need to have a complementary back that gives you a little bit of a changeup,” he said.
Said new running backs coach Stan Drayton: “It starts in the backfield. If we can’t establish the run and we can’t be productive runners, that offense kind of stalls.
“We have the capability of being a very explosive offense and being very explosive out of that backfield.”
That all depends on the offensive line, which, aside from the absence of Josh McNeil with a knee injury, returns largely intact. Senior Anthony Parker will move over to center for the time being.
“They don’t get enough credit,” Crompton said of his blockers up front. “Going down from left tackle to right tackle, we have, in my opinion, the best offensive line in the country. I’d put them up against anybody.”
But Fulmer said the line could improve.
“We are looking for depth there. That is really important for us,” he said.
More question marks linger on the other side of the ball. The defensive line lost Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds. Likewise, linebacker stalwart Jerod Mayo departed for the NFL and Ryan Karl graduated.
Linebacker Rico McCoy says he’s following Mayo’s lead in dealing with underclassmen.
“I’m trying to get everybody on the same page. ... I’ve played my share of games. It’s time to shed my knowledge,” he said.
Despite the loss of four-year starter Jonathan Hefney, the Volunteers return nearly all of their secondary, including sophomore safety Eric Berry, who recorded 57 tackles last year as a freshman.
“We asked him to do a lot, probably more than any other freshman, and I think he responded well,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “He made a lot of plays last year, but certainly he’s got an opportunity to improve his game and take it to the next level.”