KNOXVILLE — Two of the three quarterbacks competing for Tennessee’s starting spot took more snaps in practice Tuesday afternoon.
Junior-to-be Nick Stephens, recovering from a right wrist injury, was cleared for full contact for the first time this spring, and senior-to-be Jonathan Crompton took significantly more first-team snaps than sophomore B.J. Coleman of Chattanooga.
First-year coach Lane Kiffin surprised Crompton by tilting the 50-50 first-team scale, and the much-maligned, lifelong Volunteers fan didn’t disappoint.
Kiffin joked that he was “getting bored” of complimenting Crompton, whom he unsuccessfully recruited four years ago at Southern California.
“He looks more comfortable than ever,” Kiffin said after another chilly, rain-dampened practice. “He took more reps today with the ones than he normally does, based off of his performance to this point, and it was interesting to see his response.
“I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I didn’t even tell him it was going to happen. I talked to B.J., but I didn’t even tell Jonathan. I wanted to see how he’d react. Would that be added pressure? And all of a sudden, would he regress? But he came out and looked even better, so that was a great reaction to it.”
Crompton’s confidence has seeped into other areas, too, including daily dealings with reporters.
Asked to compare his feelings to last season, Crompton said, “It just doesn’t compare at all. I’m 100 percent confident in my ability, my arm, my reads and everything. I’m 100 percent confident in the guys around me on offense, at every position, to make the plays. That’s one thing that really helps, is when I know they’re going to be there, I can make the throw, anticipate a little early, knowing they’re going to be there.”
Teammates are still understandably careful of singling out a favorite in UT’s quarterback derby, but several Vols have commented on Crompton’s solid spring play.
“He’s playing incredible,” said wide receiver Gerald Jones, undoubtedly Crompton’s favorite target last season. “He’s making all the right reads, he’s minimizing mistakes, and he just looks comfortable. ... He’s proving that he can be our quarterback.”
Added tight end Jeff Cottam: “I think Jonathan’s a great quarterback, and he’s showing that right now. When I’m running a route and I’m open, the ball’s just right there on time, unless someone else gets open before me.”
Crompton hasn’t won the spot yet, though. Coaches haven’t ruled out Coleman, and Stephens’ injury delayed the legitimate look he’s supposed to get.
Stephens said his wrist felt “about 85 percent” Tuesday.
“It felt pretty good at the beginning,” he said. “When I got more snaps, my grip just kept getting weaker and weaker. But for the most part, I’m way ahead of schedule, and it feels a lot better than I thought it would at this point.”
Tailback Lennon Creer and safety Demetrice Morley missed Tuesday’s practice. Creer was having a closer look given the knee he injured Saturday, while Morley was attending the birth of his second child.
Sophomore-to-be defensive tackle Donald Langley, a highly regarded prospect who struggled throughout last season in part because of his mother’s medical issues, practiced with the offensive line.
Guard Vladimir Richard left practice early after taking a blow to the head, but Kiffin said the offensive line still dominated the defense throughout the team’s short-yardage competitions.
Kiffin said he was “extremely pleased” with young fullbacks Kevin Cooper and Austin Johnson. The coach said Cooper, a former Baylor School star, has “really been a highlight” this spring.
Cornerback Brent Vinson’s latest shoulder surgery could occur as soon as today, but the hope is he’ll be fine for preseason practice.
Kiffin said receiver Brandon Warren wouldn’t regain the No. 1 on his practice jersey until he atones for his “screw-ups.” The coach said Warren — a converted tight end and high school All-American from the Knoxville area — “hasn’t been taking care of business off the field and in class the way that we’d like.”
Athletic director Mike Hamilton announced Tuesday that UT-Martin as the Sept. 4 season opener completes the Vols’ 2010 schedule. The Skyhawks will be the Vols’ first Football Championship Subdivision opponent since The Citadel in 1983.
“The University of Tennessee always has placed a priority of scheduling FBS opponents in football,” Hamilton acknowledged. “FBS buy games are becoming much more difficult to acquire. As we began to review the possibilities of playing an FCS opponent, it made sense to schedule a game against a school in the UT system and keep the money in state.”