KNOXVILLE — B.J. Coleman scrimmaged Saturday like a quarterback who hasn’t surrendered the starting position.
Minutes later, the University of Tennessee’s sophomore-to-be signal caller from Chattanooga said that was precisely the case.
“The competition’s not over,” Coleman said after completing 17 of 22 passes for 112 yards in the afternoon scrimmage at Neyland Stadium.
Crompton completed 9 of 16 passes for 90 yards in seven possessions against mostly the first-team defense and four of those drives ended with punts or interceptions. Coleman had seven possessions against mostly the second-team defense, and only two finished with punts.
By most measures, Coleman effectively responded to first-year coach Lane Kiffin’s decision to give Crompton more No. 1 snaps in practice last week. Most of Coleman’s five incompletions could have been caught, and at least two were clear drops.
Coleman’s seven drives gained a total of approximately 250 yards, while Crompton’s seven possessions combined for approximately 113 yards.
“I’m still going to fight,” Coleman said. “I’ve never been a quitter. My mom and my dad have always instilled good morals and values in me, and I’m always going to work hard and push it, because that’s what’s the best for Tennessee football.”
Junior-to-be Nick Stephens sat out the scrimmage despite returning to practice earlier in the week from a broken throwing wrist. Several other prominent players — including safety Eric Berry, guard Vladimir Richard and cornerbacks Brent Vinson and Marsalous Johnson — were held out for health reasons.
Starting safety Demetrice Morley wasn’t in Neyland, either, but Kiffin declined to state the reason.
Morley, whose immense potential has consistently been hampered with various off-the-field incidents, returned to Thursday’s practice after missing Tuesday because his “significant other” was in labor, according to Kiffin.
“Something came up this morning,” Kiffin said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “I’ll be able you guys more about it Tuesday, but I've got to have a conversation with him before I tell you guys.”
The defense could have excused some Saturday struggles against the pass, all things considered, but most of their problems came against the run.
Young tailbacks Tauren Poole and Toney Williams each topped 80 yards on 14 carries.
Williams — a Chattanooga native who enrolled at UT in January after a prolific high school career in the Atlanta area — continued his surprising spring with 84 yards and two scores.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the 6-foot, 220-pound Williams “looks like a grown man even though he should still be in high school.”
Head coach Lane Kiffin scoffed at any preconceived notion that Williams “wasn’t fast enough” to play tailback in the Southeastern Conference, referencing Williams’ 42-yard run on his first Saturday touch.
Lennon Creer’s midweek decision to leave the program temporarily unclogged UT’s backfield logjam, but Williams’ future classmates Bryce Brown and David Oku — two of the nation’s highest-ranked recruits — will join the mix this summer.
“My man Toney hasn’t even been to prom yet, and he’s already blowing up in Tennessee scrimmages,” said offensive guard Jacques McClendon, another Chattanooga-area native. “My man’s a monster. He’s a warrior. He came in from day 1 fighting, and he’s already got the respect of a lot of his teammates.
“He’s going to be special.”
Poole showed several flashes for some of his 81 yards, but the defense also collected one of his two fumbles (the other rolled out of bounds).
Crompton fell on his only fumble — defensive end Chris Walker continued his stellar spring by knocking the ball loose — but the defense forced a fourth fumble from receiver Tyler Maples and recovered it to stop a drive in the red zone.
“It’s great to see our defense responding,” UT head coach Lane Kiffin said. “Unfortunately, our backs just don't understand what it takes. We’ll keep sitting them and putting the next guy in until we figure out who can protect the ball. That’s more important than who makes the big runs.”
Senior-to-be tailback Montario Hardesty ran hard but finished with just 29 yards and a score on 10 carries against the Vols’ first-team defense.
Denarius Moore led the receivers with 45 yards on four catches, but Quintin Hancock’s 21-yarder was the only reception from him, Gerald Jones or Austin Rogers that advanced past the line of scrimmage.
Walk-on Ben Lehning probably had the day’s best catch. The undersized tight end from Nashville left his feet on the final possession to snare an 18-yard dart from Coleman on fourth-and-9. Williams bounced outside for 2-yard score two plays later, and Coleman sprinted toward the sideline pumping his right fist in celebration.
“I felt like we really needed to finish strong after a slow start offensively, so it was great to put some points on the board at the end,” Coleman said. “We’re a long way from being where we need to be, but hopefully we’ll take some of that momentum from the end and build on that going into next week.”
All-SEC linebacker Rico McCoy said he was “disappointed” with the defense’s final few possessions. Second-team middle linebacker Herman Lathers led the Vols with seven tackles, while McCoy and walk-on safety Derrick Furlow collected six stops a piece.
“We came out with the right mindset — good tempo, physical, playing fast — and we forced a lot of turnovers,” McCoy said. “We’ve come a long way, but as you can see there at the end, we’re not where we need to be just yet.”