File Photo Lane Kiffin
KNOXVILLE — The sun never sets on the University of Tennessee football program’s rebuilding process, at least in first-year coach Lane Kiffin’s mind.
But this is the last week until preseason camp for the Volunteers to practice together in full pads.
Three days won’t be nearly enough to settle all of fall’s pending questions — especially on offense — but Kiffin’s first spring session with the Vols will be finished after Saturday’s Orange and White game. And practices today and Thursday are all that precede Saturday’s prologue.
“For me, it’s tough that it’s the last week, because I’m having so much fun,” wide receiver Gerald Jones said after Friday’s scrimmage with a large bag of ice taped to his right hand.
“I enjoy these coaches so much, but it’s also a learning period, so we have to get on the books and work on what we’ve got to do,” Jones added.
With the same breath, though, Jones said Saturday won’t be the end of spring preparations — just the finale in pads. And there will be plenty to work on this summer.
“I’d have to say we’re in a good position but not where we should be overall,” Jones said. “But we’re in a good position. We’re on a good pace ... and we will get there.”
The offense, in particular, is still very much a work in progress. Jones, his teammates and coaches don’t deny that.
“It’s just growing pains and just working on being great,” Jones said. “Right now, we’re not great. We’re good, and we’ll work to get better.
“That’s what the offseason’s for. People don’t get better during times like these. They get better in the offseason. They get to work on the things that they know, like ‘OK, in the spring, I had trouble with blocking. I had trouble with this.’”
UT has potential issues on defense and special teams, but the offense is full of them, starting under center. Senior-to-be Jonathan Crompton has taken most of the first-team snaps the past two weeks, but Chattanooga’s B.J. Coleman and the second unit have enjoyed significantly more success in scrimmage situations — and Nick Stephens is wearing out his patience after being sidelined earlier in drills with a wrist injury.
Quarterbacks need time to operate, though, and the offensive line has had monumental difficulties keeping Crompton clean against the first-team defense. UT’s front four ran around, over and sometimes through the No. 1 offensive line Friday, as it has several times this spring.
Left tackle Chris Scott and guards Vladimir Richard and Jacques McClendon — all seniors — seem safe atop the depth chart, but Josh McNeil hasn’t clearly emerged over walk-on Cody Sullins an center, and tight ends and tackles coach James Cregg said the Vols are “still trying to find a right tackle.” Cody Pope, Jarrod Shaw, William Brimfield and former tight end Aaron Douglass are possibilities, as is No. 2 left tackle Dallas Thomas.
“I think it’s going to go throughout camp, to be honest with you,” Cregg added.
Crompton avoided several baiting questions about the offensive line, saying “everybody on the offense” is potentially responsible for protection breakdowns.
“We’re still in a learning curve right now,” Crompton said. “Everybody’s heads are spinning right now when we call certain things. We’re trying to come out here and learn, and that’s part of it.”
Kiffin, who coordinated prolific offenses at Southern California before taking the head coaching position with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, has fought his impatient tendencies at times.
Asked to clarify his Friday afternoon statement that UT’s offense was “in the 60s,” Kiffin said simple running plays and play-action passes “about all we can do right now.
“Yeah, the (19)60s era,” Kiffin said. “This is pretty scary right now. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
That means today and Thursday won’t be Orange and White walk-through practices. Kiffin said even Thursday will feature furious pad-popping.
“We can’t afford to do any slowing down,” Kiffin said. “We can’t afford to take Thursday as a light day. We’re not good enough to do that. A few years down the road, maybe. But right now, we’ve got to maximize every practice, so we’ll be in pads that day, and we’ll be hitting just like any other day.”