published Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

UT defense tops offense


by Wes Rucker
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    Tennessee freshman Marsalis Teague returns a kick off during a scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday in Knoxville. (Amy Smotherman Burgess)

KNOXVILLE -- The Tennessee offense seemed to win preseason football camp's first major scrimmage, and the defense responded by seeming to win the second.

Saturday was more definitive -- or at least more calculable.

Using a scoring system that allotted three points for a defensive stop and five points for a turnover, UT's first- and second-team defenses led most of the day and finished with a 37-30 victory. Points weren't counted for third-team work.

Both sides were far from flawless, and the offense was certainly improved from a disappointing second scrimmage, but the defense jumped in front by returning a blocked punt for a touchdown just before halftime and never trailed from that point.

"I think we played with a lot of energy," junior defensive end Chris Walker said. "We came out and wanted to set the tempo, like we did last (Saturday), and I think we came out and did that."

Saturday was seen by several players as their last great chance to earn game-rotation spots, and much attention was on the starting quarterback battle between senior Jonathan Crompton and junior Nick Stephens.

Crompton was statistically superior for a second consecutive scrimmage -- completing 17 of 31 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, compared to Stephens' 9-for-17, 90-yard day -- but head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney weren't ready to announce a starter.

Kiffin said the previous week's tape showed more similarities than he expected, and coaches from both sides wanted to closely examine the handful of other near-turnovers from Saturday's video.

"I thought they did well," Kiffin said. "We'll go back and look at the film exactly. Jonathan ended up with more plays because of how it worked out. It wasn't done on purpose that way. It's just how the series went. We'll go back and evaluate them right now."

Added Chaney: "We've still got a lot of room to go ... but I think they're throwing the ball to who we want the ball to go to for the most part. I have no idea (who will start). We'll watch this tape and evaluate from there."

Crompton survived a few close encounters on the first possession, and Stephens caught a break on the fourth possession. He was hit while firing a pass over the middle, and the ball grazed off freshman linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton's fingertips.

"But no excuses," Stephens said. "It was third-and-long, and I was trying to make a play. I could have checked the ball down, but that's part of football sometimes. You're going to get hit while you're throwing the ball, and the ball's not going to come out right, so you've just got to move on.

"That was my worst throw of the day, but I can't really think of any more big mistakes other than that. I got something to build off of, and I'm just going to keep working and getting better."

Crompton clearly took advantage of his increased opportunities -- and the first-team offensive line -- by leading three touchdown drives and three field-goal drives in nine total chances.

Sophomore cornerback Art Evans halted a late first-half drive by intercepting an ill-advised Crompton pass down the sideline, but Crompton's other errant throws weren't penalized, and he efficiently managed the offense from huddle to snap -- with coaches finally signaling plays from the sideline, rather than the huddle.

"I feel as comfortable as I can right now in this offense," Crompton said.

Both quarterbacks benefited from an overall solid day on the ground, too. Underclassmen Tauren Poole, David Oku and Bryce Brown performed well while rotating in with the first-team offense, as senior Montario Hardesty's first team-meeting tardiness in five years relegated him to No. 2 work.

Crompton attempted just seven passes on his three touchdown drives, completing five -- including touchdowns to wide receivers Quintin Hancock and Brandon Warren from 19 and 5 yards.

Oku led the Vols with 45 yards on 14 attempts, while Hardesty (6-37) and Brown (4-29) impressed in smaller roles. Poole mixed in some nice runs to finish with 39 yards on 12 rushes, while freshman receiver Nu'Keese Richardson added 28 yards and a touchdown on four attempts on reverse plays and special-package quarterback situations.

"When we're running more than we're passing, that's when we win games," said senior guard Jacques McClendon, the former Baylor School standout. "That's what we have to do, is make sure our run game is efficient, and then our pass is going to come off our run plays. As long as we're doing that efficiently, then we're going to be a good team.

"I think we've put a big stamp out there that we're going to come out and be physical, and we're going to run the ball. With these great tailbacks we've got -- we're four-deep, and any of them could bust it out on any given play -- we've done a great job of making sure that we stayed stern with it. We're going to come out and run it on whoever wants it."

Through all that, though, the defense won the day. Evans' interception and Hardesty's lost fumble resulted in five points each, and walk-on defensive back Tyler Wolf's blocked-punt touchdown return played pivotal roles in that.

"We can always play better," veteran defensive tackle Dan Williams said. "But, hey, we finished with more points than the offense, so that's not too bad."

The defense did that despite brief appearances from several proven players, including Walker, All-America safety Eric Berry, All-SEC senior linebacker Rico McCoy and senior defensive lineman Wes Brown.

"We just played OK," coordinator Monte Kiffin said of his defense. "We gave up some big plays, you know, which is not good.

"We've got a lot of young people out there. Once we get our first group out of there -- and I'm not making excuses -- we've just got a lot of young players. A lot of rookies played today. They're going to be good players, but Lane's throwing a lot at us ... which is good."

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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