Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton will be starting for the Vols.
KNOXVILLE -- If Lane Kiffin hadn't announced minutes earlier that Jonathan Crompton would start at quarterback for Tennessee's Sept. 5 football season opener against Western Kentucky, Crompton wouldn't have said anything.
And when prodded to acknowledge the announcement, Crompton surely didn't look satisfied.
"Nothing is settled yet," he said. "We haven't played a game yet."
It's tough to argue against that statement. The Volunteers haven't played a game this season, and recent history suggests the quarterback issue isn't fully decided.
But Crompton won the first battle. It's now officially his job to lose. And judging by the time he spent throwing to wide receivers after Monday's practice, it's a job he won't lose from lack of effort.
Lessons learned have ironed that thought into the once-prized recruit's mind.
"You can't take anything for granted," said Crompton, who entered last season the unquestioned starter only to lose and eventually regain it in a seesaw with Stephens. "Look at some of the guys that get their career ended by a freak accident. Over the years, you kind of see things happen, and you say, 'I'm playing the game I love. I'm fortunate to be able to play this, so I'm going to out there and work my butt off every day and just work the hardest I can on and off the field, because anything can happen.' Something can happen tonight or tomorrow or 20 years from now.
"You never know, so it's a good thing to be able to come out here and play."
Kiffin reiterated his position that Crompton's seniority had nothing to do with the choice. Every snap from every practice was charted, with extra weight given to performances in the team's three major preseason scrimmages, and coaches claimed that Crompton simply outperformed the strong-armed Texan.
Stephens admitted to forcing too many ill-advised passes early in preseason camp -- a likely byproduct of missing most of spring practice with an injured throwing wrist -- but even as his consistency improved, coaches felt more comfortable with Crompton.
"It was a very hard decision, because they both played really well," Kiffin said. "It was a great thing. I think we've got two really good quarterbacks.
"If something were to happen to Jonathan, we'd feel very confident that Nick would come in and do a great job for us. It's weird to say it, but if you probably listed the five most improved players from spring, Nick would be one of them, even though he didn't win the starting job."
Whether Kiffin genuinely meant those kind words about Stephens is a fair question -- after all, the former Fresno State quarterback from a football-coaching family has made multiple references to staying publicly positive about that ultra-important position -- but he's also stated several time that no player's position is sacred. Starters for his Southern California offenses routinely changed during the season, and while he'd admittedly rather keep one player under center, there are no Sharpies on his depth chart.
"We all know we'll be playing for our jobs in week 10," Crompton said. "That's the thing: Nothing is ever guaranteed around here. And that's a good thing, because the more you compete, the more you get better.
"The minute you stop competing, the minute you get complacent, that's when things start going downhill. I don't see that happening around here, and that's a really good sign."
None of the offensive players interviewed Monday claimed to see a change in Crompton -- not even his roommate, senior guard and former Baylor School star Jacques McClendon.
"Same old Jon," senior center Cody Sullins said.
Receiver Quintin Hancock said his injury-depleted corps would take advantage of Crompton's coronation by spending post-practice time the next two weeks improving their timing on certain routes. That was certainly the case Monday, when Crompton and wideouts spent at least an extra half hour on the field.
"It will help," Hancock said. "We've obviously got work to do."
Sullins said the team would have gotten behind either quarterback, but having a definitive starter named before the first game week was "a big help."
"Obviously, we've got to go with what the coaches decide, and everybody will rally behind Jon to take this season on with a full head of steam," Sullins said. "It brings the (main rotation) together more as a cohesive unit, just everybody working together more and getting used to everybody's techniques."