KNOXVILLE -- Lane Kiffin hasn't struck many as a tender-hearted soul since taking over the University of Tennessee football program in December, but he vowed Tuesday morning to take that role with his much-maligned quarterbacks.
Kiffin said his quarterbacks, particularly senior Jonathan Crompton, have suffered through "bad relationships" with UT fans.
The Volunteers ranked near the bottom nationally in most major offensive statistical rankings last season, and much of the fans' frustration was directed at the quarterbacks.
"I can see in Jonathan with what has happened before, and around here -- I don't know if this is a good comparison -- it's like a bad relationship," Kiffin said. "He's hurt, and so you can tell when things go bad a little bit with him that he kind of freezes up a little bit, because he's been beat up for so long here. That's very obvious for me to see, so I've worked very hard at getting him out of that by conversations and to understand we're not worried about what happened before.
"Just like everybody else, we're focused on the future. I think he's getting a lot better at that."
Kiffin, son of former NFL and current Vols defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, grew up around football coaches. He played quarterback in high school and college. After seeing nearly every conceivable way coaches could possibly treat their offensive leaders, he claims to have settled on the softer path.
"I don't talk about last year to them at all that way," Kiffin said. "I talk about what we're doing and our future here. They understand that I'm going to protect them.
"Quarterback is different than everybody else, so I'm going to protect them in the way that I call games. I'm going to protect them in the way that I talk to the media about them as well, that I've got their back. They need to understand that."
Kiffin offered an abridged version of his confidence-building sessions with Crompton and junior Nick Stephens.
University of Tennessee football head coach Lane Kiffin answers questions during a press conference at Neyland Stadium Tuesday, July 21, 2009 in Knoxville, Tenn. Kiffin reiterated his commitment to the running game, seeking to improve on last season's 122.9 yards per game rushing average.
"Bad things are going to happen," he said he told them. "I'll take the heat for it when it does happen. Just understand we have confidence in you guys, and we expect you to go out and forget about the last play. That's what the great ones do."
The quarterbacks had different ways of venting their frustrations last year -- Stephens lost his temper a few times, and Crompton occasionally sulked -- but they've been a picture of public consistency since the coaching change. Admittedly, though, proof is never found in preseason pudding.
"It's too early to think about anything but staying focused and working hard to learn this new system and get better every single day," Crompton said last week.
Added Stephens: "There's so much to do, and there's really not much time to get it done. But all you should think about is the little things, taking it step by step. That's how you put it together and get this program back where it should be."
Each quarterback hopes to end preseason camp as the unquestioned starter. Kiffin said both will have the opportunity throughout August to earn that title. Crompton appeared to leave spring practice atop the depth chart, but Kiffin said Stephens' recently healed wrist fracture will make preseason camp a fairer fight.
Kiffin was adamant that "there's no timeline" on naming a starter, but he'd likely prefer to have one picked by the Sept. 5 season opener against Western Kentucky.
"We'll let them go compete," Kiffin said. "It will basically be even reps at the start of camp and see how they do, see how they go from there. Nick didn't get very many practices during the spring. I think you can improve a lot in the offseason. With all our jobs -- we've said it before -- except for Eric (Berry), they're still open. There's a reason for that. We put out a depth chart just because we have to, and there's a bunch of 'ors' on there.
"I haven't been able to watch these guys for two months. I guarantee you that guys have passed guys up by the way they've worked out this offseason. I think we'll all be surprised with some guys passing guys up."
No decision will be final, but Kiffin's ultimate preference is clear.
"I don't believe in the rotating of quarterbacks," he said. "The quarterback needs to be the leader of your offense. He needs to have a rhythm. Quarterbacks don't operate well under pressure, feeling that they're going to get pulled all the time. I mean, they don't. Other positions, you can do that. You create the competition, and you play guys throughout the game. You worry about effort and loafs at other positions. That doesn't happen at quarterback.
"Great offenses have a rhythm about them. There's a rhythm to the game, just like there's a rhythm to play-calling. If you switch quarterbacks, the cadence is different. The huddle is different. You never create a real rhythm, and you don't get to feel that quarterback.
"The play-caller and the quarterback have to have a great relationship. You've got to know when the guy's going to do what he's going to do. The more experience you get with a guy, the better you become at protecting him in certain situations. ... If you don't know that, you're going to put them in those situations too many times.
"I would never alternate quarterbacks."