KNOXVILLE -- Jonathan Crompton looked left, for at least a full second, more than enough time to deep-freeze a Memphis defensive back.
Only then did Tennessee's senior quarterback glance back to his right. Only then did he deliver a perfect 23-yard scoring strike to tight end Luke Stocker.
Just like that, the Volunteers led Memphis 21-0 less than four minutes into Saturday night's second quarter in a game they would ultimately win 56-28.
Just like that, Crompton again proved why he has not only become the most improved quarterback in the country since season's dawn, but also the best passing quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
Thanks to Saturday night's five touchdown tosses against the Tigers, Crompton passed Arkansas' Ryan Mallett for most passing touchdowns in the SEC this season. Crompton has 21 TDs and 10 interceptions to Mallett's 18 touchdowns.
"We knew we'd have guys open as long as I threw the ball on time," Crompton said with a shrug. "Our receivers are really starting to jell, and I can't remember the last time I got hit more than once or twice in a game. Our line's blocking great."
And to think that less than a month ago, right after an ugly home loss to Auburn, this humble native of western North Carolina was regarded by some as the most hated man in Tennessee.
Even first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin admitted in late September, "It blows me away how much hatred there is toward (Crompton). We have to do a better job around him."
Now the Vols are. Beginning with the Georgia game on Oct. 10, Crompton has thrown for 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his last four outings, three of them against SEC opponents.
His four touchdown throws and one interception against Georgia secured an easy 45-19 win over the Bulldogs. Crompton's fourth-quarter TD toss against Alabama was, at that time, the first allowed by the Tide in three games. His two touchdowns against South Carolina blew open that eventual 31-13 win in the opening half.
Then came Saturday night against Memphis. Crompton nearly surpassed his career high of 310 passing yards against Georgia in the opening half against the Tigers, ending the second quarter with 305 aerial yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
He finished the night with a career-high 331 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for a score.
Moreover, replay after replay showed Crompton looking off receivers to freeze defenders and create less congested passing lanes. And, of course, the better the Vols' quarterback throws the ball, the easier it is for the UT running game to succeed, which is always Kiffin's chief goal.
Well, almost always.
"We're getting ready to play a string of opponents who aren't as strong stopping the run," said Kiffin, referring to remaining conference foes Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. "So I wanted to make sure our passing game had great confidence."
Exactly why all this is happening is difficult to say. Clearly, Tennessee's opposition has dropped off, excepting the Alabama loss. But Crompton looked bad early against mediocre UCLA and Ohio. He didn't loosen up against Auburn until all was lost.
Yet whatever the reason, he is clearly exiting like a lion, the Vols roaring toward a respectable bowl bid in his final season.
Said Kiffin, his words becoming a weekly repeat: "Crompton played really well."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...