Staff Photo by Dan Henry UT's head coach Lane Kiffin disputes a call with referees during the first quarter of play against the Ohio Bobcats.
KNOXVILLE -- Few would suggest that the University of Tennessee, especially offensively, is one of the nation's most fundamentally-sound football teams.
But the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference), unlike Saturday opponent Georgia (3-2, 2-1), haven't hurt themselves with penalties.
UT is third out of 120 major college programs with just 28.8 penalty yards per game, and fourth with 3.6 flags per contest.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are 115th with 9.6 flags per game and 103rd with 74.6 disciplinary yards per game.
"It's just having trust in the coaches and being disciplined," said Vols senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton, whose struggles certainly haven't stemmed from his crisp, pre-snap management of the offense. "That's something to be proud of, because in the future, that will win us ball games.
"Having that few penalties per game obviously helps, because that's hidden yardage, and that's a good thing. I commend our offensive line for not having holding calls or offsides or false starts, and our defense does a good job with no pass interference and things like that. As a whole, I think that says a lot about the coaches for ingraining it in our minds to play smart, and then us taking it to the field."
UT wasn't as bad in that area last season as years past, but the Vols were more respectable than exemplary. They were 41st nationally with 5.5 flags per game, and 49th with 44.92 penalty yards per game.
"It's definitely been better," fifth-year senior linebacker Rico McCoy said. "We've hurt ourselves, obviously, but usually not with penalties. We've been pretty good about that."
The new coaching staff hasn't left the team much of an alternative.
Lane Kiffin has made no guarantees about bottom-line, wins-and-losses results since arriving in Knoxville in December, but the 34-year-old has repeatedly vowed that his player would behave itself on and off the field or face harsh consequences.
Every penalty in practice is punished with a full lap around the practice field. The guilty party is usually the only player punished, but it's not uncommon to see an entire offensive, defensive or special-teams unit running together.
No one has been immune, either, even in some of the team's thinnest spots. Defensive lineman Wes Brown was ordered around the field at least once during preseason camp on his chronically-sore knees. Scout team freshmen have been thrown in with the first-team offensive line, when enough of the main-rotation players were simultaneously punished.
Freshman tailback David Oku joked after one practice that he no longer needed to hear the coaches dole out punishment after he made a mistake.
"I just start running," Oku said. "You know what's coming every time you make a mistake. You don't want to keep on running -- that gets really old, man, I'm telling you -- so you just learn to quit making mistakes."
The process is far from perfect, though. UT's players are also punished daily for fumbles, interceptions and exchange problems, and those have all shown up at inopportune moments during the first five games.
Penalties may not be a major issue to this point, but coaches have stayed on guard. Kiffin reminded the Vols moments before their Saturday game against Auburn that a major SEC game -- Georgia vs. LSU -- was littered in the final minutes with 15-yard, unsportsmanlike-conduct, excessive-celebration penalties.
"Coach Kiffin warned us about it," senior center Cody Sullins said. "He didn't tell us a team, and we didn't know what had happened, but he said a really prodigious school's game had just ended with an excessive celebration penalty, and that we had to watch out for that during the game, and keep our heads where they needed to be, and not get too excited."
The SEC has since ruled that Georgia receiver A.J. Green was unnecessarily flagged after his late touchdown catch. Kiffin supported the SEC correcting the "unfortunate" call but said he didn't plan to stop warning his players daily about potential penalties.
"We talk to our guys endlessly about penalties," Kiffin said. "We're on it all the time. We show videos of other teams making penalties that we would consider foolish penalties, game-changing penalties. So far, it's worked, but we need to keep that up. We're in the top five in the country in penalties, and I've been very proud of that."
Kiffin has also warned the Vols about stooping down to Georgia's penalty level.
In fairness to the Bulldogs, perhaps they've seen a string of whistle-happy referees. Perhaps they've gotten caught up in their opponents' mistakes. Something's been amiss in their games, though, because their opponents are flagged for 83.6 yards per game -- 13 more yards than any team in the SEC.
"We can't be exchanging penalties with them," Kiffin said. "This will be a good test for us, to see if we can keep (from) doing that."
Crompton wasn't worried about that possibility. He said that while players occasionally get flagged for retaliatory, post-play shoves, teams rarely line up offsides or hold in response to an opponent's infractions.
"Knock on wood, we haven't had anything like that s far, even in practice," Crompton said. "We just need to worry about what we're doing, and making sure we control what we can control, which is ourselves."
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