published Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Six areas of focus for Vols' last six weeks


by Wes Rucker
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    Staff Photo by Patrick Smith
    Tennessee senior running back Montario Hardesty breaks loose for a 39-yard touchdown run during the Vols' 45-19 win over Georgia last Saturday. A strong running game will be one of the points of emphasis as the Vols try to build on that victory.
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    Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton prepares to hand off the ball during Saturday's game against Georgia at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. The Volunteers won 45-19.

KNOXVILLE -- After several postgame news conferences when he urged everyone to avoid panicking, Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin stayed consistent after Saturday's 45-19 whipping of Georgia.

The big picture didn't change with the Volunteers' three losses, and it didn't change after they bashed the Bulldogs, he emphasized.

"We are excited about the game," Kiffin said, "but I've said it on the other side of things. One game will not define us as a team. One game will not define our players. We have a ton of work to do, and a long ways to go, and we need to get back to work. We need to have a good bye week, and we need to get better. We need to go back to having physical practices, and we need to get ready for the next opponent.

"While today was a great success, and everything's fun and guys are excited, we'll go right back to work and get right back to grinding, which is what we need to do. It's a long season, and we have a ton of things we need to improve on."

Building on Saturday's impressive win as they head into the off week, the 3-3 Volunteers still must improve or establish consistency in several areas to secure a bowl-eligible sixth victory. That would ensure a few extra weeks of practices in preparation for next season, which could be at least as tough as this season, based on the current depth chart.

Here are six of the most important areas to watch in the regular season's final six games:

1. Keep Crompton rolling.

That is literally as well as figuratively. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton needs to move out of the pocket, as he did much of the time in his four-touchdown performance Saturday. His misfired slant pass that was intercepted for a touchdown came from inside the pocket.

Much of his impressive high school video highlights were strong, accurate throws on the move.

Obviously, the Vols have to mix things up in the passing game, but they would do well to keep Crompton on the move. UT's offensive line, tough and resilient as it's been, will be challenged to keep Alabama, Ole Miss and South Carolina defenders off the quarterback.

2. Reinforce the ram.

Of course, play-actions and bootlegs aren't always effective without the threat of a potent rushing attack. Georgia's inability to adjust to this wrinkle likely stemmed from a variety of factors, but none was more important than the threat of UT senior tailback Montario Hardesty.

"I don't know if they expected to put their entire game plan behind (Crompton)," Georgia coach Mark Richt admitted moments after the game. "I'm sure they thought he would be a part of it, but when it started out so successfully, they said, 'Hey, let's stick with it.'"

Who could blame the Bulldogs for thinking UT would rely on Hardesty? The Vols had been doing that all season, and generally with success, despite routinely facing eight defenders in the box.

Hardesty is having a special season, but Vols fans know he's not indestructible. He has been at least partially nicked up his entire college career. Coaches hope highly regarded freshman Bryce Brown will emerge from the off week with a healthier hip, which would restore the power and speed he showed before the preseason camp setback.

If not, perhaps giving sophomore Tauren Poole and freshman David Oku more chances would be the better option. Regardless, the Vols must keep the ground game potent to sustain offensive success.

3. Salvage special teams.

Special teams was the lone wart on an otherwise splendid Saturday against Georgia. The Vols allowed a second kickoff-return touchdown of the season, surrendered a safety on a blocked punt and again struggled to catch punts.

Kiffin called the special teams "pathetic."

The off week comes at a great time for this group, and not just for the aforementioned reasons. Junior kicker Daniel Lincoln, who struggled last season, was on the cusp of regaining his 2007 All-America form before suffering a quadriceps injury three weeks ago. He hasn't been the same since.

UT particularly must address the kick-coverage problems with Alabama's Javier Arenas just ahead.

4. Focus on Frazier.

Savion Frazier has admirably filled in for fellow junior Nick Reveiz at middle linebacker against Auburn and Georgia, especially since he'd never practiced in the middle until two weeks ago.

Coaches and teammates must continue to put in extra hours with him, and he must continue dedicating himself to his immense weekly responsibilities -- for the team's and his own future. Reveiz won't be outworked while aiming to return from his torn ACL before next season, and redshirt freshman middle man Herman Lathers is arguably the team's most physically gifted linebacker.

5. Stock Stocker.

UT's coaches have come to understand that junior tight end Luke Stocker is one of the team's best players.

At a sturdy, 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, Stocker is above-average in nearly every tight end role: run-blocking, pass-blocking, route-running, receiving and running after the catch. He's also an intelligent, responsible player with the foundation to be a clutch performer, and he has the tools to be an NFL player.

Coach Lane Kiffin has made multiple references the past two weeks to getting Stocker more involved in the passing game, and UT would reap major benefits from that. The threat of Hardesty between the tackles and Stocker between the seams should leave bigger holes for Vols' receivers on the perimeter. And juniors Gerald Jones (ankle) and Denarius Moore (foot) have finally gotten healthy enough to exploit those holes.

6. Score first.

It's easier said than done, but Vols' running game and defense will be tough for any team to overcome in the second half, provided they have the lead.

UT needs to beg, borrow and steal its way to score first, if necessary. Use trick plays. Do anything short of chop-blocking to gain an early advantage.

The Vols have outscored opponents 66-13 in the fourth quarter this season. They are capable of finishing off any opponent they can outscore through three periods.

Other contacts for Wes Rucker at www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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