KNOXVILLE -- Freshman tailback Bryce Brown was back in pads for Tennessee's practice Thursday, but Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin said Brown's first-team role with the offense could decrease until the NCAA rules on his amateur status.
Kiffin said Brown -- the nation's highest-ranked freshman prospect, according to many recruiting services -- has been "distracted" by the NCAA's ongoing investigation.
The governing body is looking into fundraising done to send Brown and other high school sophomores on unofficial visits to several college campuses. The NCAA typically has problems with any benefits given to athletes that weren't available to their schools' general student population.
Several sources close to the situation have said that the NCAA will demand Brown's family pay back any costs for the campus visits, and a small suspension could be handed down. UT officials have said they will object to any penalties they deem unnecessarily harsh.
Kiffin said he has to worry about getting the entire team ready for the Sept. 5 season opener against Western Kentucky, though, and Brown's uncertain status will cause game-planning hesitancy.
"It's a situation that is strange that way, because you don't know," Kiffin said. "We've already put in stuff for him that we're going to run in the first couple of games of the season -- which is fine, because we wanted to have him ready -- but there comes a point where we obviously need to know, because it affects our team, it affects our offense.
"We're giving him plays and reps that if he's not going to be there we have to give to somebody else and change our game plan."
Kiffin offered no comment on the investigation other than reiterating UT would continue "working with" the NCAA, but the coach admitted it was on his mind "all the time, because I want what's best for the kid.
"I don't know how a senior would deal with it very well, let alone a freshman," Kiffin said. "Keep in mind how hard he works. ... Football is No. 1 to him and being a great player is No. 1 to him, and every decision he makes is about it. This is not a kid that parties. This is a kid that eats perfect, almost. This is a kid that trains every day of his life because he is so serious about being a great player that this is hard for him. It would be hard for any of them.
"Right now it's in question to him if he's going to have taken away from him everything that he's worked for every day. We're working with him, and I'm hoping for the best."
Brown has been cleared to practice, though playing him in a game before the NCAA makes a final ruling is a risk UT probably wouldn't take, but he's also been slowed this week by a hip injury. He dressed in full pads Thursday but didn't participate in some drills.
Kiffin said Brown was "very dominant when he had the ball" in last Saturday's second major scrimmage, and he hopes the runner will be healthy enough for this weekend's final full-contact scrimmage.
"It would great to have him Saturday, and really great to have him for the opener," Kiffin said.
QB decision soon
Kiffin declined to give a specific timetable for naming senior Jonathan Crompton or junior Nick Stephens the starting quarterback, but he said dragging the competition into the opener's preparation week would be "not fair to the team."
If that's the case, a decision will be made in the next 10 days.
Stephens doesn't think it will take that long.
"Personally, I feel like they keep saying how big this scrimmage is on Saturday, and that they're probably going to make a decision after this Saturday," Stephens said. "That's just my personal thought, and it would make the most sense. They haven't said anything like that to me, but that's what I assume is going to happen.
"But ... I'm trying not to think about that. I'm just trying to play football, and whatever happens happens, and everything happens for a reason, so I'm just trying to do my best right now."
Junior wide receiver Gerald Jones said he and his teammates would be OK either way. Jones said he didn't know what coaches would decide, but his comments seemed to hint otherwise.
"They've both shown a lot of maturity," Jones said. "Nobody's bragging, and nobody's pointing fingers. They've just pretty much accepted it. They believe in what the coaches are doing, and they believe the coaches are making the right decisions. Nick knows that if Crompton ever goes down, then he'll be ready to go in there and play."