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KNOXVILLE - Given last season's 5-7 record, his third offensive coordinator in three years and continual fan grumbling over his performances to date, no University of Tennessee football player may have needed an extended vacation more than senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton.

Even Crompton termed 2008 "the worst year of my life" during Tuesday's media event for returning players.

So just how has the apparent starter for the Vols' Sept. 5 opener against Western Kentucky spent his summer break?

"I've been here every day," Crompton said. "I've gone home to North Carolina for a weekend or two, but I haven't missed a workout yet. Nobody has. The energy around this football team has been unbelievable. And it's not going to die, because everybody here is so passionate about the game. This is the new face of Tennessee football."

The old face was familiar and comfortable. Perhaps too comfortable. Counting playing, assistant coaching and running the show, Phillip Fulmer had spent 35 years of his life tied to Big Orange football.

If familiarity with Fulmer didn't breed contempt among his players, it appeared to bring contentment, which may have led to enough losses in recent years to breed contempt among the fans.

So now the players whom Crompton and defensive back extraordinaire Eric Berry will lead into action each week will be directed by Lane Kiffin and his NFL-educated staff.

"It's like being a freshman again," junior kicker Daniel Lincoln said. "What will pregame be like? What hotels will we stay in? Everything is new again, but this time it's new for the whole team."

So much that like Crompton, Berry and the rest of the Vols, Lincoln has spent the past six weeks running, lifting weights and doing anything possible to get better before Lane starts training them next month.

Unlike Crompton, however, Lincoln took off much of May to re-energize.

"Eat bad and stay up late," he said with a laugh. "At least for a few days."

And what does eating bad include?

"Fast-food burgers and pizza," Lincoln said.

Oscar's pizza?, a sports writer asked, noting a Knoxville tradition.

"I can't say that," the kicker said with a wink. "That would be an NCAA violation."

What Lincoln, punter Chad Cunningham, linebacker Nick Reveiz and defensive end Chris Walker could say was that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes-sponsored trip to Colorado they all took was, in Walker's words, "the best experience of my life."

Camping out with and competing against major college athletes from all across the country for more than a week - including Lady Vols basketball players Angie Bjorklund and Alicia Manning - the UT foursome remained on the Colorado State University campus for more than a week.

"One competition lasted for 18 straight hours," Walker said. "It included playing Ultimate Frisbee for an hour and a half. Just a bunch of college students trying to strengthen their walk with Christ."

But Walker and Co. has been more the exception than the rule.

"I went deep-sea fishing about 120 miles off the coast at Destin (Fla.)," center Josh McNeil said. "I caught a 44-pound mahi-mahi. It's in our freezer. Jeff (Cottam) and I are still eating on it."

Linebacker Rico McCoy spent his one weekend away visiting his grandparents in North Carolina.

"I let them spoil their grandbaby for a few days," he said of Coatney and Alvin Thorne. "The big meal was turkey necks, ham, candied yams and mac and cheese. Other than that, I slept a lot."

Not that food has dominated everyone's few brief breaks.

"I've spent a lot of time playing with my 4-month-old golden retriever, Hoss," Crompton said. "He's going to be a big one."

Then there's the biggest Vol, at least by reputation.

"I tried to get away to Gatlinburg for a little bit," Berry said. "But it just didn't feel right, doing nothing. So I put on my cleats and started running up mountains."

That should make opposing SEC coaches stay up late and eat bad for months to come.

E-mail Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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