The folks over at Rocky Top Talk, the premiere Tennessee blog, agreed to do a five question Q&A with us this week, despite the fact that their day yesterday was swamped with the arrest of the trio. Their responses to my questions were excellent. When I read them this morning, I wanted to edit my crappy answers to theirs. Then I realized that I'm waaaaay too lazy to do something like that. Anyway, check 'em out.
1. So we all realize that Ed Orgeron isn't head coach material, but several of us really miss his ability to convince some high caliber athletes to come to Ole Miss. While a good bit of his recruiting ability is overrated, the guy is convincing. Talk about some of the freshmen on your team (preferably besides Bryce Brown) who are making a difference for the team.
Will: Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron both sold immediate playing time on the recruiting trail, and have been true to their word. Bryce Brown is one of five freshmen who have seen chunks of playing time just at the offensive skill positions. While Brown has backed up senior Montario Hardesty at tailback, David Oku has gotten the third-string RB reps. Oku and Nu'Keese Richardson have been Tennessee's kick returners since the opening game, Richardson has run a handful of sets out of the wildcat package, and Marsalis Teague is sixth on the team in receptions with 12 catches and 2 TDs. Obviously, with the events and arrests of Thursday morning, the Vols will be looking for a new kick returner, and look for Bryce Brown or junior Gerald Jones to handle any wildcat snaps.
But by far, the freshman who has made the greatest impact is free safety Janzen Jackson...which means his loss due to his arrest in conjunction with Thursday's robbery creates the biggest absence. Jackson got the start in the defensive backfield in the second game of the season, and has played very well, and not just for a freshman. With Monte Kiffin electing to move Eric Berry closer to the line of scrimmage to help stop the run, Jackson has been left alone as the only deep safety more often than not, and only once -- on a great catch by Moe Brown from South Carolina -- have the Vols been beaten deep for a touchdown. Jackson is sixth on the team in tackles, and leads the team in big hits. Fellow freshman Darren Myles could step in and replace him, but hasn't seen a ton of action so far.
Overall, the Vols had sixteen freshmen (counting redshirts) on the two-deep before Thursday, something that will surely continue to help Orgeron and the Vols recruit well.
2. Monte Kiffin appears to have quickly transitioned from the NFL to the college ranks. I think I speak for our site's bloggeurs when I say that I'm terrified about what he will do to our offense after successfully drawing up the blueprint to stop Alabama and Florida. Still, there has to be more than gameplanning. Talk about a few defensive players that are making the difference this year.
Joel: Well, you've heard of Eric Berry, right? We have him. He's pretty good. Despite his relative lack of highlights (compared to the prior two years), Berry's probably having more impact this year than he ever has before. His first two years, he was a ball-hawking safety, and as good as he was against the pass, he was also able to play the role of another run stopper in the linebackers' area. Monte must have figured that if Berry could play two positions from the safety spot, maybe he could play three from the linebackers' area, and that's really how he's been used this season: much closer to the line most of the time. So yeah, he's not making as many interceptions, but he's everywhere, and the combination of Monte knowing where to put his best player and his best player being able to lock down his own responsibilities while helping two other players with theirs has been one of the keys to the defense this season. As Will mentioned above, having Jackson as the lone deep safety has allowed that to work, and it will be interesting to see whether Berry plays a bit deeper this week against the Rebs as a result of Jackson's absence.
Linebacker Rico McCoy has been an absolute beast this season as well. He leads the team with 76 tackles and the league with forced fumbles (4). The guy is solid.
Along the line, Dan Williams in the middle has blossomed into a potential Day One NFL draft pick. The big dude has solid fundamentals, a knack for disrupting plays early, and an ability to chase the play sideline and sideline despite his girth. And Chris Walker is a fantastic pass-rushing specialist, provided he's not held out of the game with back pain.
3. Jonathan Crompton doesn't suck anymore. Why is that? Also, is there hope for the quarterback position at Tennessee in the near future? Nick Stephens almost ended up at Ole Miss. Has he been impressive?
Hooper: A novel could be written about the college career of Crompton and perhaps not cover all the storylines. But if I were to narrow the list of possibilities down to two, they would be that the staff has given him better support and that they have not asked for too much at once. When Lane Kiffin said he had the players' backs, he meant it, and that was especially true with the quarterback. During the early season struggles, Kiffin killed any questions of quarterback changes in no uncertain terms, even if it meant people made fun of Lane instead. That helped Crompton work through the new offense under live fire and get his feet under him, and that support really cannot be understated. (Last year's staff was so vague about their intentions that the public restlessness grew out of control and put unneeded pressure on Crompton.)
Also, if you go back to the Cutcliffe time in '06 and '07, quarterbacks were expected to learn the whole playbook at once. Then under Clawson, the offense was running 40 pass plays a game, despite running a very complex offense that normally takes quarterbacks two years to learn. Cutcliffe was much better about this, but Clawson simply outran the learning curve - and it wasn't even close. In fact, the same problem happened with both Crompton and Nick Stephens: as the season wore on, they got worse.
We had a quarterback change prior to the UNI game. In both cases, as the season raged on, either quarterback looked more and more lost, and it gets reflected in their numbers. (I quit tracking after Wyoming last year because it was just too depressing. But they also quit throwing the ball after then, so there you go.)
This year, Crompton has not been thrown to the wolves but has been given more responsibility as he gained experience. He has steadily improved throughout the season under this approach. Even now, he's only been asked to scan one half of the field on a passing play, which simplifies the process. Perhaps that will change some against Ole Miss, but it's not like he's being asked to remember up to 243 possible route combinations based on presnap adjustments.
Regarding Nick Stephens: I currently expect Nick to start next year because of his time in the system and because he has been a team player. Riding the bench doesn't please him, but he's been a strong Crompton supporter (even suggesting to the coaches that Crompton should go for the UT single-half passing record during the Memphis game). He has a very nice deep ball but, like Crompton earlier, still needs some live-fire time to learn to read defenses better. I think he'll do fine next year, and I honestly expect him to play much like Crompton, but with a smoother start and perhaps not quite such stellar highs.
After Stephens, who will be in his last year in 2010, the current high hope is Tyler Bray - a 6'-7" lanky California kid with an absolutely beautiful throw. He's currently very thin (about 200 lbs.-ish) but otherwise looks much like Tony Pike out of Cincinnati. We're really excited about him, even if he ends up redshirting a year. Other than him, we have JUCO Nick Lamaison in on campus, who we don't otherwise hear much about yet, and some recrutiing addicts are still pining for Jesse Scroggins and one of the Notre Dame commits. But until something substantive comes out of those, I'd just say we're loooking at Stephens to start the season in 2010 and Bray to eventually be the Vol King.
4. Are there coaches you would have preferred over Lane Kiffin? If so, talk about them and why they would better fit UT. If not, talk about why Lane Kiffin's qualities have been ideal for the situation in Knoxville.
Joel: There was no consensus at the time, of course, but I was beating the Mike Leach drum pretty hard after Phillip Fulmer was fired. The main reason was that Leach was "having great success challenging the traditional notions and customs of college football . . . ." In short, he was an innovator, and I thought that that was what we needed. When Kiffin was hired instead of Leach, I was duly supportive as a fan, but I thought we had whiffed on the innovation angle.
Turns out I was wrong. Kiffin blindsided us with something so innovative we hadn't even considered it: an entirely new staffing blueprint that broke the mold. While being wooed as a candidate, Kiffin negotiated less money for himself and a bigger budget to use to surround himself with a super star staff. Tennessee didn't just hire Lane Kiffin; it hired the Kiffin Chimera. In the parlance of Good to Great, he hired the best people he could find (using money that otherwise would have gone to him), and he put those people in the right seats on the bus. Oh, and it's working.
One other reason I wanted Leach was because he was interesting, but Kiffin's surprised us there as well.
5. What's your prediction for Saturday's game? Give a predicted score and talk about the way it will shake out.
Hooper: I think the Vols will have success moving the ball, especially with Hardy out of the lineup. I wouldn't be surprised if Crompton throws his first interception in the last three games (dramatic pause) but he'll be successful overall. Without a reliable field goal game, Tennessee will push it on fourth downs, resulting in a few turnovers-on-downs and a few touchdowns. I would have thought that Ole Miss would have a very hard time with the passing game, but with the sudden absence of Janzen Jackson, Nu'Keese Richardson, and Mike Edwards from the secondary, things may open up a bit for Jevan Snead to have a better day. Between that and the everywhere Dexter McCluster, it should be tighter.
But I still expect the Vols to win, partly because Ole Miss has gone a long time without a bye week and may be getting fatigued.
Tennessee 31, Ole Miss 23
Will: If you remove special teams from the equation - where the Vols have been absolutely atrocious this season, in every phase - Tennessee has become a very complete football team. Jonathan Crompton's transformation is well documented, thanks to Montario Hardesty the Vols can both run and pass, and the Vol defense has been great all season. However, those expecting the roll Tennessee has been on to just automatically continue in Oxford because Ole Miss hasn't fully lived up to preseason expectations could be in for a surprise on Saturday. The Ed Orgeron factor will be interesting for both teams in terms of intensity, especially early, but I think these are both good teams...the Vols are just playing better right now.
Tennessee 20, Ole Miss 17
Joel: On Tuesday, I predicted a mostly-defensive contest with the Vols winning a 13-12 squeaker. Then Hardy went out for Ole Miss and Jackson, Richardson, and Edwards went out. With both defenses taking a hit . . . I'm guessing we're looking at a few more scores by the offenses. So let's call it . . .
Tennessee 24, Ole Miss 17