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Previewing South Carolina at Tennessee: Q & A with NorCalVol of Vols in the Fall

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I got together with NorCalVol of the fine UT blog Vols in the Fall for a little Q & A action. NorCalVol has been, to say the least, generous with his answers. Enjoy. My answers to NorCalVol’s question are forthcoming here. (Note that LOHD has been sleeping with the enemy, as well, so be sure to check out their exchange.)

Q1. Lane Kiffin started his tenure with a bang by netting some notable successes on the recruiting trail, but his season so far has been a mixed bag of painful losses to mediocre teams, near misses against great teams, and a big win against Georgia. How pleased are Vols fans with Kiffin? Or is it too early to say?

 

NorCalVol: The majority of Vol fans are pleased with Kiffin. I think most are convinced that: (1) he knows what he’s doing; (2) he has surrounded himself with top-quality assistants; (3) he has the players’ loyalty; and (4) he will eventually get us back to being conference champions. But this is a big adjustment period for the Vol Nation; a group that for the most part is a stodgy bunch, wrapped in our warm orange blanket of nostalgia and tradition. We are all trying to get used to his "style" - making our program visible to recruiting prospects via sound-bite comments, promotional videos with shirtless players/pants unbuckled, flights around Atlanta in a helicopter, and other grand-standing techniques. Love him or not, one thing is for sure: he’s a different animal than Phil Fulmer. Personally, I think he’s just what the doctor ordered, not only for Tennessee but for the SEC as well. I know he rubs people the wrong way (just look at some of the Georgia blogs – they still are posting about him!), but he says what’s on his mind - consequences be damned. He is of a generation that is just beginning to move into college head coaching, and I believe we’ll see more like him in the coming years. It’s a new day – the youth of today eventually become the rulers. If you want to clear away all the smoke, just watch his demeanor on the sideline during a game. That is the real Kiffin. And I love it.

 

My other response, in particular to your remark that this season has been a "mixed bag", has to be presented in the context of the season viewed as a process – from game to game. The opener against Western Kentucky (a 63-7 win) resulted in expectations getting totally out of control. The following game against UCLA was the litmus test. We came up with a dreadful performance, particularly the offense. So, let’s use the UCLA game as the starting point. WKU doesn’t count.

 

Next was Florida in the Swamp. The defense was nothing short of superb. The offense was the interesting part. Kiffin employed an extremely conservative offensive scheme with the goal to run clock and keep the ball away from Tebow and Co. for as long as possible. It worked if you consider a low-scoring loss by only 10 points a victory (which is where all this "moral victory" stuff started). But the skeptics, in Knoxville and elsewhere, were accusing Kiffin of playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Well, OK. Maybe. But if that is truly what he was doing, it makes sense when you look at the very big picture. Kiffin knows that he needs to keep the orange crazies at bay long enough to allow his philosophies to manifest. Gambling for a win and getting completely blown out would have been a huge mistake. The game plan might just have been a shrewd ploy from a PR point of view.

 

The Ohio win was marred by a bad special teams play, and even the defense had trouble containing a very mobile QB. But the Vol offense showed more capabilities of a balanced attack even though Crompton continued to struggle. Despite the loss to Auburn the following week, our offense showed a real spark in the fourth quarter – something was happening, and it was good. The talk before the Georgia game was now we would find out if there really had been improvement. After the 45-19 win, it was clear. Even the most severe pessimists were quiet. All facets of our game clicked. And more importantly, the Vol faithful felt like a big family again, for the first time in more than a year. But Bama was going to be a supreme test. I think the vast majority of the Vol faithful rate last Saturday’s game with high marks. The pride is back. The future all of a sudden looks very bright.

 

So the threads that come out of all this are: (1) Tennessee has played better against the better competition; and (2) the overall performance has improved throughout the season. If it were the opposite, we might have the same 3-4 record, but not many in Vol Land would likely feel good about Kiffin. Instead, the program appears stable, with a very good long-term prognosis. Recruiting looks promising.

 

In Knoxville it tends to be a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality. The near-term prognosis is optimistic. But Kiffin’s lack of significant notches on his belt means his fortunes can still turn on a dime. A big win by USC on Halloween would be a huge setback for the coach and our bowl prospects. I’m optimistic, but I’m also sticking with my pre-season prediction of 6-6. Alternatively, 7-5 looks somewhat possible. The problem for Kiffin is that most of the talk I hear and a lot of what I read is 8-4 is what we "should" achieve. I think that’s ridiculous. But 7-5 will more than satisfy the masses, and likely be viewed as a "success" in the first year of a very young, very bright, but very controversial coach.

 

Q2. Kiffin vowed that Jonathan Crompton would be much improved this year. (I should say that I personally believed him, as I stated in the offseason.) As with the Vols season at large, though, Crompton has been up and down. How do you think he'll play against the Gamecocks and down the rest of the stretch?

 

NorCalVol: I actually see it as steady improvement, little by little, game by game, until the Georgia game that made it look like Jonathan Crompton found the magic chalice filled with liquid enlightenment. That’s the short response. Here are the details.

 

Last year, Jonathan was underwhelming (and that’s putting it kindly), so you can imagine how the anticipation before this season’s opener was a mixture of wanting to run and hide plus contemplating the devouring of your young. Setting it up for you…

 

In 2008, Crompton unveiled his wares on national TV (Monday Night Football-NCAA style) at UCLA. He was absolutely dreadful. I was there. It seemed that every pass was either a floating duck or a bullet thrown at the ankles of his receiver. And it got worse to the point that he was benched in favor of Nick Stevens, the proclaimed "Texas Gunslinger." Stevens showed promise but eventually gave the job back to Crompton. The season crashed and burned with near munity from the players and the fans. Exit Fulmer.

Enter Kiffin.

 

So, the 2009 opening game is at home against (what we know now as) the worst team in the 120-membered Div I FBS. Crompton throws for 5 TDs and nearly 300 yards. He showed the physical talent he has been blessed with. But, the Intelligentsia of Vol Fandom knew better. Some saw it as the instant result of new coaching. Possibly. But UCLA came to town for the second game of the season. During a dreadful 19-15 loss, Crompton became "Crapton" once more and the Wisdom of the Orange Faithful wanted to burn him at the stake and throw his body under a bus. Except for Lane Kiffin, who said that backup Nick Stevens would be seen on the field only if the Vols had a big lead, not if the Vols were way behind. Surely he wasn’t serious, we all thought. He was. Dead serious. Case closed.

 

Second game was in the Swamp. The game plan for the offense was to keep Crompton on a very short leash and risk giving him an elbow hyperextension from handing the ball off again and again. In other words, impossible to judge improvement. Against Ohio, Jonathan was given a longer leash and showed an ability to throw north-south with some effect, without throwing the game away, and allow the running game to flourish. A spec of improvement, even though his decision-making ability was still sub-standard. Next was Auburn – a big game for us, with their undefeated record coming to town. The poorly thrown balls to open receivers on multiple occasions were tedious to watch. But he showed spark in the second half. Perhaps no overall improvement, but no regression either.

 

Then Georgia. A metamorphosis from hated worm-like creature to a quarterback versatile enough to throw for 310 yards with a 20-for-27 afternoon. Stunning doesn’t begin to describe it. The question was why. Everybody has an opinion on that game. What we actually witnessed was a completely different offensive scheme. We know Georgia would be sitting on the running game. So, over and over and over, it was take the snap, play action, naked bootleg on a 270-degree turn, rollout (usually to the left), and hit the underneath receiver. Mix in a few Montario Hardesty power runs, and you had Jonathan’s first major accomplishment as a Vol QB My thoughts were this is the result of a coaching staff that knows how to coach young people by believing in what they see on the practice field, and more importantly, how to be patient and find what works for an individual. It wasn’t that Crompton didn’t have the ability. It was perhaps more that he had never been put in a scheme that allowed him to succeed. Not to shamelessly promote my blog, but on October 11, I posted an article on the subject, "Postscript: Tennessee vs Georgia."

 

Last week at Alabama, Crompton’s numbers weren’t as good as the Georgia game, but his performance was even better. Calm, good decision-making, and a delivery of pinpoint passes to receivers against perhaps the best defense in the land. It’s like we signed a free agent from the NFL or something. It was heartwarming to witness because Jonathan is an intelligent, good kid who nobody wants to see fail, even those who have showered him with boos from all parts of Neyland Stadium.

 

So, I have no other expectation but to see him play well on Halloween night, even against the third-best pass defense in the nation (more on that for Question 4). And I see no reason why Crompton can’t finish this senior season with an overall performance level that will make him look back on his Tennessee days and be proud of his ability to persevere, and have some measure of success, under intense criticism that bordered on outright meanness.

 

Continue reading after the jump.

Q3. If you could have one Gamecock on your roster, who would it be?

 

NorCalVol: Eric Norwood. The idea of having too many great defensive players is a non sequitur. Losing our defensive leader, LB Nick Reveiz, to a season-ending knee injury against Ohio left a big hole for us to fill. Even though Monte Kiffin’s Men haven’t missed a beat since Nick went down, Mr. Norwood would do just dandy. From what I read, he is a success story at USC not only on the field but in the classroom, too. That’s always a good sign, especially for a kid who came from poverty displaying no sign of academic potential.

 

But, if Norwood isn’t for sale, I’ll take Spencer Lanning. It’s apparent we might need a different place kicker. Fairly or unfairly, it seems that Daniel Lincoln has taken over Jonathan Crompton’s spot as the Vol who instills the least amount of confidence in the faithful.

 

Cliff Matthews would be a good choice, too.

 

Q4. Prediction. Who will win this game and how will it go down?

 

NorCalVol: It’s easy to fall into the weekly trap of saying that this week’s game is a huge game. They are all big – there are only 12 in a season. But, Saturday’s game is a huge game for both schools. USC needs this one to prevent a start to that dreaded late-season slide with bigger fish coming up. Tennessee needs it to keep from falling to 3-5 and putting a bowl bid in some real jeopardy. I see this as a close game, somewhere in the 20’s for both sides, with the Vols getting the W.

 

When USC played Bama a couple of weeks ago, I noticed the Gamecock defense intent on trying to confuse Tide QB McElroy. Because McElroy reminds me of Crompton (at least the version before the Georgia game), I think South Carolina will try hard to give Crompton something to think about. His track record of good decision-making is only two weeks old. Perhaps USC will even do a lot of stunting, which can be a gamble against a good rushing team.

 

On the other side, I will look for Garcia to avoid the pocket. Garcia was at his best against Bama when he was moving. To counter, I expect Tennessee to sit in zone coverage to lull Garcia into thinking he could be comfortable in the pocket, then in the second half throw the kitchen sink at him to see if he caves – USC doesn’t rate very well in QB protection stats.

 

It is no secret that South Carolina’s main weakness is their rushing defense and their main strength is their passing defense. But that doesn’t mean that Tennessee will stay away from the air attack. On the contrary, we will pass with the main objective to loosen up the Gamecock defense in order to pound them on the ground. That’s our strength.

 

Just put me in the category of conventional football thinking…

 

Thanks to NorCalVol for participating in this Q & A.