However there comes a caveat to this equation because, while Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen proved themselves capable under the pressure cooker that is UT football, neither gained a real advantage in competition for the starting job — although either offers considerable advantages in the heat of competition.
Ainge has the size, sharp mind and arm strength of a classic drop back passer. A smooth operator and veteran leader, Clausen has a ton of intangibles to go with an impressive stretch run in which Tennessee's offense posted big numbers last season. He also engineered UT's only bowl victory in the last six years.
As impressive as this duo is, there are lingering concerns individually. Coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, Ainge's durability comes into question which also hinders him as a ground threat. Essentially a career backup, Clausen doesn't have a big league arm or exceptional athleticism. Both gained game experience but neither what you could call experienced.
That could leave the door ajar to another possibility. Yes, we're talking about incoming freshman Jonathan Crompton, a high school all-American from Waynesville, N.C. Sure, it seems almost inconceivable that UT could be looking at the possibility of starting its third true freshman quarterback in two seasons.
The major difference between this year and last year is that Tennessee's staff doesn't have to count on Crompton, unless otherwise dictated by injury. That was the case in 2004 when rookies QBs Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge were lost for the season in the span of a week.
Crompton, who is the highest ranked signal caller coming off of high school the Vols have signed since Peyton Manning, moved up one spot before arriving on campus when word came of Schaeffer's impending transfer last week. But even before that not-too-surprising development Crompton was a contender for playing time by virtue of his talent alone.
A fierce competitor with great size, a strong arm and remarkable instincts, Crompton is one tough hombre who can run, throw and throw on the run. What he lacks in straight-line speed, 4.8 in the 40, he makes up for with outstanding anticipation and vision. He can throw with a feather touch or a laser strike and his accuracy rolling to either side of the field is simply uncanny.
No level of high school football can truly prepare a player for the speed of the college game. The adjustment for Crompton could be more severe due his experience as a Class AA quarterback in rural North Carolina. Of course, Heath Shuler played at an even smaller school in the same state and had two of the most productive seasons of any UT quarterback to that point before leaving after his junior year to enter the NFL Draft.
How Shuler would have performed if pressed into duty as a true freshman is a matter of speculation. Three-year starter Andy Kelly made it moot point by remaining healthy and performing like a fifth-year senior. Still, it's worth noting that Shuler's second start ever in college resulted in an upset of Georgia in Athens. Obviously, it didn't take long for him to reduce the learning curve once handed the starting reins.
Clearly, neither Crompton or Shuler had to contend with 230-pound linebackers that run 4.5, or 6-foot-5 defensive ends with 35-inch vertical leaps, or cat-quick corners with blinding closing speed. Neither were they afforded protection from an offensive line that averages 310 pounds, or have the luxury of receivers that could double as sprinters or tailbacks that could take over a game.
The parallels between Crompton and Shuler extend to their style of play and take-charge mentality. However the real advantage Crompton has coming in, which Shuler did not, is that he operated a very advanced offensive system designed by a former college quarterback that is virtually strategically identical to the one Tennessee uses.
Additionally, Crompton knew he would be going to UT from the time he was a sophomore in high school and he has studied the intricacies of the Vols multiple formation attack for the last three years. During that time he has made countless trips to Tennessee practice sessions, scrimmages and games, and he has had total access to UT's offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.
By comparison, Schaeffer and Ainge ascended to starting jobs at UT with little more than off-season cram courses and film study. In the process, they beat out a sixth-year senior, C.J. Leak, and a fourth-year junior, Rick Clausen. So is Crompton's task really more difficult?
Crompton doesn't have to start from game one next fall to make an impact at quarterback. His competitive drive will force Ainge and Clausen to improve their play or move aside. That's a positive situation for all concerned and it's reassuring in a game in which knocking the quarterback out of action is a prime defensive directive.
Having a couple of quarterbacks returning Tennessee can count on is significant step forward from this time last year, but counting out Crompton would be a critical oversight.