No rhythm, just blues

Tennessee's offensive coordinator couldn't stifle a pained grin when asked if changing quarterbacks might adversely affect the Vols' offensive rhythm this weekend.

"It's not like we're in a rhythm now," Dave Clawson deadpanned. "It's not like you're disrupting something that's going really well. We NEED a little disruption right now. And then we need to get a spark and we need to get things going."

He got that right. Tennessee's offense has been no rhythm and all blues during the team's 1-3 start. The Vols rank dead last among the 12 SEC teams in pass efficiency (96.4), 11th in scoring offense (19.2 points per game), 11th in first downs (70), 10th in third-down conversions (35.1 percent), ninth in passing offense (175.0 yards per game), ninth in total offense (340.8 yards per game).

Much of the blame falls on first-team quarterback Jonathan Crompton but not all of it. His line has struggled at times with pass protection and his receivers have struggled at times to beat press coverage.

"Certainly, he's been hit more this year than we'd like him to be hit," Clawson said. "It (protection) is never going to be perfect but he's taken some shots. And you'd like to say that has no effect on quarterback, but it does."

Crompton hasn't gotten an awful lot of help from his wideouts, either. Their inability to get separation contributed to his pitiful passing stats – 8 of 23 for 67 yards – in last Saturday's 14-12 loss at Auburn.

"Sometimes we won against press, but not consistently enough," Clawson said.

The problem is this: On those occasions when the line protects and the wideouts get open, Crompton isn't keeping up his end of the bargain.

As Clawson noted: "There were times we had guys open that the ball wasn't thrown accurately enough to allow guys to make a play."

Hitting his receivers isn't Crompton's only problem, though. He's had difficulty FINDING them. He tends to lock on to his primary target, then throw the ball away or scramble without seeing if a secondary receiver might be open.

"At times on Saturday we had a progression play and he looked at No. 1 and if No. 1 wasn't open, the ball was going out of bounds," Clawson said. "There's times in a game if you're under pressure that it's appropriate to do that – not take a sack. But there were times Saturday that it wasn't appropriate to do that. The second or third progression was open and we could've saved ourselves a lot of yards and made some yards if we'd taken that check-down.

"Making decisions is what playing quarterback is all about."

And Crompton's decision-making, like his passing, has left a lot to be desired through the Vols' first four games. That's why sophomore Nick Stephens is getting half of the first-team reps in practice this week and just might get be getting his first collegiate start this Saturday against Northern Illinois.

"Jonathan is very talented," Clawson conceded, "and it's not right for him or the program to just say, 'We're giving up on him.' He's worked too hard. But at the same time the level of the performance we had on Saturday isn't acceptable either.

"Now, he's going to be pressed a little bit."

If Stephens performs well in practice this week, the Vols could have a change at quarterback this weekend.

"Regardless of how it plays out this week, I think we're going to get Nick in there – whether he starts the game or plays at a certain point," Clawson said. "If he performs well in practice this week and runs the offense well and manages the huddle well and makes the reads right, at some point we've got to get him going and play him."

The switch from Crompton to Stephens will not significantly change the look of Tennessee's offense. Stephens has a little more zip on his throws but they're very similar in size, speed and style.

"They have basically the same skill set," Clawson said. "It's not like you're dealing with a pro-style quarterback and an option quarterback."

The coordinator is somewhat reluctant to make a change, even though Crompton's play has been mediocre at best.

"If you make change just for the sake of making change," Clawson said, "we're going to be down this road with another guy in three weeks."

Still, Clawson may have no choice but to make a change. Tennessee's passing game is so bad that opponents are beginning to crowd the line of scrimmage and shut down a potentially excellent Vol rushing attack.

"The shame of this," Clawson said, "is that we're running the ball well enough to present ourselves with some real great looks on the perimeter to throw the football."

Stephens has earned a chance to throw the football this weekend by improving steadily in recent weeks.

"Nick has a real quick release," Clawson said. "He's got a lot of confidence. Sometimes he'll force some things in there. Nick probably has more of those where you're saying, 'No! No! No!' and then you're saying, 'Great ball.'

"The reason we're opening this up and having them compete - obviously Jonathan has struggled - but Nick has made some great strides the last three or four weeks."

Third-team quarterback B. J. Coleman, a redshirt freshman from Chattanooga, is making strides, as well.

"At some point," Clawson said, "B.J. will have his opportunity."

The coordinator said Tennessee's struggles at quarterback may lead to more liberal use of the "G-Gun package" that features wide receiver Gerald Jones lining up as a direct-snap tailback.

"Gerald does some exciting things," Clawson said. "The one play he made on that little counter that really broke open nice, I think, was our longest play of the day. Then he took that one power play and bounced it all the way back to the boundary; he ran like 80 yards and got a 7-yard gain."

Tennessee endured a nightmare season in 2005, splitting the QB duties between Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen en route to a 5-6 season. The Vol staff was hoping to stick with one guy this fall but that plan appears doomed.

As Clausen noted: "When the season started and Jonathan won the job, we really wanted – and hoped – to have stability."

When you're dead last in SEC pass efficiency, stability is no longer an option.


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