Quarterback quandary

You don't change horses in the middle of a stream ... unless, of course, you're about to drown.

That's essentially what happened to the Tennessee football team this fall. After struggling to a 1-3 start under junior Jonathan Crompton, the Vols appeared ready to drown in a flood of their own mistakes. So, UT changed horses by replacing Crompton with sophomore Nick Stephens.

The Vols are 2-2 under Stephens but they continue to have trouble finding the end zone. Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson isn't terribly surprised. He knows from experience that in-season QB changes tend to be acts of desperation, rather than inspiration.

"It's never the ideal scenario," he said. "At every level of football the quarterback position takes the longest time to develop and has the most responsibility and has the most reads. It has more mental gymnastics go into it than any position."

Because Clawson spent all spring and preseason camp trying to prepare Crompton, Stephens got precious few first-team practice repetitions. So, when he assumed the starting job four games into the season, he was way behind. The fact is, he's STILL behind.

"We tried to give Jonathan a ton of reps because he'd never been the starter before," Clawson noted. "Now you break another guy in, and all of those reps you invested in Jonathan really didn't benefit Nick. Now you're playing catch-up with him."

During his previous stints as head coach at Fordham and Richmond, Clawson had to make in-season quarterback changes before.

When asked if he made these changes often, the Vol aide smiled.

"Not often," he deadpanned. "If you go through that too often, you're probably not coaching football anymore."

In his four starts Crompton completed 52.0 percent of his passes for 658 yards. In his four starts (and one relief appearance against UAB), Stephens has completed 51.5 percent for 679 yards.

The key numbers are these: Crompton threw four interceptions en route to a 95.83 passer-efficiency rating, whereas Stephens has thrown zero interceptions en route to a 123.95 rating. Still, Stephens is far from being a polished quarterback.

"Nick's playing like a first-year quarterback," Clawson said. "There's times when he looks really good. He's efficient throwing the ball. He did a great job fixing protections for us. The pre-snap mental part of it he handled really well.

"I'm thrilled with the fact he's taking care of the football for us. At the same time, he missed some reads. There were times in the pass game that the ball was forced to a spot it probably shouldn't go and we had other guys open. That happens in every game with the quarterback. It shouldn't happen as much as it is, but I think that's a function of not playing."

Naturally, some teams win with a first-year starter quarterback. Usually, though, they win IN SPITE of him, rather than BECAUSE OF him.

"Usually, there are growing pains you go through with a first-year starter," Clawson said. "You just hope you're good enough and make enough plays around him that you can survive it. We haven't done that."

Indeed. Tennessee's receivers are struggling to get open and Tennessee's linemen are struggling to open holes. That's making Stephens' even harder.

As Clawson noted: "When you evaluate the quarterbacks (you ask) 'Are you not executing because they're not executing?'

Tennessee made one in-season at quarterback this season. The Vols are determined not to make another.

"If you change for the sake of change, I don't think it's an answer," Clawson said. "He's going to be our starter this week. I hope he plays well and continues to play well."

Head coach Phillip Fulmer has been involved in several in-season quarterback changes. He was UT"s first-year offensive coordinator when Andy Kelly supplanted Sterling Henton midway through the 1989 season – a move that worked out quite well.

"It just depends on how the guy that takes over does," Fulmer said. "Andy Kelley a long time ago replaced Sterling Henton and we took off, won the (SEC) championship that year."

Fulmer was in his seventh year as head coach when Tennessee made two in-season quarterback changes in 2000 – going from Joey Mathews to A.J. Suggs to Casey Clawson.

"A few years ago in the middle of the season we inserted a freshman named Casey Clausen," Fulmer recalled. "He ends up doing well that year (6-1 as a starter) and leading us to the SEC Championship Game the next."

The Vols also enjoyed a successful quarterback change in 2004, going from Brent Schaeffer to Erik Ainge. Ultimately, when both were injured, Rick Clausen finished out a 10-3 season.

Of course, things didn't go quite so swimmingly a year later. The 2005 Vols switched from Ainge to Clausen, back to Ainge, back to Clausen and back to Ainge en route to a 5-6 nightmare.

"It didn't work out nearly as well in '05 as we would've liked for it to," Fulmer conceded. "I certainly would've done that year a whole lot differently, hindsight being 20/20. It depends on how many the guy that comes in wins. Then you're a hero (if he wins a lot)."

In addition to two new quarterbacks, Tennessee has had to adjust to a new offensive system (West Coast). Fulmer says that is no longer an excuse for the Vols' lackluster offensive play.

"I do think there was a transition to a new offensive system – more than I ever could've imagined – but we're through that," the head man said. "We're well through that. We're not making some of the mistakes that would be system-caused that maybe we had early in the season."

As badly as Tennessee's offense has played, Stephens sees cause for optimism.

"We're taking care of the football and not making fatal mistakes," he said. "We had so many mistakes penalty-wise, personnel-wise that are easily correctable.

"Once we put a full game together without those mistakes – and we take care of the football – there are endless possibilities. That's what we're waiting for."

Along with the entire Vol Nation.

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