Beware of scrimmage stats

Moments after watching Tennessee's second preseason football scrimmage of 2006, I ran into the parent of a Vol player as I was leaving Neyland Stadium.

"What do you think?" I said.

"I think Bo Hardegree looks better than Erik Ainge," the parent said.

I nodded and replied, "Yeah, Bo's been pretty impressive in these scrimmages."

Actually, "pretty impressive" was an understatement. Hardegree had completed 15 of 17 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns in the first two scrimmages. Suddenly, the career backup was The Next Big Thing.

Conversely, Ainge was the preferred whipping boy. He was coming off a nightmarish performance in 2005 that cost him the first-team quarterback job and contributed to a 5-6 UT record. A segment of the Vol Nation, in its infinite wisdom, decided he was a head case who would never be able to bounce back from such an unmitigated disaster.

When I posted my scrimmage story that night, I duly noted Hardegree's apparent emergence into a contender at quarterback. In my defense, I wasn't alone. Many other writers were similarly enamored with the unsung backup's imposing stats in the first few scrimmages.

As if to quiet the growing media groundswell, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe gave Hardegree several series against the first-team defense in the Vols' next scrimmage. Bo completed 8 of 17 passes for 46 yards with four interceptions.

I mention this because some folks are making the same mistake in 2009 that a lot of observers (me included) made in 2006 – lending too much credence to scrimmage statistics without considering the level of opposition.

Coming off a 2008 season very similar to Ainge's 2005 season, Jonathan Crompton is this year's preferred whipping boy. He performed so poorly last fall that he lost the first-team quarterback job and contributed to a 5-7 UT record. A segment of the Vol Nation, in its infinite wisdom, has decided he is a head case who will never be able to bounce back from such an unmitigated disaster. Sound familiar?

Crompton has completed 62.9 percent of his passes (17 of 27) for 181 yards in the first two full-scale scrimmages this spring. He has thrown one interception and zero touchdowns, however, and he has been sacked seven times – all in last Saturday's workout.

By comparison, backup B. J. Coleman has completed 73.7 percent of his passes (28 of 38) for 263 yards in the same two scrimmages. Moreover, he has thrown zero interceptions and two touchdowns, with just one sack.

Coleman's numbers seem to suggest he is a better option at quarterback than Crompton. Of course, Hardegree's numbers in the first two August scrimmages of '06 seemed to suggest he was a better option at quarterback than Ainge.

I wish I was smart enough to tell you which QB is better but, sadly, I'm not that wise. All I can tell you is that Crompton's scrimmage statistics have been compiled against the No. 1 defense, just as Ainge's were in '06. And I can tell you that Coleman's scrimmage statistics have been compiled primarily against reserve defenders, just as Hardegree's were in those first two preseason scrimmages of '06.

Make no mistake: I am not suggesting that Coleman will falter when he faces first-team defenders, as Hardegree did three years ago. I'm a writer, not a psychic. All I'm saying is this: Comparing the scrimmage stats Coleman compiled against reserves to the scrimmage stats Crompton compiled against first-teamers is just as risky as comparing the stats Hardegree compiled against reserves to the stats Ainge compiled against first-teamers in 2006.

Consider this:

Going against the first-team defense this spring, No. 1 tailback Montario Hardesty has rushed 18 times for 67 yards in the first two full-scale scrimmages, an average of just 3.7 yards per carry.

Going mostly against the second-team defense, No. 2 tailback Tauren Poole has rushed 25 times for 161 yards, an average of 6.4 yards per carry. Going against the second- and third-team defenses, No. 3 tailback Toney Williams also has a better yards-per-carry average than Hardesty ... 4.1 by virtue of 114 yards on 28 rushes.

Does that mean Poole and Williams deserve to play ahead of Hardesty? Of course not. They've compiled their per-carry averages against second-tier competition.

Heck, if you're going to base playing time on scrimmage stats, Hardesty also would be stuck behind walk-on C.J. Jackson. He's gained 41 yards on seven rushes, a whopping 5.8 yards-per-carry average.


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