Secondly, they're managing a simpler scheme. Neither QB ever fully grasped the West Coast attack Dave Clawson installed last season. Both are much more comfortable with the pro-style attack new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney implemented this spring. That's huge.
Third, they should have better protection. After surrendering just four sacks in 2007, Tennessee's offensive line allowed a whopping 25 in '08. More mobile blockers and a new pass protection scheme should help considerably in this regard.
Fourth, the QBs will have better targets than last fall. Gerald Jones appears primed for a breakout year after posting a team-high 30 receptions as a sophomore last fall. Fellow junior Denarius Moore provides the speed to be a deep threat. Senior Austin Rogers should bounce back to his 2007 form (56 catches) after posting just 14 receptions in 2008. Senior Quintin Hancock didn't catch a pass in '08 but was the most productive receiver of spring practice. Converted tight end Brandon Warren appears to have found a home as a slot receiver. Incoming freshmen Nu'Keese Richardson, James Green, Zach Rogers and Marsalis Teague provide a major infusion of talent.
Finally, the new staff seems committed to the short passing game. More throws to the tight ends, backs and slot receivers should enable Crompton (51.5) and Stephens (48.5) to significantly improve on their 2008 completion percentages.
Crompton completed 57.4 percent of his passes in spring scrimmages (31 of 54) and averaged 10.5 yards per completion. Coming back from a broken wrist, Stephens connected on 52.0 percent (13 of 25) and averaged 12.3 yards per completion. Both QBs looked more comfortable than they did at any time last spring.
Depth is a concern, of course. The failure to sign a quarterback last February, coupled with the recent transfer of sophomore B. J. Coleman to Chattanooga, leaves Crompton and Stephens as the only scholarship QBs. That brings us to the wild card ... Mike Rozier.
Rozier showed enough as a senior quarterback in Stockbridge, Ga., to earn a football scholarship from the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2004. Rather than enroll, however, he signed a lucrative contract with Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox and spent the past five years pitching in their minor league system. Now 23 and done with the diamond, he's giving the gridiron another shot.
You must go back to the fall of 2003 for the last time Rozier took a snap in a game – a high school game, at that – so there is no telling how much, if any, he can contribute to the 2009 Vols. At the very least, though, he provides an emergency plan in case both Crompton and Stephens should be injured.
Tennessee's staff is evaluating California juco quarterback Nick Lamaison and may sign him once he completes his degree at Mt. San Antonio College next month. He has no other Div. 1 offers, however. And, without the benefit of a spring practice, he projects to be more of a quarterback insurance plan than a quarterback contender for '09.
Essentially, Tennessee's situation in 2009 is almost identical to 2008. Crompton and Stephens again will get most of the snaps, with either Rozier or Lamaison replacing Coleman as Option No. 3.
Still, there is reason for optimism. With added maturity, better protection, a simpler scheme and more dynamic receivers, Tennessee's returning quarterbacks should show notable improvement this fall.
Based on my usual grading scale of Plus-2 (significantly improved), Plus-1 (somewhat improved), 0 (about the same), Minus-1 (somewhat weaker) and Minus-2 (significantly weaker), I'd rate the quarterback position Plus-1. If Crompton and/or Stephens can build confidence with some early-season success against Western Kentucky and UCLA, though, a Plus-2 rating is entirely possible.
After last fall, there's nowhere to go but up, right?