Altar ego

If those who refer to Tennessee football as a religion are even remotely accurate, Neyland Stadium essentially is a 100,000-seat cathedral.

And, if you take the analogy one step further, Jonathan Crompton is the poor guy who got left at the altar last fall. Growing up in nearby Waynesville, N.C., he dreamed of being cheered as he quarterbacked the Vols to smashing victories. His big chance arrived in 2008 but the smashing victories didn't, and he wound up hearing more boos than cheers.

Now Tennessee's coaches are trying to repair his psyche, so they can get him back to the altar.

"I can see in Jonathan what has happened before around here; it's like a bad relationship," Vol head coach Lane Kiffin said this week. "He's hurt, and you can tell when things go bad with him he kind of freezes up a little bit because he's been beat up for so long here. That's very obvious for me to see.

"I've worked very hard getting him out of that and to understand to not worry about what happened before ... to focus on the future. I think he's getting a lot better at that."

As much as Kiffin wants to boost Crompton's self-esteem, however, the head man isn't willing to hand him the quarterback reins. The competition between Crompton and junior Nick Stephens - limited last spring by a broken wrist - will resume when preseason drills begin in August.

"It's competitive," Kiffin said. "We'll see. There's no time-line on it. There will basically be even reps to start camp, and we'll see how they go from there. Nick didn't get very many practices during the spring."

Crompton finished spring practice ahead of Stephens on the depth chart but that was several months ago.

"I think you can improve a lot in the offseason," Kiffin said. "All of our jobs are still open, and there's a reason for that. I haven't been able to watch those guys work out for two months, and I guarantee you some guys have passed guys up (on the depth chart) by the way they've worked out in the offseason."

Both Crompton and Stephens struggled mightily last fall. Crompton completed just 51.5 percent of his passes with 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Stephens completed 48.5 percent with 4 TDs and 3 interceptions. As far as Kiffin is concerned, however, that's ancient history.

"I don't talk about last year to them at all," the coach said. "I talk about what we're doing and our future here."

Crompton and Stephens got much of the blame for a 2008 offense that averaged just 268 yards and 17 points per game. Kiffin, who played quarterback in high school and college, is determined to shield them from that kind of criticism this fall.

"Quarterback's different than everybody else," the coach said. "I'm going to protect them in the way that I call games and I'm going to protect them in the way I talk to the media about them, as well. I've got their back, and they need to understand that."

Kiffin says he gives his QBs one pep talk on a regular basis:

"Bad things are going to happen, and I'll take the heat for it when it does happen. Just understand that we have confidence in you guys. We expect you to go out and forget about the last play. That's what the great ones do."

Actually, Crompton and Stephens don't have to be "great ones." They simply have to make sure the folks who fill that 100,000-seat cathedral on Sept. 5 feel encouraged enough to return for the next worship service.

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