Picking on the Vols

Tennessee ranks second nationally in a major passing category but the Vols aren't exactly trumpeting the achievement.

Jonathan Crompton has thrown seven interceptions through the first three games. Only SMU sophomore Bo Levi Mitchell (8) has thrown more, and he has an excuse. Mitchell has uncorked 149 passes - an average of 50 per game - whereas Crompton has attempted 73 - an average of just 24 per game.

Basically, SMU makes Texas Tech look like a ground-hugging offense. Mitchell completed 40 of 57 passes for 424 yards in a 30-27 loss to Washington State last weekend. Two of his 57 passes went for touchdowns. Four of them went to opponents. In case you're wondering, Mitchell threw 30 touchdowns and 31 interceptions as a freshman in 2008. He has six TDs to go with his eight picks this season.

Although Crompton has completed an impressive 61.6 percent of his passes this fall, his interception total gives him a 113.28 passer-efficiency rating that ranks 11th in the SEC and 84th nationally.

Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett ranks No. 1 nationally with a 193.49 efficiency rating. Florida's Tim Tebow (170.45) is seventh, Georgia's Joe Cox (165.49) 12th and Alabama's Greg McElroy (161.66) 16th. Auburn's Chris Todd (152.13) is 27th, Kentucky's Mike Hartline (147.22) 35th and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead (145.51) 36th. LSU's Jordan Jefferson (138.90) checks in at No. 45 and South Carolina's Stephen Garcia (124.78) at No. 66. Mississippi State's Chris Relf (135.7) would rank ahead of Crompton, too, except he hasn't thrown the necessary 15 passes per game to qualify for the national rankings.

With seven interceptions through the first three games, Tennessee is on pace to throw 28 picks this season. That would easily break the school record of 20 set in 1979.

So, what can Tennessee do to interrupt the interception parade?

"We've got to make better decisions," head coach Lane Kiffin said this week.

Although Crompton was intercepted twice last Saturday at Florida, his head coach thought he made much better decisions than in a three-pick performance against UCLA one week earlier. His second interception was essentially a desperation throw on fourth down in the final two minutes.

"Prior to the last play of the game there was one interception - which is one too many - but he was playing better than the week before," Kiffin said. "The week before there was another interception that was called back because they (Bruins) were offsides, so there could've been (a fourth) one."

Although Crompton passed for just 93 yards at Florida, Kiffin thought his quarterback showed a lot more poise than he did the previous week.

"I thought he improved and played better, especially in a much tougher environment and probably against a better all-around defense," the coach said. "UCLA's defense is really good but from top to bottom that (Florida) is a better, deeper defense."

No doubt, offseason injuries to arguably the top three Vol wideouts - Austin Rogers (ACL, out for the year), Gerald Jones (wrist, then high-ankle sprain) and Denarius Moore (foot) - have affected the timing and chemistry of Tennessee's passing attack.

"It's been difficult," Kiffin said. "The biggest setback has been because of the injuries. Rogers had a good spring, then all of a sudden he's out for the year. Then Gerald goes out. Then Denarius goes out."

Noting that it's hard to "just plug someone in" with limited experience at wide receiver, Kiffin added that the lack of stability at wideout "does make it difficult. And Jonathan, like any quarterback, is being affected by that, unfortunately."

On a positive note, Jones and Moore saw significant action last weekend and should play bigger roles this weekend. If they can get on the same page with Crompton maybe the interceptions will slow from a flood to a trickle.

"That's why I'm excited about this week ... really honing in on what our guys can do and putting them in a competitive situation," Kiffin said, later adding: "I look for us to have a much better week in the passing game."

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