Pigskin perfectionist

In a sense, Tennessee head football coach Lane Kiffin is a little like a nymphomaniac: It's really difficult to satisfy either one of 'em.

Since last Saturday's 31-13 drubbing of South Carolina represented the Vols' most lopsided win over a Steve Spurrier-coached team since 1992, you'd think Kiffin would be thrilled. You'd be wrong.

Since the Big Orange is playing by far its best football of the year the past three games, you'd figure Kiffin's starting lineup would be stable. You'd be wrong again.

The Vol head man's weekly news conference clearly established that he was not satisfied with an 18-point win over the Gamecocks and that he was not convinced that his best 22 players started that game.

As a result, Kiffin said he is opening up the competition this week at six positions - left guard, fullback, middle linebacker, nickel back, left defensive end on third down and No. 2 defensive tackle.

Kiffin said he is opening up these spots "to make sure guys understand that we need to continue to improve and get ready for a tough game" vs. Memphis (2-6) this Saturday.

Vladimir Richard started the first three games at left guard before an injury allowed fellow senior Cory Sullins to start Games 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

"We're going to give 'em equal reps in practice this week," Kiffin said. "I didn't think either of 'em played very well in the (South Carolina) game, so we've got to figure it out. We'll open it back up and see who plays the best this week."

The renewed competition at fullback was prompted by the big-play potential exhibited by Austin Johnson in Saturday's game. An improving blocker and a superior receiving threat, he caught a 38-yard touchdown pass on Tennessee's second scrimmage play. Now he's getting a chance to unseat first-team fullback Kevin Cooper, who started in 2008 and the first eight games of 2009.

The competition at nickel back and middle linebacker has opened up as a result of injuries to senior Marsalous Johnson (thumb surgery) and junior Savion Frazier (torn ACL), respectively. Johnson is likely out for 3-4 weeks, Frazier for the year.

Kiffin said redshirt freshman Herman Lathers and true freshman Nigel Mitchell-Thornton will vie for the middle linebacker vacancy. Kiffin described Lathers as "very fast" and Mitchell-Thornton as "very physical."

The coach said he is unwilling to move weakside 'backer Rico McCoy or strongside 'backer LaMarcus Thompson inside because these would constitute a "double switch" by forcing the Vols to play new starters at TWO positions.

Tennessee has two true freshmen capable of filling in at middle linebacker in 6-1, 230-pound Jerod Askew and 6-0, 210-pound Robert Nelson but Kiffin said neither is ready to play just yet.

"It's so hard to play linebacker in this system ... to take a guy out in a week and try to get him ready," Kiffin said. "We saw with Frazier, who'd already played a bunch, how long it took him, so we're going to keep those couple of guys redshirting."

Frazier is the second middle linebacker the Vols have lost this fall. Nick Reveiz started the first four games only to suffer a season-ending ACL tear vs. Ohio. Because the middle linebacker is so crucial in UT's scheme, the stop unit struggled mightily for a while.

"It's such a valuable position," Kiffin said. "You saw what happened when Nick went out and we made the transition to Frazier. That's where we played about six quarters of our worst defense."

Brent Vinson appears the most likely replacement for Johnson at nickel back, although Kiffin is considering other options.

"Maybe we stay in base (defense) the whole game," he said. "It's going to depend on how the Mike (middle linebacker) is playing, on how the nickel back is playing, on how we're playing in general.

"We're going to give Brent Vinson a chance. Brent has not played on defense very much for us at all since the Ohio game, so it's time to give him a shot again."

Ben Martin has started the past six games at left defensive end, backed by fellow junior Gerald Williams. Redshirt freshman Willie Bohannon had three stops, a tackle for loss and a hurry vs. South Carolina, however, and is challenging Williams for the third-down role this week.

At defensive tackle, it appears that freshman Marlon Walls is putting some heat on senior Andre Mathis for the second-team job behind Wes Brown.

Pigskin perfectionist that he is, Kiffin continues to find fault with Tennessee's 18-point defeat of South Carolina.

"I had to keep reminding myself that that was a big win," the coach said. "I didn't think we played very well. I didn't think that game should've been very close at all.

"I was disappointed. I was disappointed in myself. I didn't think I called a very good game. I think I let the rain get to me a little bit. We got out of our game plan, got conservative, didn't attack 'em enough because I was worried about ball security and having turnovers.

"I was a little bit down after the game because I thought, especially in front of a national TV audience, we could've performed better and made that game where it wasn't close at all."

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