Remarkable rally

Head coach Lane Kiffin has seen some quarterbacks come a long way in their development but he's never seen one come so far so fast as Tennessee's current starter.

That would be Vol senior Jonathan Crompton.

Asked if he has ever seen a quarterback progress so much during the course of a season, Kiffin shook his head.

"I don't know that I have," he said. "From Year 1 to Year 2 Carson Palmer came a long ways. He went from throwing more interceptions (than touchdowns) his first season with us to being a Heisman Trophy winner."

Palmer, of course, was Southern Cal's quarterback during Kiffin's stint as the Trojans' offensive coordinator earlier this decade.

"That was a long ways to come," Kiffin added, "but that was our second year with him. Within a first year of being with a guy, no, I haven't (seen progress comparable to Crompton's)."

This story may have a happy ending but the beginning was downright rocky. After a mediocre season as a six-game starter in 2008, Crompton was not exactly a fan favorite as 2009 approached. In fact, the announcement that he'd be the Game 1 starter probably was met with more jeers than cheers.

Completing 21 of 28 passes for 233 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 63-7 Game 1 blowout of Western Kentucky silenced his critics but only temporarily. The grumbling returned, louder than ever, when Crompton reverted to his '08 form in Games 2, 3 and 4. He completed just 41 of 89 passes (46.1 percent) for 408 yards with 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions during that three-game stretch.

The reaction on talk radio and the Internet grew so ugly that it prompted Kiffin to remark that he'd never seen a player subjected to so much "hatred" from his own fans.

A large segment of the Vol Nation began clamoring for backup QB Nick Stephens but Kiffin doggedly defended Crompton, noting that ace receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore were coming off injuries and the Vols' healthy receivers weren't running their routes crisply and/or correctly at times.

Sure enough, when Jones and Moore got healthy, so did Crompton's passing stats. Over the past five games he has completed 94 of 157 attempts (59.9 percent) for 1,307 yards. After throwing eight interceptions in the first four games, he has thrown just two the past five games. He has fired 12 touchdown passes in his last four outings, pushing his season total to 21 - good for first place in the SEC and fourth place nationally.

Naturally, Kiffin is glad he stuck by his quarterback when that was an unpopular stance to take. He feels even more gratified that Crompton has justified the faith his coaches and teammates showed in him.

"It's very rewarding," Kiffin said. "I was glad our players stayed with him. You didn't see players lashing out at him. They just kept fighting for him. It's a good story and, obviously, it's great for recruiting. It shows how our staff stays behind our players and doesn't bench players just to place the blame somewhere."

Redshirt freshman offensive tackle Aaron Douglas says Tennessee's players at no point stopped believing in their senior signal-caller.

"We've always had a lot of confidence in him," Douglas said. "You can tell his confidence has built up as the season has progressed. He's playing great football. He's been a leader all season but right now he's playing tremendous and throwing the ball on the money."

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