From zero to hero

He grew up dreaming of quarterbacking the Tennessee Vols before huge crowds at Neyland Stadium. He'll do so for the final time Saturday night against Vanderbilt.

The dream didn't go quite the way Jonathan Crompton envisioned it but he can still achieve a fairytale finish with strong showings in the home finale against Vanderbilt this weekend and in the regular-season finale at Kentucky next weekend.

Touted as one of America's premier quarterback prospects as a senior at Tuscola High in Waynesville, N.C., Crompton spent 2005 recovering from shoulder surgery, then spent 2006 and '07 watching Erik Ainge. He finally got his chance to start in 2008 but struggled mightily, incurring boos and even a few death threats from the lunatic-fringe element of the fan base.

When Crompton staggered out of the starting gate in 2009, the boos returned. Working with inexperienced receivers behind a patchwork line, he averaged just 160.2 passing yards per game with more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (7) in the first four games.

As his protection improved and his veteran receivers returned from injury, however, Crompton underwent a dramatic transformation. He threw for 259 yards vs. Auburn, for 310 and four touchdowns vs. Georgia, for 264 yards at Alabama. He peaked with a 331-yard passing effort and five touchdown throws in a 56-28 Game 9 blowout of Memphis.

Crompton's numbers over the past six games might be the best of any quarterback in the SEC. He has completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,473 yards (245.5 per game) and 16 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Having thrown 119 consecutive passes without an interception, he is 25 shy of breaking Casey Clausen's school record in that category.

The obvious question: What enabled Crompton to improve so much from the first four games of 2009 to the past six games?

"We've improved as an offense in our passing game," receivers coach Frank Wilson said. "We've made some changes in our offensive line. Jonathan has gotten better and the receivers have gotten better. It has all meshed together.

"I don't think there was ever a time when it was just Jonathan or just the receivers or just the protection. It was always a combination of those things. I think we were able to fill in those gaps, and now it's working better because we've taken care of the protection point of it. And Jonathan has gotten a little better with his throws and the receivers have gotten better with the details of their routes.

"I think it's been a combination of all of those things that's helped us in the passing game."

As a result, Jonathan Crompton's final home game as a Vol will feel a lot more like that dream he used to have as a kid growing up in Waynesville.

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