Vols Press Conference Wrap-Up
Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin, senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton and junior defensive back Eric Berry fielded questions in a scheduled press conference following practice at the Georgia Dome early Monday afternoon.
The trio answered questions ranging from Virginia Tech's special teams and coaching changes to Thursday's game plan.
Quarterback Jonathan Crompton expressed gratitude for the Georgia Dome, following two days of practice at the cold outdoor field of Decatur High School, in which Kiffin referred to the Vols' play as rusty.
"Today was a little better, I think being in the Dome helped a lot," Crompton said. "I thought we were more crisp, we executed a little better, but we got to come out here tomorrow and have a good practice."
As Kiffin has done since bowl selection day, the head coach found even more praise for his bowl opponent, referring to the bowl game as a "BCS Bowl."
"It's such a great bowl," Kiffin emphasized. "We're playing one of the top 11 teams in America, a team that went to two straight Orange Bowls. I think they had only one player drafted off that team, so obviously they have a ton of great players back and a legendary coach."
Virginia Tech defeated Cincinnati 20-7 in the Orange Bowl last year, a team which since then has climbed to No. 3 in the BCS polls and secured a matchup with Florida in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 2010.
Kiffin was quick to note the benefits to the program from winning a bowl game against an opponent of such a high caliber.
"I think it does kick-start us as far as recruiting, as far as going back and hitting the road after the game and calling recruits," Kiffin said. "It's the only game being played on New Year's Eve, on national TV, someone said there's usually four to five million people watching, so that's obviously important for this class coming up."
ACC vs. SEC
Quarterback Jonathan Crompton certainly agreed that the tough SEC schedule has prepared this Tennessee team for Thursday's competitive non-conference match up
"Like Coach Kiffin said we feel we play in the best conference in America," Crompton said. "The past couple years SEC teams have won the national championship, this year we got a shot again. We play top 25 schools every week, so it prepares us very well to play a top 11 team in a bowl game."
Berry's Swan Song?
As usual, star defensive back Eric Berry attracted a number of questions about his status regarding the NFL Draft in April.
The All-American, All-SEC player and 2009 Thorpe Award recipient was humble, cool and collected when referring to his style of play and draft potential.
The junior was secretive about his decision on whether or not he would enter the NFL Draft in April and forego his senior season at UT.
"It's kind of made up, but right now I don't want to get into that, I want to just focus on Virginia Tech," Berry said.The strong safety did, however, detail his process of discussions with his coaches and family and friends regarding his NFL draft status.
"I really just wanted to make sure there was no stone unturned," Berry said. "I sat down with Coach Kiffin and talked about it, talked with my family, talked with my teammates. I want to make sure I weighed out every possible scenario."
"I think as people look at him, when you evaluate safeties, the majority of safeties can only play one spot," Kiffin said. "He's very unique because he can play free, strong, nickel corner, so I would think he'd go extremely high whenever he leaves."
"I told Eric from my perspective that he's done everything he can do. If he wants to go, this is the time to go. I would never want to hold someone back from that."
Ryan Williams vs. UT Defense
One of the greatest challenges UT's defense will face Thursday night is stopping running back Ryan Williams.
The freshmen sensation and third-team All-American has racked up 1,538 yards and 19 touchdowns on the season with a 5.7 yard per carry average.
In Eric Berry's eyes however, the Vols have prepared as well as ever for Williams while facing their own star running back in scrimmages.
"Ryan Williams is a great running back in my opinion," Berry said. "But at the same time I feel like Montario (Hardesty) is the type of back that would get our defense prepared for someone like that. I think he's the closest person to Montario as far as running style, as physical as he is and how he runs with a low-center gravity. I feel that he's done a good job at getting us prepared."
Kiffin's appraisal wasn't reserved only for his opposing coaches, but his own staff members as well, more specifically offensive line coaches James Cregg and graduate assistant Mitch Browning.
Tennessee's offensive line, which features a redshirt freshman and two walk-ons at center and left guard, has only allowed an SEC-low 12 sacks on the season, as well as accommodated a 1,300-yard rusher in Montario Hardesty.
"I thought James Cregg and Mitch Browning did a great job," Kiffin said. "To lead the SEC in sacks allowed with a center and left guard, six foot, 260 pound walk-ons, it says a lot about them, about their coaching."
Tennessee's offensive line will have the responsibility of containing a Virginia Tech defensive front that includes all upperclassmen, two seniors and two juniors, all weighing in at an average of 272 pounds.
What Can Brown Do For You?
Newly added wide receivers coach Kippy Brown's presence at bowl practice the past week was warmly welcomed by Kiffin, who noted the coach was his first choice at the position.
Ex-Tennessee receivers coach Frank Wilson was hired away by LSU in December.
"We set our goals at the top, we go as high as we can and work our way down, whether it's recruiting or coaches," Kiffin said. "We only had to talk to one guy. To have him around is very valuable, he brings great experience from the NFL."
Emphasis on Special Teams
Kiffin noted the challenge ahead in facing Virginia Tech's superior special teams unit, one which he compared to the successful squad he faced at Florida in September.
The loss of special teams coach Eddie Gran in December further toughened the challenge in preparing what has been a sub-par Tennessee special teams unit.
"Yeah them or Florida, those are the two teams that have done the best job at special teams over the years," Kiffin said. "Guys have had to step up, Lance Thompson and Ed Orgeron have taken a lead role in that for us. I feel good about our plan. It was difficult losing him (Gran) at this time, that has really set us back."
The Hokies have scored on three kick or punt returns this season, as well as prevented any field goal or punt blocks in 12 consecutive games.
The Volunteers have had opposite results, suffering from a blocked punt and four blocked field goals, one of which was a potential game winner at No. 1 Alabama in October with seconds remaining.
Tech Air Defense
Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton knows about facing good defenses.
Crompton struggled early in the season, throwing nine interceptions in his first six games.
After facing top 10 defenses on the road in Alabama and Florida, the senior will see a Virginia Tech defense take the field Thursday that boasts a sixth-ranked pass defense.
"They're a very good defense, very fast," Crompton said. "Personally I would say they are closest to Alabama they way they play, their scheme. They have some big safeties, so that's something we're not used to seeing right now. It's going to be fun to get out there and play against a top ten defense."
Note: Starting senior cornerback Stephan Virgil, who is the most experienced corner for Tech, will not play Thursday due to academic ineligibility.
Coach Kiffin thanked the Chick-fil-A Bowl staff and the organizations involved in accommodating the teams and staff members.
"It's been an exciting week for our players, staff and families to be down here," Kiffin said. "We really enjoyed our time down here. The people involved have been really great to us."
Tennessee faces Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl Thursday, Dec. 31, at 7:30 p.m. EST at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.