With the arrival of Nick Lamaison from the junior-college ranks, Tennessee now has four possibilities at quarterback for the 2009 season.
Two — Lamaison and Mike Rozier — are long shots. Another, rising junior Nick Stephens, missed invaluable practice time this spring recovering from a broken wrist.
That forces Lamaison, Rozier and Stephens to play catch-up when preseason camp begins Aug. 4. And it makes Jonathan Crompton the odds-on favorite to take the first snap when the Volunteers open the Lane Kiffin era against Western Kentucky on Sept. 5.
Of all the questions facing a Vols team that went 5-7 in 2008, play at quarterback is undoubtedly the biggest. With 1,750 passing yards and eight touchdowns, Tennessee turned in its worst numbers in both statistical categories since 1981 (1,461 yards) and 1978 (seven TDs), respectively.
All three quarterbacks who saw playing time — Crompton, Stephens and the since-transferred B.J. Coleman — finished the season ranked outside the top 100 in passing efficiency. Their collective completion rate of 49.5 percent was the first sub-.500 ratio since 1980 (49.5). And as a team, Tennessee finished a meek 107th in passing offense.
For Crompton, this season marks the last chance to see whether he can live up to the promise he showed as a recruit, when he earned Parade All-America honors coming out of Tuscola High School in Waynesville, N.C.
He ended spring practice getting the majority of the first-team reps, but was outperformed by Coleman during the Orange and White game. Still, it was a strong spring for Crompton, a fifth-year senior.
The 2008 season was anything but. In eight games played, Crompton finished 86-of-167 with more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four). The low point was a dreadful 8-for-23, 67-yard effort against Auburn.
With Tennessee 1-3 at that juncture and Crompton consistently underachieving, it paved the way for Stephens to have a shot at the job. The 6-4, 227-pound Texan showed immediate promise, hitting Denarius Moore on a long TD pass in his first career start against Northern Illinois, and going on to make 106 throws without an interception.
But the miscues came, and at horrible times. A pick-six against South Carolina, and Stephens’ reaction to the turnover, put him back on the bench. He threw another pick-six the following week in a loss to lowly Wyoming and didn’t see the field again in 2008.
Kiffin has indicated Stephens will share equal reps with Crompton when preseason camp opens Aug. 4.
If there’s a dark horse in the race for the QB duties, it’s Lamaison. A junior college All-America honoree, the 6-1, 200-pound Lamaison threw for 3,479 yards and 36 touchdowns for Mount San Antonio (Calif.) College.
Those are gaudy numbers, but recent history has not been kind to junior-college QBs seeking standout careers in the Southeastern Conference. Lamaison signed just last week, so he’s also way behind in learning the playbook.
Lamaison completed his associate’s degree early, giving him four years to play his three remaining seasons of eligibility.
That leaves Rozier, a former pitcher in the Boston Red Sox organization. At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Rozier certainly has the physique of a big-time QB, but after four years playing pro baseball, making an immediate impact appears unlikely. However, he wouldn’t be the first to make a successful transition from pro baseball to college quarterback.
Whatever happens under center for UT, two things are clear. There will be a competition, and there will be only one winner. If nothing else, Kiffin wants to see one QB emerge to help his own efforts calling the offensive plays this season.
“The play-caller and the quarterback have to have a great relationship,” Kiffin said. “You’ve got to know when the guy’s going to do what he’s going to do. The more experience you get with a guy, the better you become at protecting him in certain situations because they all have flaws, and they all have things in their head that, in certain situations, certain things will happen and this will be their reaction. If you don’t know that, you’re going to put them in those situations too many times.
“I would never alternate quarterbacks.”
How do Tennessee’s quarterbacks stack up against the signal-callers in the rest of the conference? See how John Moorehouse ranks the SEC’s quarterbacks at his “Orange Clockwork” blog at www.timesnews.net.