KNOXVILLE — When Tennessee opens its football season Sept. 5 against Western Kentucky, senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton will again be in charge of the Volunteers’ offense.
Coach Lane Kiffin said he decided to start Crompton over junior Nick Stephens after reviewing stats and film from all three of the team’s fall scrimmages.
“It was really close. It really came down to Jonathan was a little bit more accurate,” Kiffin said Monday. “Both guys have made a number of plays during camp and protected the ball very well. Very low interception numbers. Very good numbers in general in all the preseason games combined. Jonathan had the slight edge for accuracy.”
The competition has been running far longer than fall camp. The pair spent all of last season vying for the job.
Both made six starts in 2008, with Crompton averaging 111.1 yards passing a game and throwing four touchdowns and five interceptions. Stephens averaged 120 yards passing per game and threw four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Crompton appeared to separate himself during Saturday’s scrimmage, which he finished 17-for-31 with 266 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception. Stephens was 9-for-17 with 90 yards and no touchdowns.
Crompton credited Kiffin with helping him improve his accuracy.
“He says, ‘With this, look here,’ or, ‘With that, look here.’ The more comfortable I feel, the more accurate I can be, so I give the credit to them for teaching me where to go with it, so that I can play like myself,” Crompton said.
Kiffin said despite being relegated to backup duty, Stephens— who sat out most of spring drills after breaking his wrist — has proven to be one of the most improved players during fall practice.
“I think we’ve got two really good quarterbacks ... and if something were to happen to Jonathan, we’d feel very confident that Nick would come in and do a great job for us,” Kiffin said.
There are few options for the Vols beyond Crompton and Stephens.
Rising sophomore B.J. Coleman quit the team after spring practice because he felt he didn’t have a fair shot at the starting job. Tennessee signed junior-college transfer Nick Lamaison in July, though the sophomore hasn’t had anywhere close to the amount of practice the veterans have had.
The Vols also have freshman walk-on quarterback Mike Fromke of Knoxville. Another walk-on, Mike Rozier, left the squad in the middle of fall camp.
Still, Crompton doesn’t plan on getting comfortable with his starting role.
“Nothing is settled yet. We haven’t played a game yet, so we’re just trying to go out there and work. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Nobody cares who’s been named the starter or anything like that. Nobody cares about that right now.”
JONES OUT: Junior wide receiver Gerald Jones is expected to miss three to six weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain during the Volunteers’ most recent scrimmage.
The Vols’ most experienced returning receiver hobbled off the field after catching a 14-yard pass from Nick Stephens during Saturday’s scrimmage and didn’t return.
Coach Lane Kiffin said the team was still evaluating his injury. If Jones returns in three weeks, he’ll be available against Southeastern Conference East Division rival Florida on Sept. 19.
“That’s obviously a downer for us, but we also know the guys that step in are going to be just fine,” quarterback Jonathan Crompton said.
Jones’ injury is more bad news for an already depleted wide receiver corps. Fellow junior Denarius Moore is expected to be sidelined at least until the Florida game as he recovers from foot surgery, and senior Austin Rogers is out for the season to recover from knee surgery.
That leaves only a few scholarship receivers left. Kiffin opted to move freshman and former high school receiver Rod Wilks from safety to bolster the depth.
“There’s no free agency to go to or trades, so we went to Rod Wilks,” Kiffin said. “Obviously that’s hard to do, bring a guy over this late, but it does give us another body over there, somebody who’s played receiver in the past.”
Wilks said he’s going to spend extra time trying to learn the playbook and routes to be ready for when Tennessee opens Sept. 5 against Western Kentucky. He said he did not yet know if the move would be permanent.
“I feel great about it,” Wilks said. “It’s a situation to help out the team, and I’m willing to do that.”
Jones was expected to be among the starters. He was the top returner after catching 30 passes for 323 yards last season, but had been somewhat limited during fall practice as he recovered from surgery on his left wrist, which has been in a cast.
Junior Brandon Warren, senior Quintin Hancock and freshmen Nu’Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague must now fill his spot. Freshman Zach Rogers, Austin Rogers’ younger brother, also will be available to play.
“They’re going to have to play for us, and they’re going to have to do things right and be consistent because there’s nowhere else to go,” Kiffin said of the freshmen.
Center Josh McNeil also missed Monday’s practice because he was undergoing tests on his surgically repaired knee. Kiffin said the senior landed on it in practice last week.
Kiffin said McNeil’s injury hasn’t prompted him to make a decision as to whether McNeil or senior Cody Sullins would start at center.
“We’ll see what the results say when they come back, and hopefully we’ll have news and he’ll be able to play for us,” he said.
FREE PARKING: After paying those high ticket prices, a few thousand Tennessee football fans may be able to score free parking.
The city of Knoxville will be offering no-charge parking on game days in two downtown locations — the 842-space State Street garage and the 700-space Market Square garage. Both are served by $3 round-trip shuttles to 102,000-seat Neyland Stadium.
City spokesman Randy Kenner said Monday the city got a favorable response from fans when it tried this last season. Both garages either filled to capacity or were close to it.
Other downtown garages charge $5 to $30 per car.