April 14, 2009

In a word: competition

Energy, enthusiasm, tempo.

Royalties for the use of those words in describing Tennessee's first-ever spring camp under new head football coach Lane Kiffin could at a minimum buy some of those posh, $2,500-seats inside the new Yankees' stadium. Or maybe a few of those $9 PBRs the Pinstripers are selling to, I'm guessing, help make ends meet.

Those aforementioned buzzwords of the most intriguing and potentially defining period of Tennessee football since Doug Dickey replaced Jim McDonald in the 1960s are a transparent observation. As easy to see as panic on the face of a Cubs fan at the mention of goats or worse, a Bartman.

Above all others, one word defines the foundational stage of this new era of Volunteers football: competition.

"That's what you want. If you have great competition, you're going to be a better football team," running backs coach Eddie Gran recently said. "You keep recruiting, you're going to get better football players and then that's just going to make you for a championship team."

Adds tackles/tight ends coach James Cregg, an energetic young guy who appears physically capable of still suiting up, "Without a doubt, I think it (competition) is huge. You never know who the starter is going to be, and you can't have an off day. You've got to show up and bring your 'A' game every day because you never know when the next guy is going to come in, step foot and take your job. It puts everybody on edge and makes guys compete harder and makes guys want to do things harder."

We know this because we have seen it. All of it through open practices and Kiffin's no-nonsense, straightforward approach. Who else but Kiffin would respond to a question about seeing a player back at an old position along the offensive line with, "Did you notice them (defenders) running right around him?"

We know because players have told us. Earlier this camp, free-speaking junior wideout Gerald Jones, a burgeoning team leader, spoke of how inspiring and refreshing Kiffin's candid comments (say that three times fast) were to the players.

Following the last of the team's major intrasquad scrimmages on Friday, Jones revealed the players' competitive zest has been stoked this spring by the coaches' own battles. Particularly the offensively-inclined Kiffin, whose side of the ball has too often been dominated by the defense.

"When the defense is making too many plays, you can forget the script. He gets down and says you do this and you do that," Jones said of the head coach's involvement. "He will call stuff that we haven't even put in yet. He will just put it in while we are in the huddle. That tells you how much of a competitor he is and I love it."

Kiffin compiled a coaching roster full of competitors. His dad, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, chided practice-field officials recently when a defensive back made a stellar play in the end zone to break up a pass but was flagged for interference. The elder Kiffin was 10 yards onto the field, showcasing the speed rush often missing in recent years but poised to be rediscovered by Chris Walker and Ben Martin, among others.

After assembling that staff, Kiffin touted competition for starting jobs at 21 of 22 positions during his opening spring practice press conference; Eric Berry is, after all, Eric Berry. He's the first person UT will actively market for the Heisman Trophy since Peyton Manning in 1997. And Berry is abundantly worthy.

Yet Kiffin lied. The 33-year-old perfectionist has extended those free-for-alls into special teams posts as well. Just last week he ordered a walk-on placekicker to take the last kick in practice when two-year starter Daniel Lincoln missed a mid-range field goal that replicated a late-game pressure situation.

"They want to come in and just get their own ideas of the players and not go off the belief or the word of what the other coaches had formed on players," explained center Cody Sullins, who started last scrimmage and remains locked in a battle with All-SEC candidate Josh McNeil.

Competitions for starting spots are brewing along the offensive line, wide receivers, linebackers and a couple of islands in the secondary. More almost certainly are on the summer horizon when members of Kiffin's inaugural, 10th-ranked recruiting class trickle onto campus.

Of course, no battle garners more attention than that of quarterback, where Jonathan Crompton gets most first-team reps these days but can't completely shake sophomore B.J. Coleman..

"They've just got to keep competing," quarterbacks coach David Reaves said of his charges. "We put some new things on them (last) week and they've got to keep competing, focus on not turning the ball over and get better.

"Spring game is coming up and it's going to be a big one for them."

Naturally. It's one more chance to compete.

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