Forget open-book test. First-year University of Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin equated the offense's advantages in Saturday's Orange & White game to having the key to the exam.
The offense, held in check most of the spring by an ahead-of-the-pace defense, amassed some 665 yards of offense, five touchdowns and a couple of field goals. It was, by all accounts, an successful afternoon for the offense before a crowd of 51,488 -- second-largest ever to attend the Vols' spring game.
"We ran some stuff that gives them problems and I knew they were only allowed to play a few defenses," Kiffin said of the scaled-back chess match between coaches. "I kind of knew the answers to the test. That helped a little bit. We probably ran only 20 percent of our offense."
But what the Vols did run -- with Kiffin in the huddle calling plays and at times even helping align receivers -- appeared to be executed with confidence in both the players and the system. They averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 52 rushing tries and completed 38 of 70 tosses for 434 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. That came in the first half when Rico McCoy read the eyes of senior Jonathan Crompton, who completed 14 of 27 tosses for 143 yards and one touchdown. Nick Stephens, who missed a portion of spring practice with a broken bone in his right, throwing hand, connected on 11 of 21 attempts for 131 yards and one score.
B.J. Coleman had the most productive day. The sophomore from Chattanooga connected on 13 of 22 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
"He looked good (Saturday). "That's the second time in a row he's looked good in the stadium," Kiffin said. "He made a great play near the goal line to keep it alive and seems to have some game presence about him. When we get in here he seems to play better."
For his part, Coleman believes he departs camp with a chance to win the starting nod.
"Absolutely. 100 percent. I feel very confident, I feel like I've got a lot of respect on offense and the defensive side of the football. My goal is to be a leader, and I've been blessed with great coach (Ralph) Potter, coach (David) Cutcliffe all the way through these coaches now. Quarterbacks are held to a higher standard. Come in first and be the one to leave last. You Hear that scenario all the time. It's true. You've got to be able to walk the walk and talk the talk. It's very important that I be a leader and be good example for these guys."
Crompton enters the offseason trying to lead with the parameters he's been applying to himself since camp opened: take nothing for granted and don't be outworked.
"Honestly, I've got to get better pretty much at just everything. I'm trying to hone in on the little things," said the senior from Waynesville, N.C. "I think I had a decent spring. I'm trying to, like I said a hundred times, I'm out there practicing like I'm the fifth-team guy. I've got a chip on my shoulder and I'm trying to just get out there and play. So impressing guys is good, but also you've got to play for yourself."
Crompton was impressed with how much the coaching staff's accelerated tempo helped all the quarterbacks absorb more of the offensive system.
"We had high, high tempo during practice every day so that allowed us to go out there during practice and do more," Crompton said. "Get more days of install in and things like that because we repped it so many times and had good tempo. So I think that really helped us a lot. We had, off the top of my head, 12 days of install off of 15 practices. And every day was a considerable amount, something new. We repped it a lot, and with our tempo, it only helped us."
Stephens had a unique perspective -- first from the sideline following his injury and then in the midst of the quarterback fracas -- for the offensive progression.
"I watched most of the first part of practice and I saw where we were and where we are today, and I think it's a major improvement," Stephens said. "We had that one turnover, other than that we protected the ball. Along those same points, we ran the ball well which is where we had trouble last year and we made smart decisions. So I think we did all right."
Indeed, Kiffin said he would learn more about the signal-callers in the coming days but lauded their overall efficiency and minimal miscues and turnovers.
"I have to go to the film to really break them down exactly because there's so much going on out there that you're watching; I thought they protected the ball well and seemed to make good decisions for the most part," Kiffin said. "They moved us in and out of the huddle without very many penalties.
"A lot of times you get into these settings and you have a lot of fumbled snaps or false starts, so I'm pleased with them today."
And perhaps more so than all the first downs, points and yards gains, the ability to stay on the field, Kiffin said, showed signs of a growing offense.
"There were some lengthy drives and that's what happens when you don't turn the ball over," he said. "That's what happens when you don't make mistakes and you make good decisions. We didn't punt in the first half; that's a pretty neat thing to have."
By the numbers the Tennessee running game had a huge day. The Vol rushing attack had 52 carries for 231 yards to cap off spring practice. And while it was a good day on the ground for the Vol offense, it was also because it was by design.
"It was good. I think we ran the ball well, but I think we should have ran it well," running back Montario Hardesty, who had 45 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, said. "The defense wasn't really doing a lot of things. They weren't blitzing. It was kind of set up for us. We kind of knew where they were going to be at. So we should have run the ball well today."
But as quarterback Jonathan Crompton pointed out, the offense had their own limitations in what they could do scheme-wise and that the focus Saturday was simply about being able to execute, something the offense did well with only two penalties and only one turnover.
Offensive guard Vladimir Richard said regardless of how the spring game was set up or wasn't set up, the greatest leap the offense has made this spring has been in the run game.
"The biggest improvement was just running the ball," Richard said. "The last couple of years, people say that Tennessee hasn't been running the ball well and stuff. We came out in the first practice when we were just in helmets and we practiced like we were in pads. That is the mentality that coach brought and we were so physical everyday. Running the ball is a lot better than it was and we are excited about that."
And everyone knows that if this offense is going to have success this fall that they have to be effective on the ground.
"I think running the ball can be the strength of our team," Hardesty said. "I always want the ball in my hands. The offensive line feeds off the running game and I definitely think that can be big for us this fall."
No one on the offensive line is missing the fact that they are no longer flipping sides (right and left) depending on the play like they did a year ago. Senior guard Vlad Richard took it a step further in saying he simply ignores that part of the last year.
"To be honest with you, I don't really remember anything about flipping sides from last year. I don't remember. It is gone out of my system," said the senior from Sunrise, Fla.
Bring it on
The running backs aside from a few fumbles were the best playmakers this spring for the offense. That deep group is only getting deeper with the arrival of heralded signees Bryce Brown and David Oku. Hardesty, who hosted Oku on his official visit, is ready for the increased competition.
"It's all good," Hardesty said. "I came to Tennessee to play with good players and to compete ... It's time to punch the time-card back in and go to work."
Guests of note
The Vols had several high-profile recruits and 2009 signees in attendance at Saturday's Orange & White game. Among the signees were: Nyshier Oliver, Kevin Revis, Marlon Walls, Greg King, Marsalis Teague, Zach Rogers and Nu'Keese Richardson. Among the prospects were: LaMarcus Joyner, Jabriel Washington, Dexter Moody, Kelcy Quarles and Jonathan Mincy, among others.
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