October 28, 2008

Vols should go back to the future

Tennessee, throughout its disappointments this season, has seemingly found � or invented � methods to lose football games. Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson acknowledged as much Tuesday in his weekly meeting with the press.

And though two of their last three games have been losses, the Volunteers have not beaten themselves with untimely turnovers as they did in opening-month losses to both UCLA and Auburn. In fact, Tennessee has gone 173 offensive snaps without a turnover.

Big deal, right? Well, to some extent, yes. And upon a second glance, yes again. Why? Because Nick Stephens, the Vols' sophomore quarterback, has been a big part of that. The cucumber-cool Flower Mound, Texas, product has uncorked 97 pass attempts without an interception. Sure, Stephens was aided by a couple of Georgia defenders who had lobster claws for hands in his first road start, but the streak still is sixth-best all-time in UT's annals and tops for a player beginning his career.

Big deal, right? Well, yes. Why? Because asked on Tuesday why outsiders should believe the Volunteers' program might next year regain competitive footing against Alabama, Florida, Georgia and other SEC heavyweights, head coach Phillip Fulmer offered, in part, this explanation:

"Now we're hopefully more established at quarterback, have a good number of young guys that are really talented players that everybody's excited about. Sophomores and freshmen and some juniors. ... Hopefully we can give everyone about winning and what we're going to do in the future with how we play."

As much as it should be about how the Vols play � more red zone ineptitude (13 touchdowns in 27 trips), killer penalties (Thanks, 'Bama, but why leave 95 yards of unused real estate behind?) and a ground game that couldn't run on a treadmill aren't the answers � it also should be about whom the Vols play.

If Stephens, who hasn't been perfect by any stretch but commands the huddle and radiates confidence, can throw 97 passes without an interception and handle all those center-quarterback-tailback exchanges without a fumble, who else might help Tennessee?

I agree with Clawson when he says, "I don't think you make a change just for the sake of making a change." But you do play more younger guys for the sake of playing more younger guys.

Why? Because this season is gone, but it could become one of the most valuable final months for a UT program since November 1988, when an 0-6 start gave way to a 5-0 finish and an SEC Championship the ensuing year.

Why? Because younger players were playing. And getting better. Since August we've heard about offensive lineman Jarrod Shaw, a fixture on the Vols' two-deep but no doubt grateful for aluminum, rather than wooden, sideline benches. Cody Sullins isn't particularly young as a junior, but give us a look, please? Ramone Johnson, at times, has been an effective jumbo-sized tight end with his 6-foot-5, 315-pound frame stuffed into a No. 93 jersey. Could he be a less-effective left tackle than the current starter?

And what of wideouts Ahmad "Fastest Guy on the Team" Paige, not to mention Tyler Maples, Todd Campbell and Quintin Hancock?

The redshirts are burned on Ben Bartholomew, Austin Johnson and Tauren Poole. So make sure they were discarded for good reason and not simply token playing time.

"Right now, we're only worried about South Carolina," Fulmer said Sunday night in first pointing toward the future. "That's our goal, to lay a foundation for the next season."

You gave Nick Stephens a chance, and this, according to Fulmer, is what he's given Tennessee: "a chance to win."

Added Clawson, "There's times when he looks really good. I thought we were efficient throwing the ball (on Saturday). He did a great job of fixing protections for us. I thought he handled the pre-snap, mental part of it really well. I like the fact that he's taking care of the football."

Fail or succeed, I like the fact that he was given a chance one-third of the way through the season. Now we're eight games in, and Stephens has rewarded the coaching staff with, at a minimum, competent play, and at times, very exciting play.

Find a way, without undermining Stephens' confidence, to give B.J. Coleman that same opportunity. This is not 2005, at least not from a psychological, team-division standpoint, and I've got faith that the cocksure Stephens can handle it. Remember, he always talks team-first, and for a guy to have been waiting two-plus injury-free years to get his first snap, I believe him.

Make a commitment to get Coleman into the game in the second or third quarter the rest of the season, regardless the score.

Make a commitment to showcase the youth that Fulmer said should be cause for optimism.

Make a commitment to the future � for the players � before it's too late.

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