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December 29, 2009

For Chick-fil-A Bowl QBs, it finally clicks

MORE: Chick-fil-A Bowl preview | Bowl schedule/results

All summer, Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor kept hearing he was a running quarterback who might never develop into an accurate passer. The criticism Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton received was exponentially harsher.

When Taylor and Crompton face off Thursday in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at Atlanta's Georgia Dome, it will spotlight two of the season's biggest comeback stories.

Taylor spent his junior season emerging as a complete QB, while Crompton made the stunning transformation from SEC punching bag to legitimate NFL prospect.

"Obviously, it wasn't easy," Crompton said. "But that's something that's only made me a better quarterback and a better player, knowing I can fight through adversity and all the things that are going to be coming at me in a game."

Crompton developed that tough exterior while suffering through a nightmare of a 2008 season. He threw only four touchdown passes and lost his starting job at one point as Tennessee went 5-7 in a season that resulted in the firing of coach Phillip Fulmer.

His senior season didn't start out a whole lot better. Crompton threw a combined five interceptions without a touchdown pass in back-to-back September losses to UCLA and Florida. He was openly jeered by Tennessee fans and roasted by SEC rivals.

Then something clicked.

Over the last nine games of the season, Crompton threw 21 touchdown passes and was picked off only five times, and Tennessee scored at least 30 points in six of those games.

What made the difference?

His four-touchdown performance in a 45-19 midseason rout of Georgia seemed to kick off his surge, but Crompton insists it wasn't a matter of regaining confidence. He said he never lost faith in himself.

"I've never doubted myself, my abilities or my team's abilities," Crompton said. "That's not something you do as a competitor."

Rather, Crompton benefited from finally gaining some stability toward the end of an unsettled career. Crompton, who has worked with four offensive coordinators in his five seasons at Tennessee, said he began to feel comfortable with this latest scheme. Crompton also was hindered earlier in his career by the injuries that ravaged Tennessee's offense, particularly the receiving corps.

What a difference
Tennessee's Jonathan Crompton and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor head into the Chick-fil-A Bowl as two of the nation's most improved passers. Here's a look at how each quarterback fared in 2008 and '09.
"I think the biggest thing that happened with him is that we got healthy around him," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "It's not just about getting healthy for the game. It's about having a few weeks with your guys. In the spring, he was playing extremely well for us. I got up here and said he was going to have a great year and be one of the best quarterbacks in the league because it's what I saw. Then, all of a sudden, you have the injuries to the receivers. Now the timing's off. We're throwing in freshmen and moving players from other positions. Then we're forcing guys back.

"A lot of that is my fault, just trying to get the guys in sooner. Then I got better around him and called a better game for him because I got to see what happened when he made mistakes. Going through practice is one thing, but until you're with a guy in a game as a play-caller, you don't necessarily know how to put him in the best position all the time."

Taylor's improvement wasn't as dramatic, but it played an equally large role in getting the Hokies to this point. After throwing seven interceptions and only two touchdown passes in 2008, Taylor set some ambitious goals for his junior season.

He wanted to reverse that touchdown-interception ratio. He wanted to throw for 2,000 yards. And he wanted to reach the 1,500-yard mark before he threw his third interception of the season.

Taylor actually had been picked off three times when he reached the 1,500-yard plateau, but he met his other two goals. He has gone 126-of-226 for 2,102 yards with 13 touchdowns and four picks.

Virginia Tech remains a run-oriented team with Ryan Williams rushing for 1,538 yards and Taylor providing plenty of mobility, but the Hokies at least have enough of a passing attack to keep defenses honest. Although Virginia Tech ranks only 98th in the nation in passing yards per game, Taylor is 14th in passing efficiency.

"It's been a criticism since I got here, that I wasn't a passer and was just a runner," Taylor said. "I knew all along that I could pass."

Taylor benefited from the growth of his receivers. Virginia Tech's two leading receivers last season were freshmen Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin. Taylor spent the offseason working with those young receivers and developed a better chemistry with them.

Boykin, Coale and sophomore Dyrell Roberts have combined to catch 85 passes for 1,640 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. All three will be back next year to complement a backfield that should feature Williams and Darren Evans, who rushed for 1,265 yards last season before sitting out this season with a knee injury.

Taylor can't wait to see what he accomplishes next season with all those weapons surrounding him. "I think we have a lot of potential next year to have one of the best offenses in the nation," he said.

Crompton won't get that chance since the Chick-fil-A Bowl will represent his last game in a Tennessee uniform. But he has performed well enough this season to assure he will be playing football somewhere next fall.

Crompton, who is 6 feet 4 and about 230 pounds, always has possessed the size and arm strength to play professionally, if he could just put it all together. His remarkable transformation has caught the attention of NFL scouts.

Crompton currently is projected as a fifth-round pick by the Web site nfldraftscout.com, but he could go at least a round or two higher if he performs well in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and at his Pro Day workout and/or the NFL Scouting Combine.

"Right now, I personally think we rate him a little low," said Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com. "I'd put him more in the fourth-round category right now. If he has another strong performance, I could see him going in the third round."

Before this season, nfldraftscout.com didn't even consider Crompton a likely draft pick.

"A lot of it just has to do with timing and the fact he's having such a breakout season under Lane Kiffin, who is a respected mind in the NFL," Rang said. "It just makes people believe that if he had some consistency in coaching and in the health of the players around him, maybe we would have seen some of this success earlier."

Crompton doesn't bother thinking about what could have been. He would rather concentrate on delivering the proper final chapter to his career's storybook finish.

"Obviously we didn't meet our preseason goals, but we've finished up strong and that's the best way to finish,'' Crompton said. "It isn't how you start. It's how you finish."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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