Before Tennessee can battle Western Kentucky, UCLA or Florida the Vols have to battle themselves.
That begins Tuesday when coach Lane Kiffin’s leads his first UT football squad onto the practice field.
The squad reported back to campus Monday. Everyone who was expected was accounted for by late afternoon.
Kiffin has sent out the preseason mission statement loud and clear:
Unless your name is Eric Berry, you’re in a fight for your job.
That might be a slight overstatement for the sake of motivation. Still, the point is that Kiffin and his staff — none of whom were here in 2008 — are open-minded about establishing a depth chart between now and the Sept. 5 opener.
“Every position is going to be competitive,’’ senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton said. “That’s what Coach Kiffin strives on.
“The competition only makes you better. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to get any better.’’
That being true, a bunch of guys have a chance to get better because a number of jobs are legitimately up in the air.
It’s always tough to predict how quickly freshmen can get up to speed, but Kiffin likely will be willing to fast-track several newcomers in order to upgrade UT’s talent level.
“We’ve got some young guys that are going to play,’’ Crompton said. “Where at, we don’t know yet but we’re going to get ‘em on the field some how some way.’’
Here’s a look at some intriguing position battles that shape up starting today:
- Quarterback: Crompton starts with at least a slight edge over Nick Stephens, if for no other reason than Stephens was limited by an injury in the spring.
Both posted similar numbers last year. Crompton completed 51.5 percent of his 167 attempts for 889 yards. He had 4 TD passes and five interceptions.
Stephens hit on 48.5 percent of 130 attempts for 840 yards. He had four TDs and three picks.
- Center: Josh McNeil has made 35 consecutive starts, yet walk-on (for now) Cody Sullins won’t go away.
Is this a legit fight or are the coaches just trying to keep McNeil hungry?
- Right tackle: Jarrod Shaw emerged from the spring at the tentative top of the depth chart. He and William Brimfield have identical resumes: Their only career experience was in the same two games last year, UAB and Mississippi State.
Redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas will weigh in at some point.
- Tight end: Jeff Cottam deserves a healthy senior season, but has caught only four passes in three years. Luke Stocker caught 13 balls last year as a sophomore.
Cottam is bigger by two inches and 20 or so pounds. That could matter if UT wants to pound the rock.
- Tailback: Senior Montario Hardesty averaged a modest 3.6 yards per rush in 2008 but was UT’s best back in the orange zone, scoring a team-high six touchdowns.
All eyes are on freshman Bryce Brown, UT’s headline recruit. Tauren Poole (22 carries for 86 yards in ’08) is the forgotten man and faces a challenge to change that status.
- Receiver: Gerald Jones and Quintin Hancock are locks to get on the field. Another safe bet is that at least one true freshman, likely Nu’Keese Richardson, will defy UT tradition at this position and contribute.
Brandon Warren’s conversion from tight end is a story line of interest. Opportunity knocks.
- Tackle: Wes Brown earned his stripes at end, but now moves his surgically repaired body inside to tackle.
What a help it would be if true freshman Montori Hughes proves his impressive spring wasn’t fool’s gold.
Freshman Marlon Walls will be watched with great anticipation.
- Middle linebacker: The options are undersized-but-tough Nick Reveiz or redshirt freshman Herman Lathers with zero game experience. Or some newcomer.
- Strong linebacker: LaMarcus Thompson has been a special-teams regular for two years but never an every-down linebacker.
He’ll face several challengers, including Savion Frazier and freshmen like Jerod Askew, as the staff tries to find the best starting combination.
- Cornerback: This appears to be a fluid situation with Brent Vinson and Dennis Rogan battling on one side and Art Evans and Marsalous Johnson on the other. At least one freshman should be in the mix.
- Free safety: The only certainty is there be a youngster here. Sophomore Stephaun Raines is the old man in a group that includes redshirt freshman Prentiss Waggner and newcomers Janzen Jackson and Darren Myles.