Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton dropped back to pass Thursday afternoon during an 11-on-11 drill and threw a long touchdown pass to sophomore Austin Johnson, who beat man-to-man coverage and made a great catch.
So what's the big deal? It's only a practice, right?
Well, Johnson is a fullback, and fullbacks haven't been a big part of the Vols' offense the past couple of years. That could change this season under first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin, who says the 2009 playbook might have more in it for the fullbacks.
"Yeah, if they continue to make plays like today," Kiffin said after practice at Haslam Field. "I thought Austin had a really big day, played extremely well. There's a very good competition going on there."
That competition involves Johnson, a sophomore, and junior Kevin Cooper, who is slotted as the starter on the current depth chart.
Cooper, at 6-foot and 245 pounds, has the experience edge. He started 10 games last season, played in all 12 games, and had seven catches for 42 yards. He had five carries for 10 yards.
As a freshman, Cooper was used primarily as a goal-line blocker, played in seven games, and didn't have a carry or catch. He caught a short touchdown pass from Crompton during a seven-on-seven drill Thursday.
Johnson, 6-2 and 234 pounds, played in six games last season on special teams and as a fullback. Cooper knows he doesn't have a lock on the starting job.
"I feel good about it. I like the way (Johnson's) working," Cooper said. "We're just pushing each other. It's all about competition right now on this program. That's what it's all about."
And it might mean more touches for the fullbacks.
"I do anticipate getting more balls," Cooper said. "I don't know about carries yet, but the offense is so versatile that anybody can get the ball at any time, so I believe there will be a lot of catches for a lot of people."
Let's Get Physical: The Vols practiced for the first time in shoulder pads, and as expected, there was some heavy hitting.
"(A) very physical practice today," Kiffin said. "They came out Day Three, the first time with shoulder pads on, an extremely long practice, extremely physical practice. It's a great thing about fall, having all these freshmen to add to the group.
"It gives us a bunch of numbers and we can really get after 'em. I'm very pleased by their effort. Again, they just continue to come out and work, and we're going to try to bury 'em and see if we can, but they're not letting us, so it's good to see."
The Vols have made it through the first three days without any significant injuries, and Kiffin doesn't plan to back off yet.
"We try to make (practices) as physical as we can even without the pads, but to have the shoulder pads on really picks up the tempo and intensity," Kiffin said. "Sometimes you almost get a little worried and need to slow 'em down, but we need to learn how to hit so we're not going to slow them down yet."
Scary Moment: Junior Gerald Jones made a diving catch for a touchdown off a pass from Crompton and was slow to get up, apparently after landing hard on his shoulder. Jones, however, returned and later caught two more touchdown passes: a long pass from Nick Stephens on a fly route and a short pass from Crompton on a fade route.
Kiffin was asked his thoughts when he saw Jones struggling to get up after the first touchdown catch.
"They need it (the physical practice)," Kiffin said. "There's no other way to simulate it. We'd rather have it happen now. Sometimes when you go 80 percent or whatever, some people get injured too. I think when you play 100 percent you actually get injured less."
QB Update: Crompton and Stephens continue to battle for the starting quarterback job. Crompton, the starter in six of the eight games he played in 2008, is listed as the starter on the current depth chart. Stephens played in seven games with six starts during midseason.
"I thought the quarterbacks were better (Thursday)," Kiffin said. "After the film (Wednesday), it was not a very good day, but I thought (Thursday) they came back and played better and took care of the ball better. They threw a number of picks (Wednesday), so it was good to see them bounce back (Thursday)."
During the seven-on-seven drill, freshman Eric Gordan intercepted a pass by Stephens in the end zone, while redshirt freshman Prentiss Waggner intercepted a pass by Crompton in the end zone.
"Seven-on-seven at the beginning it was really good, not as good late, but the rest of the practice they were pretty decent," Kiffin said of the quarterbacks.
Welcome Back: Kiffin and selected coaches and players are helping host the 2009 Welcome Back Barbecue, set for today at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Knox County Chapter of the UT Alumni Association invites fans to enjoy a barbecue dinner while hearing an early take on the 2009 Tennessee football season.
Cost is $15 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the program begins at 7. Parking is available in the G-10 garage between the arena and Neyland Stadium.
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.