August 27, 2008

Secondary hopes to scramble Bruins

Separated by a little more than 2,000 miles, Tennessee's and UCLA's coaching staffs weeks ago began preparing their starting quarterbacks, Jonathan Crompton and Kevin Craft, for Monday night's season opener in much the same manner.

The Vols' Crompton and Bruins' Craft, each a junior, enters the primetime affair inside the Rose Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ABC) as first-year directors of the offense.

"You try to make the scrimmages and the practices as real as you can," first-year UT offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said of the key to preparing a first-time signal-caller in fall camp. "I think whenever you break in a new quarterback, you worry about your guys. And whenever you break in a new quarterback, I mean, you don't, I'm more worried about Jonathan and our offense and getting them ready, regardless of who we're playing against. If we had been facing an experienced secondary, I want to make sure that we're doing things that he's comfortable with."

While Crompton will face a relatively inexperienced secondary, Craft must make his UCLA debut against a Vols defensive backfield expected to be among the best in the nation. Like Crompton, Craft hasn't started a game on the Football Bowls Subdivision level since 2006. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Craft started five games in 2006 for San Diego State and threw six interceptions in 121 pass attempts. Craft spent last year at Mt. San Antonio College.

And like Crompton, Craft is working under a first-year offensive coordinator in Norm Chow. The UCLA signal-caller likewise is training under a new head coach, former Bruins quarterback Rick Neuheisel.

"I think you just do the best you can," Neuheisel said of preparing a quarterback to face an experienced secondary. "You try to create as much game speed as you can. I don't know that we can get that done here on our practice field like they do there in Knoxville. You try to put him through all the different situations that do arise during a football game. We don't need Kevin to go and try to win the game. We just need him to go and try to manage the game. If he can do that, hopefully we can stay in the game and have a chance to win late."

What specifically have the Bruins done in practice to get Craft ready?

"You try to get crowd noise, band music, get people yelling and screaming," Neuheisel continued. "Create all the bedlam that normally occurs on Saturdays, and in this case Monday night. Try to get him as much against our first-team defense as he can get so that he gets a feel for the pressure of the normal game situations."

Blessed with the perspective of having been both quarterback and defensive back in high school, Eric Berry remembers the feeling a year ago when his eyes were the size of a turkey platter as he prepared for his first game at California. All those practice repetitions didn't translate once the Vols kicked off against the Golden Bears.

"Last year, we were pretty much wide-eyed, didn't know what to expect," said Berry, who nonetheless transitioned to college with a Freshman All-America campaign. "But this year, you know, we know what to expect. We've been through a season of SEC football. I mean, we're ready for it all."

Indeed, Phillip Fulmer agrees his Tennessee secondary is exponentially ahead of it where it was a year ago. The group's collective experience -- Berry's 14 starts in one season are more than the combined total of the Bruins' starting secondary on Monday -- allows more creative freedom in how the Vols deploy their defense against the Craft-led UCLA offense. In a game of unknowns for both teams, it might become the most critical matchup.

"We can do a lot more," said Fulmer, who's 14-2 in 16 previous openers, of his team's secondary now versus a year ago at this time. "They're experienced. Again, the more you commit one of those guys to something besides pass defense, the more vulnerable you are. But I'm pretty confident with where those guys are.

"I'd like to see us really solidify our backup safeties rather than having to take a corner or maybe two corners and move those guys inside. We're not quite there yet. This time last year, we were in scramble mode, particularly after we had injuries to Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson."

Now, the Vols are hoping to put UCLA's Craft in a similar situation.

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