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August 17, 2009Call it showdown Saturday or whatever you want, but to say Saturday is an important day for the Tennessee football team is an understatement if you listened to head coach Lane Kiffin talk Monday evening.
It's important because it's the last time that players in his system will have a chance to really show themselves in a game-like setting to try and win a job. That doesn't mean that after Saturday the competition in practice will stop, but the team won't get a bigger or better opportunity then what players will get on Saturday.
Following the NFL script, Kiffin's third pre-season game will be like his third pre-season game with the Raiders and like most teams' third pre-season game. In the NFL, the third exhibition game for many teams is where the starters get the most snaps and those who are going to play during the season get the most work.
That will be the case for Kiffin's Vols, and offensively there are several key position battles that are at their highest intensity to date making for a very important week
Quarterback - Kiffin surprised some of us on Monday when he spoke about how close the competition actually is at that spot. For the last 7-10 days, Jonathan Crompton has seemed to be the more consistent player. He has put up better numbers in both scrimmages, but his second scrimmage was not as effective as the first one. And on Monday, Crompton made a few poor throws and as Kiffin said made a bad play worse. Meanwhile, Nick Stephens has probably been better in scrimmages than he has been on the practice field. It's not a complete day of reckoning at the quarterback position, but the guy who leads his team the best on Saturday, plays with the most poise and gets the most done will definitely take a big step in becoming Kiffin's first quarterback at Tennessee.
Offensive center - Josh McNeil has 35 consecutive starts and that streak is in real jeopardy. In last Saturday's scrimmage, Cody Sullins got more first-team reps than McNeil and Sullins opened Monday's work getting a lot of work with the first unit. This Saturday's scrimmage will be very important in determining the winner of that battle. Sullins' biggest attribute is his physical play. McNeil's biggest strength is his experience. Kiffin has made it clear that he isn't concerned about seniority. Can McNeil match Sullins' physical play? Can Sullins be better mentally than he was last Saturday? It's a battle few thought would rage this long into the pre-season, but it's a spot very much up in air.
Right tackle - Junior Jarrod Shaw has been the first team right tackle since essentially the start of fall camp. Last Saturday and really all last week, Shaw struggled to adjust to Gerald Williams and his speed. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas has seen his reps increase and his confidence start to soar making the right tackle position one of the newer battles in fall camp. The winner here is who can be the most physical player. Something both need to improve on coming out of last week's workout inside Neyland Stadium.
Running back - This might be the biggest and most difficult battle of them all on offense and it has nothing to do with who is going to start. Kiffin finally said on Monday what most of us have thought for a while, everyone has seen enough of Montario Hardesty. The senior is ready. He has shown it from the start of fall camp. So don't look for much if any work out of him this coming Saturday. The battle at running back is the three behind Hardesty. Kiffin has said that he doesn't see managing 4 guys as very realistic. Which means Saturday is huge for lasting impressions in a game like setting. Every time they have been in the stadium Tauren Poole has showed well with a huge day in the first scrimmage and a productive second scrimmage. The problem for Poole is that coming off the big first scrimmage, he was not rewarded with a lot more work with the first team. Bryce Brown, who has a hip injury, and David Oku, who laid the ball on the ground a couple of times in the second scrimmage, got more first team work in practice and in the second scrimmage. There is not a more competitive situation on the team then there is at running back which means Saturday is huge for that group.