Vols Looking For Leader

HOOVER, Ala. -- Tennessee, like most Southeastern Conference teams, kicks off preseason practice with an undecided battle at quarterback this month.

Unlike the rest of the league, the person under center is the only real question that faces the Volunteers as they chase their third SEC crown under coach Phillip Fulmer.

The reigning SEC Eastern Division champions enter 2005 with national championship aspirations after demolishing Texas A&M 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl to finish 10-3 in 2004. The Vols return 1,000-yard rusher Gerald Riggs Jr., talented receivers, a beefy offensive line, preseason All-America cornerback Jason Allen and seven more starters from last season's young but stout defense.

Fulmer said they just need to choose a starting quarterback between 2004 SEC Freshman of the Year Erik Ainge and season-saving senior Rick Clausen.

"I don't know who our quarterback will be next year at this particular time," Fulmer said last week during SEC Media Days in the Wynfrey Hotel. "But it will be a good (battle) between Erik and Rick."

Ainge was one of two true freshmen -- joining recently departed Brent Schaeffer -- to earn early playing time after four-year starter Casey Clausen's departure.

Schaeffer started the first three games, but Ainge emerged as the steady leader of the offense.

He played in nine games, starting six, and completed 109 of 198 passes for 1,452 yards with 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He set a UT freshman record for touchdown passes and was second in passing yards. But Ainge's season ended when he separated his throwing shoulder in the first half of the 17-13 loss to Notre Dame.

"I think Erik has a lot of has a lot of the same qualities (former Vol and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback) Peyton Manning had when he came in as a freshman and sophomore," Fulmer said. "I am very encouraged about his future."

Clausen replaced Ainge in the second half against Notre Dame, but couldn't lead the Volunteers to a win. Clausen, who completed 10 of 18 passes for 120 yards but threw a costly interception in the fourth quarter.

Clausen, who transferred from LSU in 2003 and is the brother of former Vol Casey, bounced back to guide Tennessee to three wins in starts against Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Auburn and Texas A&M. He was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts at Kentucky (349 yards, 2 touchdowns), led Tennessee to the SEC Championship Game and capped the season as the Offensive Most Valuable Player of the Cotton Bowl (222 yards, 3 touchdowns).

Fulmer said Clausen rode in like a "white knight" to save the day and deserves a chance to compete for the starting job despite Ainge's physical advantages.

He called Clausen one of the "greatest stories in college football last season" and said the quarterback knows the in's and out's of the offense.

"All I am asking for is an opportunity," Clausen said during Media Days. "Erik deserves one, too. I know that. I had a really strong outing in the Cotton Bowl, but Erik led the team to big wins over teams during the season.

"All we are asking for is an opportunity."

Whoever emerges has the luxury of Riggs, a preseason, All-SEC selection, in the backfield and a group of receivers led by Jayson Swain, Robert Meachem and C.J. Fayton out wide. Add in a massive line led by left tackle Arron Sears, and there should be plenty of time to get the ball in the hands of Tennessee's playmakers.

Defensively, the Vols return three of four starters in the defensive front. They'll be anchored in the middle by linebacker Kevin Simon, who sat out last season with a knee injury, but led the team in tackles in 2003. There's plenty of talent like Allen, who moved from safety to cornerback, in the secondary.

Allen touted his defense as "one of the best in the country."

It's no surprise the media tabbed Tennessee as the favorite to win the SEC last week, edging division-rival Florida in a tight race. In fact, almost every preseason prognosticators pegged the Volunteers as the SEC's front-runner in 2005.

But they won't have an easy road, playing eight teams which qualified for bowl games in 2004. The rocky schedule includes trips to Florida (Sept. 17) and LSU (Sept. 24) on consecutive Saturdays, an Oct. 8 date against Georgia and two other road games at Alabama (Oct. 22) and Notre Dame (Nov. 5).

Fulmer said Tennessee, which had 16 players undergo surgery in the off-season and several more involved in off-the-field troubles, better find a quarterback and be prepared if it hopes to live up to lofty preseason expectations.

"We have to be ready early," Fulmer said. "We don't have time to wait on somebody to get in shape. We don't have time to experiment a whole bunch.

"We certainly don't have time to waste any days and two-a-days as we get ready for our season."

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