Tennessee Football

FAYETTEVILLE -- Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer could have asked quarterback Erik Ainge to emulate any number of star athletes who have come through Knoxville over the years.

There is Peyton Manning, who's considered the gold standard of quarterbacks at Tennessee. His popularity in the state is so great that parents name their children after the former Heisman Trophy finalist and defending Super Bowl champion.

There is also Tee Martin, who was not the same caliber of quarterback as Manning but he nonetheless led the Volunteers to a 13-0 record and a national championship in 1998.

But Fulmer didn't ask Ainge to be either Manning or Martin. Instead, Fulmer wants his senior quarterback to be more like Candace Parker, the 6-foot-4 star of the Tennessee women's basketball team.

"You have to have a Candace Parker type player in your program to be able to (win a national championship)," Fulmer said at the Southeastern Conference football media days.

Comparing Ainge to Parker might sound far-fetched. After all, the quarterback joked that he hasn't attempted to dunk a basketball in two years. And even then, it was apparent which athlete had the better moves around the rim.

"She can dunk better than I can," Ainge joked.

But the senior, who's uncle is former Boston Celtics star Danny Ainge, understands what Fulmer was trying to get at with the Parker comparison.

"I know what he's saying," Ainge said. "You need your big-time players to step up and play a big-time role."

If the Volunteers have any hope this season of competing for an SEC championship and returning the football program to national prominence, it will depend largely on Ainge.

He's considered among the SEC's top quarterbacks, and he's perhaps the best passer to come through Tennessee since Manning was leading the school band in the playing of "Rocky Top."

Ainge set a school record last season by completing 67 percent of his passes, and his 2,989 yards passing and 19 touchdowns helped the Volunteers rebound from a disastrous 2005 season marred by multiple player arrests and a 5-6 record.

"I think Erik Ainge can be that kind of football player that our team rallies around, that takes the bull by the horns and makes the plays that help you win a championship," Fulmer said.

"Now, the other people around him also have to play good."

Tennessee intends to go with more of a no-huddle offense this season, but the question that remains unanswered is whether Ainge has the type of wide receivers who can make it work.

The Volunteers lost their three top wide receivers from last season, including big-time target Robert Meachem. He gained a school-record 1,298 yards in 2006 before deciding to forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.

That left Ainge scrambling to find another go-to receiver. So far in preseason practice, he's had mixed success.

Still, Ainge said he's ready to play like Candace Parker and win the big games.

"I've done just about everything except win a championship," Ainge said. "So obviously that's our goal."


* Head coach: Phillip Fulmer, 16th year

* Record last year: 9-4, 5-3 SEC

* Returning offensive starters: 7

* Returning defensive starters: 5

* Offensive formation: Multiple

* Defensive formation: 4-3.

* Impact players: Quarterback Erik Ainge; wide receiver Denarius Moore; linebacker Jerod Mayo; safety Jonathan Hefney

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