In the first game, a 34-10 victory by Auburn in Knoxville, Clausen watched from the sideline as the Tigers intercepted five passes thrown by starting quarterback Erik Ainge and backup Brent Schaeffer, a pair of true freshmen who passed Clausen on the depth chart in preseason drills.
Ainge will miss the championship game and Schaeffer is likely to be available for backup duty, but Fulmer says that Clausen is now the main man at quarterback for the Vols.
"I am probably most elated about the job Rick Clausen is doing right now," Fulmer says. "He is just doing a heck of a job. We are just as fortunate as can be to have a third team quarterback that is handling the offense and showing the maturity he has had in moving this football team. Hopefully, we can continue to rally around him and expect him to do a good job in this football game coming up."
The Vols, winners of the SEC East, bring a 9-2 overall mark to Atlanta. Fulmer's team is 7-1 in the SEC play, but it hasn't been easy. Only one of those victories (43-29) vs. South Carolina has been by more than one touchdown. The last two outings, the two in which Clausen started, were surprisingly close calls as the Vols nipped Vandy 38-33 and Kentucky 37-31.
Clausen spent his first two college years at LSU where he saw brief duty during the 2002 season. He threw 12 passes and completed five for 35 yards with one interception. He started vs. Ole Miss and played briefly in two others.
After it became clear he was not going to be in LSU's future QB plans, he transferred to Tennessee, where his older brother Casey was the starting quarterback. He redshirted in 2003 and competed for the starting job in spring training with C.J. Leak. The Tennessee coaches weren't thrilled with the play by either signal caller and opened up the competition in preseason with 2004 signees Ainge and Schaeffer in the mix.
Ainge was injured in game nine at the end of the first half in a loss to Notre Dame. Schaeffer was injured two games before that so Clausen has been the QB since the second half of the Notre Dame game.
He has completed 55-89 passes for 658 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Ainge has completed 109-189 with 17 TDs and nine interceptions while Schaeffer has hit 17-33 for 291 yards with two TDs and one interception.
Clausen passed for 3,361 yards and 38 touchdowns as a high school senior in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "We did recruit him, but I just think he felt more comfortable perhaps not competing with Casey again." Fulmer says.
Clausen enrolled at LSU in 2001 and stayed there for two seasons before transferring to UT, where he was a walk-on who received a scholarship earlier this year.
"I have known Rick a long time being with him Casey's younger brother," Fulmer notes. "He really grew up around it. His dad was a coach--an outstanding coach in his own right. He just grew up around football and he understood.
"Rick is very bright," Fulmer adds. "Unfortunately, he played behind Casey in high school so he really didn't have a lot of experience until his senior year in high school. When he transferred here--of course I had watched him at LSU a little bit and talked to Nick (Saban) and some of the other folks about him at different times out of curiosity about how he was doing-- he had started a game, I think it was against Ole Miss at LSU, I think. You just don't do that. He obviously earned their respect to have a chance to do that.
"When he came here legitimately you could tell he was going to be in the mix to compete for the starting position when Casey left and he did. Back in spring practice he put himself in a position to be our starter. He went through spring practice, summer, two-a-days and everything and we made a call to go with those freshmen. To Rick's credit, and C.J. Leak's too, Rick and I sat and talked about it. He saw they were talented and had a chance to do some things. He probably didn't like it, but he continued to support us and help those guys in meetings and on the practice field, you would always see him talking to them and everything. I just think it is tremendously ironic and a special story that he is getting his chance now to have his team as a quarterback compete for the championship."