Recruiting Saga Comes Full Circle

With Tennessee in the hunt for another quality QB prospect after the recent commitment of Erik Ainge, there will, undoubtedly, be a lot of scrutiny on the matter of how high UT's future quarterbacks are rated against the nations best.

The reason for such intense examination is easy to understand, after all, Tennessee had the nation's No. 1 rated prospects in Heath Shuler (1992), Peyton Manning (1994), and Tee Martin (1996). They also got a commitment from Chris Simms, who was the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect in 1999, before he switched his allegiance to Texas.

In 2000, the Vols got a commitment from Casey Clausen who was rated No. 5 nationally, and last year they were in serious contention for No. 1 rated Chris Leak before the relationship was torn asunder over several issues, including his brother C.J.'s playing time and promises that were allegedly broken.

The Vols never quite recovered from the bad timing of last season's ugly breakup with Leak and settled for an in-state sleeper, Bo Hardegree, who was rated No. 99 nationally.

The case can be made that since Clausen came on board in 2000, the Vols have spun their wheels in the race for a high-profile field general. And three strikes in three seasons translates to being out of luck next fall — when Tennessee won't have any choice but to start an inexperienced quarterback — whether it's sixth-year senior C.J. Leak, or walk-on junior Rick Clausen, or walk-on sophomore Jim Bob Cooter, or one of two true freshmen the Vols hope to sign.

That three-year dry spell at signal caller partially explains why Vol fans are seemingly so excited about getting a commitment from the nation's No. 29 prospect (Ainge), or at the thought of possibly landing a fringe top 10 candidate in Brian Brohm, who probably ends up at Louisville, or the angst over losing another fringe top 10 prospect in Chase Patton who committed to Missouri this week.

(If readers will allow the insertion of an editorial sidebar: Patton's performance was appreciably below par at every passing camp he attended last summer. His father said he got nervous in such competitive situations. That alone would make one wonder how he would have handled 108,000 fans and SEC defenses, when he couldn't perform well before a few bystanders and against air.

One question about Brohm: If he really expected to attend Tennessee, which he knows may very well have to start a freshman QB next fall, why wouldn't he discourage the level of competition by committing early and becoming a part of UT's recruiting team?)

In way of clarification — Ainge is probably underrated as a prospect because he didn't have a lot of publicity before this season, and he played on teams that went 7-3 and 6-4 when he was a junior and senior. By all accounts, Ainge has the intelligence and arm strength to make an early impact at UT. However, the lack of an extensive playoff history — comprised of pressure games against the best competition — may hold him back next fall.

The point is, there are extenuating circumstances in the case of Ainge that underscore the difficulty in rating quarterbacks. It certainly can't be done on the basis of camps alone and a team's talent level will infringe or enhance a quarterback's numbers more than any other position. With a 13-7 mark in two years, it's clear Glencoe High School wasn't the most talented high school squad in Oregon. Still, Ainge put up impressive numbers. As a junior, he connected on 176-of-311 attempts for 2,547 yards and 15 touchdowns. This season he completed 209-of-344 passes for 2,914 yards and 24 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. He had a total of 39 TDs vs. 17 interceptions for a ratio of better than 2-to-1.

It's also true that taller quarterbacks often develop later, as it takes longer for coordination to catch up with their maturing bodies.

Finally, intangibles play such a vital role in a signal caller's success and that's something you can't measure at camps or find buried in statistics. That's why there are probably close to 50 percent of the nation's top quarterback talent that slips below the radar of premiere prospects and resurfaces at a major college program two and three years later.

There's no better example than the next quarterback Tennessee will face — Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst, who is son of former NFL QB David Whitehurst (Green Bay 1977-84).

Whitehurst didn't become a starter at Chattahoochee High School in Alpharetta, Ga., until the sixth game of his sophomore season and finished with nominal numbers. As a junior, he threw for 1708 yards and 13 TDs for the Cougars who were breaking in an entire offensive line of underclassmen. Their inexperience was registered in opponents' sack totals which exceeded 50 for the season.

Then as a senior, he separated his shoulder three games into the season and missed the next three contests. When he returned, he broke a thumb and was forced to play wide receiver, where at 6-4, 190, with 4.6 speed he was well qualified but very limited because of injuries.

"I missed three games," Whitehurst said in a Nov., 2000, interview with this writer. "I was ready to go last week because it healed a lot faster than they thought and Wednesday of last week I took a snap and I jammed my thumb, and I'm pretty sure it's broken as of right now. So I taped it up and they put me out at receiver. So my season hasn't been real good right now."

Despite the setbacks that limited his development and achievements, a number of schools recognized his potential and, no doubt, his lineage didn't hurt. Neither did his accomplishments in the classroom, where he posted a 3.5 GPA and scored a hefty 1170 on his SAT.

Whitehurst was rated No. 53 nationally that season by Rivals and early offers were limited to North Carolina and North Carolina State who were looking a project at quarterback. Wanting more options, Whitehurst sent a tape to Tennessee in hopes of sparking interest and the Vols soon responded.

"Tennessee just started calling me," he said. "I sent out a highlight tape just for the heck of it and they were interested. Being in the SEC is big and (Tennessee's) reputation is great. I really don't know a lot about the school, but I'm going up to watch the Alabama game this weekend."

Whitehurst came to Tennessee and was impressed by what he saw. The Vols were looking for a back-up to develop behind Clausen after losing Jon Rattay and A.J. Suggs who transferred from UT. The Vols also lost Joey Matthews who decided to give up football after his junior season. Tennessee eventually decided to go in a different direction, and Whitehurst ended up at Clemson where he played behind Heisman candidate Woody Danzler as a freshman, and replaced starter Willie Simmons in the eighth game of his sophomore season. In his first game as a starter, Whitehurst set school records for completions (34), passing yards (420) and tied a school record with four touchdown passes. By the way, Simmons, who was rated No. 14 nationally, transferred at the end of the season.

As a junior, Whitehurst, 6-4, 210, completed 266-of-425 passes (62 percent) for 3315 yards and 21 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Compare that to Tennessee senior Casey Clausen, who connected on 191-of-330 passes (56.6 percent) for 2474 yards and 24 touchdowns verses eight picks. Whitehurst also managed 54 yards rushing and four touchdowns with sacks factored in. Clausen had minus-47 yards and two touchdowns.

Consider, if Whitehurst had come to Tennessee and redshirted a season, he would be ready take over next fall as a seasoned junior with three years experience in UT's system, including filling in when Clausen was injured last year.

It's interesting to note — the direction Tennessee decided to go that year was with Wake Forest transfer C.J. Leak, who came to the Vols in 2001 and sat out a mandatory season. No doubt, that decision was made with one eye on the future and C.J.'s brother Chris, who was on the precipice of high school greatness at Independence High School in North Carolina.

As most now know, Chris Leak told everybody connected to Tennessee football that he planned to join his brother on The Hill. His father, Curtis, also made no secret of the plan for the brothers to play on the same team for two seasons. Other highly ranked QB prospects, such as Kyle Wright (Miami), were also informed of Leak's intention to go to Tennessee at the Elite 11 camp that summer.

Later that August, Leak made an impromptu pop-in at UT when Wright was taking his official visit. (However reports he raised his leg and peed the goal post were apparently exaggerated.) It is true, Leak continued to work against the Vols throughout the recruiting process and his highly publicized ESPN.com diary also cast a negative light on Tennessee's program.

Vol fans know about some of the other quarterbacks and prospects Chris Leak possibly cost UT in 2003. Now they know... the rest of the story.


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