Fulmer discusses QB derby

With four-year starter Casey Clausen out of eligibility, Vol head football coach Phillip Fulmer's top priority this spring is finding a replacement. So, what is he looking for in a quarterback?

''We expect our quarterback, whoever it turns out to be, to be able to manage the offense and understand the system, use the system to help his team win,'' Fulmer said. ''Fundamentally, he needs to be an outstanding player -- not a good player but an outstanding player from the fundamental standpoint.

''He needs great timing in the passing game. Ball security is an absolute must, and avoiding any negative plays -- as far as missed assignments and whatever -- is going to be crucial. Whether he's doing it with his mind, his arm or his legs, we need a guy that's going to have the poise to help our team win.''

Senior C.J. Leak has a slight edge over the competition as spring workouts begin today.

''C.J. will start off as the quarterback to beat out,'' Fulmer said, adding: ''Certainly, James Banks and Rick Clausen and Bo Hardegree will get every opportunity during the spring to get their looks as we go along.''

Fifteen spring practices isn't much time to settle on a first-team QB but that's Fulmer's goal.

''I hope by the end of spring practice to find a starter that we can go into fall with, that will compete with the two incoming freshmen,'' he said, referring to Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge. ''We're going to find that first guy by the end of spring practice.''

Another position that's wide open is safety, where the Vols must replace 2003 starters Gibril Wilson and Rashad Baker.

''I'm anxious to see how all of that evolves,'' Fulmer said. ''Cory Campbell played some for us last year as a true freshman and did a reasonably good job. Brandon Johnson (a converted cornerback) has some experience and good ability but his consistency is going to be tested. Jarod Parrish is a youngster who has a lot of work to do. Those will be the key guys in that rotation.''

At 6-2 and 200 pounds, cornerback Jason Allen has the kind of size that could enable UT to use him at safety in a pinch.

''Jason's our ace in the hole,'' Fulmer said. ''He's obviously a great football player. I think an all-conference type of football player. I really would rather play him at corner but, if need be, we could move him to safety and he'd be very efficient there.''

The Vols might utilize speedy linebacker Omar Gaither at safety, as well.

''I'm also going to take a look at some point this spring at Omar Gaither at safety,'' Fulmer said. ''He's a very athletic, intelligent young man that I'd like to get on the field as a starter somewhere.''

Third on Fulmer's pecking order of problem areas is running back. The Vols used a four-man rotation of Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis, Gerald Riggs and Corey Larkins last fall but got very little production from any of them.

''We need to find that capable, durable, tough playmaker,'' he said. ''We need that playmaker who can make the quarterback's job easier. I've seen flashes but not nearly enough consistency from that group that returns.''

Fulmer said the receiving corps ''has a chance to be special,'' adding that he is really impressed with the offseason work of Chris Hannon and Jayson Swain in particular.

The offensive line, criticized heavily in 2003, could be better in 2004, as well.

''I think we have the makings of one of the better groups we've had here,'' Fulmer said, adding that juco transfer Albert Toeina has been very impressive in the winter workouts and that rising sophomore Arron Sears ''is one of the most physical offensive linemen we've had here for a young guy. He has a chance to an all-conference type of player.''

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