QB Derby Shaping Up this Fall

Spring quarterbacks are a little like spring flowers: they may flourish in the mild temperatures of April but how will they stand up in the brutal heat of August and September?

That's why no one should be surprised that Tennessee has yet to name a starter at that critical position. Even if one of the two leading candidates — C.J. Leak or Rick Clausen — distinguished himself over the other, the real test won't come until the bullets start flying in the fall, as coach Phillip Fulmer is apt to say.

The last time Tennessee was faced with such a QB crisis was 2000 when Joey Mathews and A.J. Suggs waged a spring battle for the starting job. Neither had any appreciable game experience and the start in the season opener predictably went to Mathews, who had seniority in UT's system. After an unimpressive outing in the season opener against Southern Mississippi, Mathews was replaced by Suggs who held the job the next four games in which Tennessee went 1-3 with losses to Florida, LSU and Georgia.

Casey Clausen took over by the third week in October and led the Vols to a vital victory over Alabama. He followed that performance with five straight solid starts and victories, as UT closed the regular season 8-3 before a loss in the Cotton Bowl to Kansas State.

Clausen, a true freshman, may have been awarded the starting role earlier if he hadn't arrived on campus with arm fatigue that took several weeks to recover from.

The parallels Tennessee faces to that 2000 campaign going into this fall are undeniable, as a pair of unseasoned veterans try to hold off the challenge from a couple of true freshman with sound credentials. In fact, it's probably advantageous to have a wide open competition at quarterback going into the fall because the combination of pressure to produce and opportunity to claim the golden prize could forge the type of hard-as-steel mindset necessary to handle the starting signal caller's job against SEC opponents. At the very least the cream should begin to rise to the top and a winner will surface.

Because Tennessee's schedule is front-loaded with crucial contests against SEC East opponents Florida and Georgia, the Vols don't have the luxury of bringing a quarterback along slowly and still expect to compete for the SEC title. True freshmen Eric Ainge and Brent Schaeffer will both be pushed into the fast lane in terms of development because neither Leak or Clausen has a proven track record to fall back on. And if you're going to pay a price for gaining game experience it should pay future dividends. That can't happen in the case of sixth-year senior Leak or fourth-year junior Clausen to the degree it can with Schaeffer and Ainge.

The most likely scenario for the freshmen is that one emerges as a contender for the starting job and the other is given a redshirt year. Both have attributes that should serve them well. Both are extremely accurate passers and Ainge has a big-league arm while Schaeffer has outstanding mobility. Ainge, a preseason Street & Smith high school All-American basketball player, is underrated as an athlete. He was throwing the baseball 90-plus mph as a 15 year-old sophomore and has the quick feet and vision of a point guard. At 6-foot-6 he is a classic pocket passer and he possesses the capability to absorb the mental demands of the position.

On the other hand, Schaeffer brings the best speed and running ability to the QB role the Vols have had since Tee Martin. That could prove invaluable especially if the Vols are unable to established a consistent running game, as it would lend an element of balance that would force defenses to play honest. Whether he is physically able to withstand the pounding of SEC defenses is a legitimate question, but the same could be said for the other three candidates.

Leak suffered a devastating knee injury as a sophomore at Wake Forest and its effects have manifested in mechanical flaws as well as his ability to run, stop and cut. Clausen has gained size and strength since arriving on campus last fall but he still trails Leak in both categories. Ainge is thin at 205 pounds but so was Peyton Manning when he arrived at UT in 1994. However Manning left Tennessee a solid 235 and never missed a start in four years of college play or six years in the NFL.

Obviously, you don't want to ever start a true freshman at quarterback especially against the level of competition Tennessee plays, but at the same time it can be done. That's why its comforting during this time of uncertainty to know that Casey Clausen and Manning went a combined 13-2 as rookie starters on the Hill. However, neither accomplished that feat without a strong running game which is probably the biggest question mark for the Vols offense going into fall.


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