No coach Fulmer is a battle-scared veteran in a profession that few survive. And he's facing one of the most difficult challenges of his coaching career this fall.
The Dilemma: How best to bring along an offense that appears incapable of carrying a quarterback along for the ride via a powerful running game and timely play-action passing. You have to meet this challenge against a schedule front loaded with your two most critical contests — Florida and Georgia. By the way, Tennessee hasn't defeated the Gators in Knoxville or Georgia in Athens since 1998.
Oh yeah, failure isn't an option.
If Tennessee was in a rebuilding mode things would be different and Fulmer's choice would be easy. He'd simply play the quarterback that has the best potential, knowing that fans would be forgiving as long as progress was forthcoming and the finished product was a significant upgrade from the team that started the season. In other words: pay your dues early, collect dividends late, excite the fan base about the future.
Instead, Fulmer has to play the quarterback that gives Tennessee the best chance to win each game which is different from playing the QB that gives you the best chance to win every game. It might be one of the veterans early and one of the rookies later. However to win games against Florida, Auburn and Georgia, which are three of UT's first five contests, Fulmer might have to choose the triggerman most capable of exploiting the Vols wealth of wide receivers. This will take some pressure off the running game by forcing defenses to use their safeties in coverage as opposed to cheating up in ground support.
The paradox: your best passer is not your best game manager. The player most capable of shredding the secondary is the not the player most capable of reading it. The man that best recognizes pressure is the not the man best able to escape it.
In truth, each one of Tennessee's five scholarship quarterbacks — C.J. Leak, Rick Clausen, Bo Hardegree, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer — might best fit one of the above descriptions. Or it might very well be that one of UT's signal callers best fits all the described roles without being tops in any of them.
In addition to the physical factors and experience quota, there are a lot of intangibles to weigh. For instance: which quarterback will inspire the most confidence in his teammates? Which will most benefit from early playing experience? Which will best respond to adversity?
History suggests Fulmer will fall on the side of caution and lean toward loyalty. That means C.J. Leak would be the most likely choice. The question is if Leak wasn't an adequate backup the last two years, why would he be a quality starter now? Furthermore, even if the sixth-year senior manages to play better than he has shown to this point, what are the long-term benefits to the Vols using him as the starter?
Undoubtedly, both Leak and Clausen know the offense better than Schaeffer and Ainge. However, the game experience they bring to the table is nominal and there are serious questions about their readiness against rugged SEC competition. Hardegree also has more experience in UT's system but no game experience to draw upon and fewer physical skills than the true freshmen.
Obviously, it's difficult to throw a freshman quarterback in shark-invested waters before he's ready. But is it anymore merciful to throw a veteran in the same waters when he may never be ready?
In 1994, fifth-year senior Jerry Colquitt came into the season as a proven QB who had the misfortune of being behind Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler for four seasons. An injury on the first series against UCLA forced Fulmer's hand and he responded by playing all of his cards, dividing snaps between redshirt sophomore Todd Helton and true freshmen Peyton Manning and Brandon Stewart. By the time Manning took over as the starter, UT's record stood at 1-3. The Vols finished the year 7-1 with Manning engineering the offense.
Six years later, Tennessee went with fourth-year junior Joey Mathews in game one and redshirt freshman A.J. Suggs as starter in the next four games. After those five contests UT's record was 2-3. Casey Clausen took over as the starter against Alabama (just as Manning did in 1994) and the Vols went 6-1 the rest of the way, losing only to Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. It should be pointed out that Clausen suffered from arm fatigue when he reported to preseason practice in 2000 or he may have started for Tennessee sooner. Or Fulmer may have stayed with the players he knew best and who knew the offense best.
Fulmer faces a similar situation this season. History says he'll go with a veteran until he believes a freshmen is ready. That's what he has done in the past and that's what Florida did last season with Chris Leak.
History also tells us that the biggest mistake made with truly talented rookie quarterbacks isn't playing them too soon — it's not playing them soon enough.