And A Child Shall Lead Them

To succinctly sum up Tennessee's signal caller situation: the Vols most experienced quarterbacks suffer from a talent gap while their most talented quarterbacks suffer from an experienced gap.

You can close the experience gap at the speed of Vick, whereas, you may never close the talent gap. Sure you can tweak technique, add strength and plumb the depths of an individual's potential, but when it comes to talent you have to play the cards you're dealt by the omnipotent one that Grantland Rice referred to as the "Great Scorekeeper."

In the cases of true freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge the Great Scorekeeper was exceedingly generous. He bestowed the properties of Mercury upon Schaeffer and he gave Ainge a golden arm and lightning release. He also endowed each with a beautiful mind that allows them to slow down the game and take it apart.

Those cranial computers made it possible for Schaeffer to go from a nonstarter to an all-state quarterback in the span of a single season. Ainge didn't play football before the sixth grade when a brain-typing test arranged by his uncle, Danny Ainge, showed he had the mind of a Manning, Marino and Montana.

Of course, all the talent in the world won't make you a winner without the proper application, attitude and work ethic. In that regard, their high school head coaches couldn't be more effusive praising their prize players. We're talking about a couple of highly respected veterans with very impressive resumes who aren't given to hyperbole. And yet neither hesitated dubbing Schaeffer and Ainge as the best players they ever coached and the best high school quarterbacks they had ever seen.

In countless interviews neither player ever fails to impress. They are the genuine article with priorities in order and eyes on the horizon. They share a quiet confidence, a love of competition and insatiable desire to succeed.

It's probably no coincidence they have so much in common in terms of character, but it is ironic, considering their distinct differences in stature, strengths and style. Ainge is from the great northwest. Schaeffer is from the deepest southeast. Ainge is 6-foot-6. Schaeffer is 6-foot-2. Ainge is white. Schaeffer is black. Ainge is right handed. Schaeffer is left handed. Ainge has the quick release. Schaeffer has the quick silver feet. Ainge throws frozen ropes. Schaeffer has a feather touch.

Yet, despite these differences they play a similar game and they both fit Tennessee's system. They both boast career passing percentages of over 60 percent. They both have sport stars for relatives (Danny Ainge played both Major League Baseball and NBA basketball, while Schaeffer's cousin, Brad Banks, was Heisman Trophy runner up at Iowa). Both are basically pocket passers although Ainge's height helps him see over over the line while Schaeffer's quickness buys him time.

When pressed for descriptions of Schaeffer and Ainge last recruiting season I tried to put it in terms that people could easily understand albeit hardly believe. If you think in terms of kind instead of degree, Schaeffer is a Michael Vick and Ainge is a Peyton Manning.

Understand there is but one Vick and one Peyton, but in terms of size, speed, styles and strengths the similarities are undeniable. Neither may ever approach the achievements of such QB stars or ever challenge their lofty status. Yet, when you watch film or see them play in person you can't help but to think of Vick and Manning. So it's no surprise those are the players Schaeffer and Ainge are most often compared to.

Granted, no one should expect UT's freshmen to perform like pros or even like seasoned college quarterbacks. They'll make rookie mistakes, but they'll quickly learn and grow. It's fair to say their own expectations exceed the expectations most UT fans have of them. And there's no outside pressure that could be placed upon them that is greater than the pressure they'll place upon themselves.

Each player came to Tennessee for the opportunity to compete for the starting job and neither was thinking about next year. In fact, they had each fully adopted that starter's mindset before the ink dried on their scholarship papers. Consequently, they're probably the least surprised people in Big Orange Country by their early showing.

None of this is intended to dismiss the chances C.J. Leak and Rick Clausen have to win Tennessee's starting job. However keeping will be another matter. After all, the experience gap is easier to close than the talent gap.


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