Frosh QBs shine in opener

The performance of freshman quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer in Sunday night's season opener won't make Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer's decision any easier but it sure will make him rest easier in the days to come.

Each rookie made his case for the first-team job by producing two touchdowns as the Vols hammered Nevada-Las Vegas 42-17 Sunday night at Neyland Stadium. Ainge completed 10 of 17 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns; Schaeffer completed 7 of 10 for 123 yards and one TD. He also rushed seven times for 29 yards and another score.

Schaeffer fumbled after being blindsided on Tennessee's first series of the game, setting up a UNLV field goal. Otherwise, the freshmen made no major miscues.

Noting that he was ''even prouder of the mistakes they DIDN'T make than the big plays they DID make,'' Fulmer conceded that the play of the two rookies was ''about as good as you could hope for. I thought they handled themselves extremely well.''

Schaeffer, who directed the Vols' first two series, producing a touchdown on the second, admitted after the game he was ''real pumped'' during pregame festivities. But he also admitted he was more nervous about facing the press AFTER the game than he was about facing UNLV's defense DURING the game.

Tennessee's ground attack -- missing in action for most of 2002 and 2003 -- roared to life in support of the freshman QBs. Cedric Houston rushed 12 times for 97 yards before suffering an ankle injury that could knock him out of Game 2 vs. Florida on Sept. 18. Gerald Riggs added 13 carries for 79 yards and Corey Larkins chipped in nine carries for 49 yards. All told, Tennessee's rushing game produced 272 yards on 45 carries, a solid average of 6 yards per carry.

Vol receivers took some pressure off the freshman QBs, as well, snaring everything within reach and making some nice runs after the catch. Tony Brown led with three grabs for 35 yards. Chris Hannon added three for 33. C.J. Fayton caught two balls for 51 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown bomb from Ainge. Jayson Swain added two catches for 25 yards. Robert Meachem made just one catch but it was a 35-yard touchdown aerial from Schaeffer.

The offensive line and fullback Cory Anderson did a nice job protecting the quarterbacks, as well.

''I think the team around them lifted them up and made it pretty easy for them,'' Fulmer said. ''The receivers were where they were supposed to be and made good runs after the catch. The linemen allowed us to run the football and the running backs did really well.

''I don't think there was a whole lot of pressure for them (Ainge and Schaeffer) to win the game. They made the plays the system allowed them to make.''

Schaeffer's most impressive gain of the game may have been his shortest one. Hemmed in on a bootleg, he made two nifty cuts and broke three tackles on a one-yard scramble for the game's first touchdown. It ranks with the most electrifying one-yard runs in Vol history.

''That's the kind of thing he's been doing all fall,'' offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. ''That's what we expect out of him.''

Fulmer recalled a recent comment from Vol defensive line coach Dan Brooks to the effect that it's better to let Schaeffer throw the ball ''because ain't nobody tackled him in the scrimmages yet anyway.''

Sanders protected his young QBs with some asute play-calling. He relied heavily on quick hitches, screens and fade routes that are relatively easy to throw and relatively difficult to intercept. The coordinator may have to call a few more challenging throws in Game 2 vs. Florida.

''We obviously can put together a plan that's a little harder, maybe more effective,'' he said, ''but it's hard to be much more effective than our offense played tonight.''

That's a fact. Tennessee piled up 513 yards of total offense. To put that in perspective, consider that the Vols crossed the 500-yard level just once in 13 games last fall (535 vs. hapless Mississippi State).

''I thought those guys did a great job,'' Sanders said, referring to Schaeffer and Ainge. ''But what the offensive line did, what the running backs did and the plays the receivers made ... that made their jobs a whole lot easier.''

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