Don't bruise the ego

Even the toughest football players tend to have fragile psyches. As a result, a bruised ego can be a bigger problem than a bruised shoulder.

That's why Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders are being so careful in their handling of the Vol quarterback situation this fall.

Consider:

* The two coaches began by making freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer off limits to the media, so they wouldn't be bombarded with daily questions about the quarterback competition.

The coaches waited two weeks into preseason drills to announce that Schaeffer and Ainge had moved ahead of senior C.J. Leak and junior Rick Clausen. Then they annointed Schaeffer and Ainge ''co-number ones.'' This divided the pressure equally between the two freshmen and gave neither a reason to feel envious of the other one.

As the opener approached, Fulmer and Sanders emphasized that Ainge and Schaeffer were considered ''co-starters'' no matter which one took the first snap in Game 1.

Although Schaeffer got the distinction of being the first freshman ever t o start a Vol opener, Fulmer and Sanders inserted Ainge into the lineup after just two series. They continued to alternate the freshmen every third serie s for the remainder of the game, splitting the playing time about as equally as was humanly possible.

Fulmer and Sanders also gave the freshmen equal opportunities in Game 2. As a result, Ainge guided 11 possessions in Games 1 and 2, while Schaeffer directed 10.

To this day, Fulmer never praises one frosh QB without also praising the other. He is making every attempt to appear neutral in the ongoing quarterback competition.

Although Ainge enjoyed more playing time and more success than his fellow rookie in Games 2 and 3, Fulmer and Sanders continue to applaud Schaeffer's abilities and continue to emphasize that he and Ainge remain ''co-starters.''

Now, however, the Vol coaches face their biggest challenge to date. Do they risk injuring Schaeffer's ego by allowing Ainge to take the first snap in Game 4? Or do they risk insulting Ainge by continuing to bring him off the bench, even though he has been more productive the past two games?

The decision would be a lot simpler if it were based exclusively on performance. But coaching decisions sometimes are based as much on psychology as on performance.

Coach is as much a psychologist as anything else,'' Sanders said. ''One year when I was running backs coach, I had Charlie Garner, Little Man Stewart and Aaron Hayden. I was a psychologist; I made sure they knew what time the game was, then tried to keep 'em happy the rest of the time.''

Sanders warned both frosh QBs in preseason that they would hear some comments -- from media and fans alike -- that could be unflattering and distracting. Their ability to handle these comments would be crucial to their development as college players.

''I told both of 'em early that you've got to have thick skin if you're going to be the quarterback or be the head coach or call plays at Tennessee,'' Sanders said.

Now that Schaeffer has slipped from 1A to 1B in the minds of many observers , Sanders is working hard to keep the talented Floridian from feeling discouraged.

''It's still a learning process,'' the coordinator said. ''He's gone from being the one everybody loved to that suddenly not necessarily being the case. But I think Brent is mature enough that he's listening to me, to Coac h Fulmer and to the coaches. He understands that he's still doing well.''

That's a fact. Although Ainge has a mind-boggling 184.06 passer efficiency rating, Schaeffer is only a half-step behind at 178.53. And, whereas Ainge has a sizzling 64.3 completion percentage, Schaeffer is almost as effecient at 61.9 percent. The only areas where Ainge has a clearcut lead are touchdown passes (8 to 2) and points per possession (10 TDs and a field goa l in 20 drives, compared to Schaeffer's six TDs in 14 possessions).

Now that Ainge appears to have taken a slight lead in the quarterback competition, Sanders hopes Schaeffer can avoid outside influences that coul d disrupt his concentration.

''He doesn't need to read the paper, doesn't need to watch TV, doesn't need to listen to the radio or read the Internet,'' the coordinator said. ''He doesn't need to listen to what classmates are saying in class. He needs to listen to the people on the team who are making the decision. It's like family. When you're in a family, you have to listen to your mom and dad, then disregard what your friends are telling you.''

That's easier said than done, of course.

''Is it easy? No, it's real hard,'' Sanders said. ''But it's what you have to to. It's the nature of the position.''


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