Fulmer makes right call

He's being second-guessed in some quarters, but Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer's decision to start Erik Ainge at quarterback in Saturday night's game with Auburn is a sound one.

Some fans believe Brent Schaeffer should continue to take the first snaps at quarterback, since the Vols are 3-0 when he does so. These fans cite the old ''If it ain't broke, don't fix it'' line of reasoning.

My response: If you wait till it's broke, it's TOO LATE to fix it. Must Tennessee lose a game before Schaeffer loses the lead role in the pecking order?

Many observers don't want Fulmer messing with a Schaeffer/Ainge platoon system that has the Vol offense clicking on all cylinders ... and rightfully so. You don't make wholesale changes when you're averaging 503 yards and 38 points per game. But giving Ainge the first two series, then giving Schaeffer the next two -- rather than vise-versa -- is not a wholesale change. It's merely an experimental tweaking that may produce even better results than the original plan.

Some fans note that opposing defenses have trouble adjusting to Ainge's pinpoint passing after spending two series defending Schaeffer's mobility. This is absolutely true. But defenses may have EVEN MORE trouble adjusting to Schaeffer's remarkable mobility after dealing with a guy like Ainge, who tends to stay in the pocket.

There are several more reasons to give Ainge the first crack at Auburn's defense:

1. Tennessee gained 355 of its 359 total yards in last year's game through the air. If the Tigers are still vulnerable to the pass, why not put your best passer on the field first and go for the jugular from the start?

2. Tennessee fell behind 21-0 in the last Auburn meeting and never recovered. Ainge has guided touchdown drives on his first possession three weeks in a row. If he can do so again, this will avert another devastatingly slow start.

3. Tennessee's offense operates more smoothly with Ainge in the lineup. He gets the team out of the huddle and up to the line of scrimmage quicker and with fewer mishaps. The Vols seem rushed with Schaeffer at the helm; many of his plays get underway with only a second or two left on the play clock. Moreover, he has had to call a few timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties. Ainge generally gets the ball snapped with five or six seconds left on the play-clock, and I don't recall him taking any timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties. This is not an indictment of Schaeffer but a tribute to Ainge, who seems to process information much quicker than the usual freshman.

4. Ainge has earned the right to take the first snap. Heck, the guy ranks fourth nationally in passer-efficiency rating. He's produced 10 touchdowns and a field goal in 20 possessions to date, while committing just one turnover (an interception). He came through in the clutch against Florida, leading three fourth-quarter scoring drives to win the game. If all of that doesn't rate a start, what does a guy have to do?

While I applaud Fulmer's decision to give Ainge the first snaps vs. Auburn, I'm not suggesting a reduced role for Schaeffer. He's still an outstanding quarterback who is a key part of the Vol attack. His brilliance on the rollout, the quarterback draw and the scramble -- combined with Ainge's skills as a pocket passer -- force opposing defenses to prepare for EVERY conceivable scenario. I think Fulmer should continue to play both QBs. I just think Ainge should get the first snap ... THIS WEEK.

If things don't work out, Fulmer can always revert to the original order next weekend against Georgia.


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