Can Slick Rick continue to click?

He opened the 2004 season No. 3 on the depth chart, but Rick Clausen now finds himself solidly entrenched as Tennessee's No. 1 quarterback.

With Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer injured, Clausen made his first Vol start a good one last Saturday, completing 19 of 30 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-33 defeat of Vanderbilt.

''I was pleased with how he managed the game,'' head coach Phillip Fulmer said. ''We had no false starts. There was only one real miscommunication. He threw the ball reasonably well. He only forced one ball, and it was intercepted, so I don't we'll see him forcing a whole lot of balls. He did a great job of running the offense and getting everybody on the same page.''

Best of all, Clausen's teammates rallied around him. The patchwork line blocked exceptionally well and the backs ran with good effort and good vision. This didn't surprise Fulmer.

''Rick takes all the blame and passes all the credit,'' the coach said. "He's one of those guys that's popular.''

Now that he has one start under his belt, he should perform even better in this weekend's home finale against Kentucky.

''I expect it (last week's start) to help him quite a bit,'' offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. ''I think he drew confidence from what he did the second half against Notre Dame. Having played a game from start to finish, I think he'll draw even more confidence from that.

''Practice reps are invaluable but game reps are even more valuable because there are no coaches standing behind you. You're out there doing it on your own and it's YOUR huddle. I expect him to continue making improvement. I expect him to be better this week than he was last week and then better the next week (vs. Auburn in the SEC Championship Game) if his number's called.''

The ''if his number's called'' reference suggests the coaches think Schaeffer might be available in time for the Dec. 4 league title game. Schaeffer has been sidelined since suffering a fractured shoulder blade Oct. 30 at South Carolina but is doing some throwing this week. The original diagnosis was that he'd be sidelined ''four to six weeks,'' and five weeks will have passed by the time the SEC Championship Game arrives.


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