Bound for Birmingham

First, Rick Clausen was elected a team captain. Now he has been appointed to represent Tennessee at the upcoming SEC Media Days in Birmingham. Some people are asking: Aren't those unusual honors for a backup quarterback? Perhaps a better question is: Who says he's a BACKUP quarterback?

Certainly, Clausen was a backup for most of 2004. Outplayed by freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge in preseason drills, he opened last fall as the No. 3 QB behind his rookie counterparts. But when Schaeffer and Ainge suffered season-ending injuries on back-to-back weekends, Clausen played like anything but a backup in Games 10, 11, 12 and 13. He performed brilliantly as the Vols beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Although his stats were mediocre, he directed the offense flawlessly as UT put a scare into unbeaten Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. Then he closed with a flourish, giving an MVP-winning effort as the Vols hammered Texas A&M 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl.

These performances obviously earned the respect of his teammates, who voted Clausen a captain for 2005. But the respect of many fans continues to elude him, even though Clausen put up better numbers than Ainge in spring scrimmages and is bracketed No. 1 with him this summer.

Even Phil Fulmer carefully avoids calling Clausen a backup.

''Whether he's the starter or not,'' the Vols' head man recently told The Knoxville News-Sentinel, ''he's a very important part of this football team."

Of course, so is Ainge. The towering sophomore has as much raw ability as any quarterback in college football. He has a 6-6 frame, a rocket arm, terrific accuracy and touch, decent feet and a quick mind. In short, his potential is mind-boggling.

But potential doesn't win football games. Points do, and Tennessee averaged 38 points per game with Rick Clausen at quarterback last fall. Though lacking Ainge's physical gifts, Clausen's savvy and leadership helped the Vol offense play its best football of the season the last four games of 2004-05.

That isn't the only reason Clausen is going to SEC Media Days, however. He's going because he adheres strictly to team rules (which probably cost star tailback Gerald Riggs, Jr., a trip to Birmingham). And he's going because, unlike his brother Casey, Rick never says anything rash that might come back to bite him (or Fulmer) in the butt.

Bottom line: Rick Clausen is a surprising, but deserving choice as UT's offensive representative to Media Days.

P.S. -- Selecting the Vols' defensive representative to Media Days, cornerback Jason Allen, was a no-brainer. The 6-2, 202-pound cornerback is an Alabama native (Muscle Shoals) who led the league in tackles last fall and ranks among the NCAA's premier defenders heading into his senior year.

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