Ainge, a strong-armed 6-foot-6 pocket passer, directed a come-from-behind defeat of Florida in Game 2 last fall, then started Games 4-9. He won four of his six starts -- with one of the losses coming against unbeaten Auburn and the other coming against Notre Dame, when Ainge missed the entire second half with a shoulder injury.
"I think Erik has a lot of the same qualities that Peyton Manning had when he came in as a freshman and sophomore," Fulmer said. "I am very encouraged about his future."
Once Ainge went down in the Notre Dame game, Clausen came to the rescue and guided the Vols to three wins in his four starts, including an MVP performance in UT's 38-7 pasting of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
"When we had the injury, Rick Clausen comes in like the White Knight and saves the day," Fulmer noted. "He led us to the SEC Championship game and also did very well in the bowl game."
Both quarterbacks are smarter than average. Ainge has picked up Tennessee's offense faster than any quarterback except Manning. Meanwhile, Clausen's savvy and poise impressed his teammates so much they voted him a captain last spring.
"I think Rick Clausen is absolutely one of the greatest stories in college football," Fulmer said. "He brings leadership, a calm demeanor and intellect. He knows our offense and manages to use the personnel around him very effectively. He's not going to be fooled too many times by disguises and those kinds of things because he's been in two outstanding programs --at LSU at and our place -- and had a lot of practice reps."
Although Clausen's arm isn't nearly as strong as Ainge's, Fulmer noted that "he has enough ability to get the ball out to where he wants to get it out to."
Just as Fulmer seemed to be getting carried away with Clausen, the coach shifted gears and decided to give Ainge equal time.
"Erik has the ability to be, I think, one of the finest quarterbacks in the country as he matures," Fulmer said. "How fast he matures depends on how much leeway that we will continue to give him."
Fulmer went on to characterize Ainge as being "just as intellectual as Rick," adding that he has "worked diligently at the game. I expect great things from him."
So, who's going to be under center Sept. 3 against Alabama-Birmingham? Heck, Fulmer won't even say WHEN he'll name a starter, let alone who that starter will be.
"When we name a starter, I can't tell you exactly," he said. "But if our kids would rally around those two – and I think they will, both or either one – then I think we will be fine."