Gut-wrenching task

Selecting a No. 1 quarterback can be difficult. Telling "the other guy" he's relegated to No. 2 can be downright gut-wrenching. Just ask Randy Sanders, Tennessee's quarterback coach/offensive coordinator.

Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen have competed with enthusiasm, poise and skill since last spring to win UT's starting job. At some point in the next 16 days, however, Sanders must inform Ainge or Clausen that he WON'T be starting the Vols' Sept. 3 opener against Alabama-Birmingham.

Bummer. Sanders has endured this agony before, though, so he knows what to expect when he delivers the bad news to the guy who will open Game 1 on the sidelines.

"There's been some other tough ones," Sanders said Wednesday morning. "You go back to 2000, when we chose Joey Mathews to start the first game, then came back the next week and it was A.J. Suggs. It was hard to sit down with Joey because I really like Joey Mathews.

"Then, three or four weeks later, I had to sit down with A.J. and say, ‘You're not going to be the starter. Casey (Clausen) is.' That was really hard because I really like A.J."

Ultimately, it may hurt Sanders as much to deliver the bad news as it hurts the demoted quarterback to hear the news.

"The hardest part for coaches from the emotional standpoint is not the hours you put in or the criticism from the papers and radio," Sanders said. "The hardest part is when you have to sit down and tell someone you really, really like, ‘We're going in a different direction.' You have to be honest with them because you know how much that hurts every competitor that wants to play."

Whichever QB starts Tennessee's opener, Sanders figures the decision will be debated even more than last year, when Schaeffer started Games 1, 2 and 3 (all victories), then gave way to Ainge for Game 4 (a loss to Auburn).

"This decision may be second-guessed more than last year," Sanders said. "Last year we were choosing one, and if it didn't work, it was because they were all young. This year we've got two guys that are proven. If we choose one and he doesn't play well, I'm sure he'll be criticized pretty good and I'm sure we, as coaches, will be second-guessed on the decision we made."

Sanders will earn his money in the next few weeks. He must convince both quarterbacks to prepare as if they're starters, yet he must devastate one of them by relegating him to backup status. Then, if the starter struggles in Game 1, Sanders will be roasted in print and on the airways. No pressure, huh?

"You do what you think is best for the team," Sanders said. "You make those choices, then you don't look back. That's what we're going to do.

"It's going to be a tough decision – who goes out there first. Whether they both play or not, getting your name called out on the loudspeaker (as a starter) means something to the guys, even if it doesn't matter that much in the coaches' eyes."

While the naming of a starting quarterback is a big deal to Ainge and Clausen, their Vol teammates probably couldn't care less. They have confidence in each guy to do the job.

"If the team is used to having one guy, I think it makes a difference," Sanders said. "After rotating two guys last year and using three guys throughout the season, I don't think the offense really cares right now. They're used to different guys being in the huddle and calling the plays.

"Maybe I'm wrong but it seems to me like they get in the huddle, one of them calls the play and they're ready to go. I don't know that it makes that much difference."


Inside Tennessee Top Stories