Fulmer names starter

When Tennessee's quarterbacks entered the practice field Saturday at 11:40 a.m., Erik Ainge was walking with a smile beside offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.

Rick Clausen was well behind them.

Shortly thereafter, Vols coach Phillip Fulmer confirmed what the scene suggested: Ainge will start the season opener Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham.

``Erik has more mobility and a little better arm,'' Fulmer said of a race that was closer than many anticipated when it started in early August.

``Rick did a great job. It wasn't a clearcut thing at all.''

While Clausen said he could live with Fulmer's decision, he was clearly upset when he met briefly with the media after practice.

``Coach Fulmer made the decision and I've got to live with it and it is what it is,'' Clausen said. ``That's basically about it.''

Then, Clausen, a team captain, walked away.

Clausen certainly made a case. He was 34 of 44 for 430 yards with three touchdowns and on interception in scrimmages. Ainge was 30 of 56 for 352 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

``I'm sure Rick is disappointed to some degree,'' Fulmer said. ``We have complete confidence in his ability.''

Fulmer acknowledged he's concerned that the starter might be looking over his shoulder, but added: ``We'll not pull the hook on either one just because of a mistake.''

The offense ran more smoothly with Clausen at the controls, but Ainge has the bigger upside, the bigger arm and more potential. His ability to stretch the field was a factor in Fulmer's selection.

It also helped Ainge's case that last year, he beat Georgia and Ole Miss on the road and Alabama at Neyland Stadium.

Fulmer emphasized that both quarterbacks will play against UAB.

He also said: ``Whoever starts the first game will not necessarily start the second game.''

Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders wasn't available to the media. He said through football sports information director John Painter: ``It is what it is.''

Fulmer and Sanders met at length Friday to discuss the quarterback situation. They met again Saturday morning, with Fulmer making the final call.

Fulmer said the Vols will have a package for each quarterback, although it won't be as different as last season when Brent Schaeffer and Ainge shared duties behind center as true freshman.

Fulmer said UT likely won't emulate the way Georgia rotated quarterbacks with David Greene and D.J. Shockley. He also said the situation with Ainge and Clausen isn't like last season when UT had co-starters in Schaeffer and Ainge.

``Erik is the quarterback now, but we feel we have two quarterbacks,'' Fulmer said.

Fulmer said there was a lot of discussion about the quarterback situation but not much debate.

``We kicked it around, but the final decision was mine,'' Fulmer said.

Some of Ainge's August struggles can be attributed to still learning the system. Last season during games, Sanders read the defense and called the plays from the sideline. This spring and August, Ainge had that responsibility. That caused him to, at times, be hesitant, whereas it was second nature to Clausen.

``We've not babied him at all this summer or last spring,'' Fulmer said of Ainge. ``We threw everything in the package at him.''

In deciding the quarterback battle, the Vols had to consider several factors. One, which one is better suited to help you win at Florida and at LSU?

They also had to consider who might be more effective coming off the bench. If you have a slow start at Florida, which quarterback would help more as a ``sixth'' man – Clausen providing a steadying influence or the more hyper Ainge making big plays?

And if you go with Clausen, do you affect the confidence of Ainge, who could potentially be a four-year starter?

Also, would you prefer having the cool, confident, efficient Clausen handling the hostile crowds at Florida and at LSU? Would he be less apt to make a major mistake under duress?

In the end, Fulmer picked Ainge. But Fulmer still had high praise for Clausen, an LSU transfer who many in Baton Rouge didn't feel could play at this level.

``Rick has worked hard to get to this point,'' Fulmer said. ``It's still a great story. I'm excited for Rick and what he could do. I'm also excited for Erik.''

Last season, Ainge became the starter after the third game. He completed 109 of 198 passes for a 1,452 yards and a freshman-record 17 touchdowns. He had nine interceptions. He came off the bench to hit 16 of 24 passes or 192 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-28 victory over Florida.

Clausen started the last four games, winning three. His only defeat was to Auburn in the SEC championship game. He was 18 of 27 for 222 yards a three touchdowns to earn Offensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl. In relieve of an injured Ainge, Clausen had a costly interception against Notre Dame.

While the starting job is settled, Fulmer fired a bombshell when asked about the No. 3 quarterback job.

``Lucas Taylor,'' he said. Then, he mentioned Sinclair Cannon. Both are athletes, not college quarterbacks.

That would suggest Fulmer isn't happy with Jim Bob Cooter or Bo Hardegree. Or that he's throwing a bone for other schools to chew on.


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