A Tale of Two Signal Callers

Now that the decision on Tennessee's starting quarterback has been made, the biggest question concerning the upcoming season has been answered — at least for the time being.

Noting it was a difficult decision and a close call, coach Phillip Fulmer indicates Erik Ainge's hold on No. 1 is a renewable one-game lease at this point. Both Ainge and Rick Clausen will see action in the opener against UAB and, presumably, the better performer will be in line for the critical start against Florida in game two.

It's only natural if Clausen is dubious of such a scenario developing. In fact, he has to wonder what he has to do to win the job? In his four starts as a junior, UT's offense scored an average of 35.25 points per game. In the five games Ainge started, and finished, the Vols offense averaged 20.6 points per contest. Clausen completed 59.7 percent of his throws vs. 55.1 percent for Ainge. Their touchdown-to-interception ratio is virtually the same — 17 to 9 for Ainge and 8 to 5 for Clausen in 62 fewer attempts.

If the two QBs came out of spring practice even, they weren't in fall practice, as Clausen connected of 34-of-44 passes (77.3 percent) for 430 yards, three touchdowns with one interception. Ainge completed 30-of-56 for 352 yards (53.6 percent) for 352 yards, two touchdowns with two interceptions.

Since both signal callers are surrounded by the same personnel and going against the same opposition in scrimmages, an independent observer is left to conclude one of two things: (1) Clausen has executed better than Ainge, or, (2) Clausen's teammates respond better to his command.

The situation boils down to tangibles vs. intangibles. Ainge is bigger, faster and has a stronger arm. Clausen is more experienced, a proven leader and has better recognition skills. Combine the two and you have a practically perfect quarterback. Since that's impossible, Fulmer made his choice based on the player he believes gives UT it's best chance to win the SEC and contend for a national title.

Much has been made of Ainge's arm strength giving him the ability to stretch the defense vertically, whereas against Clausen defenses can afford to crowd the line of scrimmage and take away the run, secure in the notion he can't beat them deep.

There is certainly some credence to that argument, but it does ignore the fact Clausen can accomplish the same thing by simply taking shorter drops and leading the receiver when opportunities against man coverage present themselves.

Besides does Tennessee have a true deep threat at receiver? Yes, there is Robert Meachem, Chris Hannon and Jayson Swain, who are all plenty fast and project as starters. But Meachem's longest career reception is 53 yards; Hannon longest reception in 2004 was 24 yards while Swain's was 42 yards. Clausen is certainly capable of making those throws. What's just as important as arm strength is hitting a receiver in position to maximize his yards after the catch, which Clausen does with a quick release and accurate throws.

There's also a downside to arm strength because it can give some quarterbacks a false sense of security. That leads to passes being forced into coverage or bounced off receivers hands into the grasp of awaiting DBs.

From a team standpoint having two QBs capable of leading the offense is much better than having only one, as long as it doesn't become a dividing point on the squad.

Clausen is a team captain, elected by his teammates, and he will fill the role designated for him to the best of his ability. However, if he wonders what he did to lose the starting job — it's understandable.


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