Wilson and Ainge

The Tennessee football team's top recruiting targets in the fall of 2003 included a talented and productive quarterback who was in the process of guiding Hoover High to the Alabama state championship.

When John Parker Wilson gave Tennessee the cold shoulder, the Vols wound up signing a strong-armed passer from Oregon named Erik Ainge. Interesting, huh?

Three years later, Ainge paces the Southeastern Conference and ranks among the national leaders in passing yards (276.2 yards per game), total offense (269.0 yards per game) and passer efficiency (171.6 rating).

Wilson, who wound up signing with Alabama, isn't doing too badly, either. He ranks third among SEC quarterbacks in total offense (233.4 yards per game), fourth in passing yards (225.6 per game) and fifth in passer efficiency (140.58). He's completing 59.9 percent of his throws with 11 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

Ainge, a junior, and Wilson, a redshirt sophomore, meet for the first time Saturday at 3:30 in Neyland Stadium, giving Vol fans a chance to compare the guy Tennessee signed in February of 2004 with the one that got away.

Reminded earlier this week that the Vols recruited Wilson, UT head coach Phillip Fulmer replied: "We TRIED to. He does a really good job. Everything everybody thought he would be coming out of high school, he is.

"He handles the offense extremely well. He can make all the throws. He's a tough guy who will step up in the pocket and throw it. If he has to run, he's a good runner with the ball. He's a field general with a good command of being a college quarterback."

After losing three-year starter Brodie Croyle to the NFL, Alabama was expected to experience a drop-off at quarterback this fall. That hasn't been the case, though. Wilson is doing a bang-up job in his first year as a starter. He proved his poise on the road by throwing TD passes of 78, 14 and 1 yards in the Tide's Sept. 23 game at Arkansas. And his clutch play has enabled Bama (5-2 overall) to eke out three wins by eight points or less this fall.

Much attention is focused on Alabama's dynamic receiving duo of D.J. Hall and Keith Brown, but those guys owe a lot of their success to Wilson's ability to elude pass rushers and unload pinpoint passes. Likewise, tailback Kenneth Darby owes much of his success to Wilson's ability to spread defenses and take pressure off the ground game.

"Wilson does a really good job of running their offense, getting the ball to the big-play wide receivers," Fulmer said.

If things had gone a little differently on the recruiting trail three years ago, however, Wilson might spend this Saturday getting the ball to UT's Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain, instead of D.J. Hall and Keith Brown.

And Erik Ainge might be an Oregon Duck, instead of a Tennessee Vol.


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