Knowing he would be asked how Ainge's injury affects his status for this weekend's game, Fulmer launched a pre-emptive strike at his Tuesday news conference.
"I know you'll ask me about Erik," the coach said. "Well, I don't know until we get to practice the next couple of days, then we'll see."
Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe was similarly vague in his assessment of Ainge's outlook.
"I don't know where we are with that," he said. "That's kind of a day-to-day thing. As far as practice, I think he's going to be there and be fine. We'll just take it one day at a time."
Ainge leads the SEC in passing yards (276.6 per game) and total offense (270.6 per game), ranking second in passing efficiency. Naturally, Fulmer is hopeful the 6-6 junior will be ready for LSU.
"If that's not to be, then I am fully confident that (backup) Jonathan Crompton will do just fine," Fulmer said. "He actually gives us a dimension in the run game that is a plus for us, and I'm expecting that he'll do just fine."
Cutcliffe also has complete faith in Crompton.
"I have great confidence in Jonathan, if has to play," the Vol aide said. "And I think that our team does, as well…. He's really made strides. Last week was by far his best week of practice.... I'm real pleased with where he is. I noticed in warm-ups prior to the South Carolina game that he was really throwing the ball well."
Cutcliffe added that third-teamer Bo Hardegree was "real impressive" in Monday's practice in terms of "his decision-making, getting signals, getting in and out of the huddle, throwing the football. He did an outstanding job."
Even if Ainge is healthy enough to start against LSU, there are legitimate concerns about how the junior QB will react to the injury. A shoulder separation cost him the last half of his freshman season (2004) but he has never had to play with pain, so the staff has no idea how the bum ankle will affect him.
"We haven't had him before with an injury," Fulmer said. "We'll just see how he handles it. I don't know how he'll handle it. We've always taken the approach – particularly with older guys – that if they can get themselves ready to play and we think they're ready to play, they'll play.
"On the other side of the coin, you always prepare the next guy in line for that opportunity, and that's what we'll do."
Fulmer said the Vols divide the practice repetitions nearly 50-50 between first- and second-teamers, so Crompton was getting a lot of drill work even before Ainge's injury.
"We split the reps anyway," the head man said. "That's how we grow guys. That's how guys get better. They get better because we're putting the same demands on the second-teamers – and in some cases the third-teamers – as we do on the first-teamers. I think that's been part of our success over the years."