Best of Fulmer era - QBs

I've never subscribed to the theory that you factor a guy's pro career into the equation when assessing his greatness as a college player.

Curt Watson was a phenomenal football player at Tennessee who never made a ripple in the NFL. The same goes for Johnny Majors, Chip Kell, Dewey Warren, Thomas Woods, Travis Stephens and a host of others. They are no less legendary because they failed to fit the NFL mold.

Perhaps the greatest example of this approach is former Vol quarterback Heath Shuler. He was an incredible college QB but, because he fell short of the lofty expectations held for him at the NFL level, Shuler is now viewed as an overrated college player by some fans.

He wasn't. I think he was the most gifted quarterback in Vol history. Peyton Manning and Tony Robinson were better passers. Condredge Holloway and Tee Martin were better runners. But no quarterback I've seen in orange combined running and passing skills to the extent that Shuler did. He was a freak of nature.

Some fans have forgotten that Shuler directed the highest-scoring offense in UT history, the 1993 squad that averaged 40 points per game. Some have forgotten that he ranks seventh on UT's all-time list for passing yards, even though he started just two years. Some have forgotten that he completed 61.6 percent of his career passes and threw three times as many touchdowns (36) as interceptions (12). Some have forgotten that only three QBs in Vol history (Manning, Casey Clausen, Erik Ainge) have thrown more touchdown passes. And some have forgotten what an excellent runner Shuler was. He rushed for 286 yards as a sophomore, only to have the reins tightened prior to his junior year, when he ran for just 73 yards.

The fact that a contract holdout and a foot injury derailed his NFL career should not detract from Shuler's accomplishments as a collegian. That's why I think he was nearly Manning's equal as a Vol. But not quite.

All of this said, here are my rankings of the Big Orange quarterbacks of the Phillip Fulmer era (1993-present):

1. Peyton Manning (1994-97): He holds every UT passing record worth noting – a list far too long to warrant recapping here. He was so gifted that even Phil "Pound the rock" Fulmer became a pass-happy coach.

2. Shuler (1992-93): For all of the reasons stated above.

3. Tee Martin (1998-99): Like Shuler, he started just two years. Like Shuler, he made incredible impact as both a rusher and a passer. Martin guided the Vols to a 13-0 record and a national title as a junior in '98 but that championship was won with defense, more so than offense. He completed just 55.4 percent of his passes but averaged a hefty 14.1 yards per completion. Moreover, the running threat he provided made him a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.

4. Casey Clausen (2000-2003): Only Manning threw for more yards (11,201 to 9,707) and more touchdowns (89 to 75) as a Vol. Clausen was a statue in the pocket, however, who was further limited by a so-so supporting cast and an assortment of injuries that wiped out his junior year. With better health and better receivers, he might have been special.

5. Erik Ainge (2004-2007): He led UT to a pair of SEC East titles in his four years as a starter, throwing for 8,700 yards and 72 touchdowns in the process. He had the Vols on the threshold of the 2007 SEC title but threw two late interceptions that helped LSU rally to win 21-14.

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