Will Vols Ride The Ryan Express?

Ryan Gunderson is faced with one of the toughest decisions of his young life, and through a series of unlikely events Tennessee, in many respects, finds it's football future tied to his choice.

After a hasty courtship, Gunderson made an official visit to Tennessee last weekend and now the Portland Central Catholic High School quarterback is considering whether it's wiser to decommit to Oregon State for a golden opportunity to Volunteer.

If he heeds the call from The Hill, the formidable 6-5, 220-pound QB would inherent a job previously held by four consecutive high school all-Americans, including a pair of NCAA All-Americans in Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning who went on to finish second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

These premier passers were followed by Tee Martin and Casey Clausen, who posted records of 22-3 and 23-6 as starters at Tennessee. All four prospects were rated in the top five among high school signal caller nationally with Shuler and Manning considered the best in the nation in 1990 and 1993, respectively.

Now with Clausen entering his senior year at Tennessee and no heir apparent on campus or on the way, Gunderson is Tennessee's last best chance to sign a prominent quarterback (he's rated No. 30 by The Insiders) for the Class of 2003. That's not exactly the position UT is accustomed to seeing itself in, but that's part of the fallout from the Chris Leak recruiting debacle.

The end result is that instead of having a commitment from No. 1 Kyle Wright, No. 2 Leak or No. 3 JaMarcus Russell, Tennessee, which normally roams the recruiting world as a prime-time predator has been forced to become a scavenger,hoping to pull a weak commitment from a vulnerable program. That's not to suggest that Gunderson doesn't possess the potential to become a standout quarterback. To the contrary, there's ample evidence he may have been underrated and under appreciated at No. 30.

And he certainly posted Chris Leak type passing stats as a senior, leading the Rams to a 10-2 record, a league title and a quarterfinal appearance in the state's highest Division-4A. He was also the state's leading passer connecting on 240-of-382 attempts (63 percent) for 3,713 yards, 49 touchdowns and seven interceptions. That averages out to 20 completions for 309 yards and four touchdowns per game as a senior.

"He was the leading passer in the state as far as yards and touchdowns go," said Portland Catholic head coach Joe Bushman. "He's kind of your prototype drop-back passer, but he can get out and move, too. We sprinted him out a lot because he does have that type of athletic ability. He's not an option guy or anything, but he's not a stiff that can't move either."

Indeed Gunderson ran a swift 4.26 time in the 20-yard shuttle which is a good gauge of a player's lateral quickness. For comparison: No. 1 rated Kyle Wright ran a 4.25.

As a junior playing for a team that finished 5-5, Gunderson again completed 63 percent of his passes (150-of-251) for 2,385 yards, 27 touchdowns and five interceptions. His ratio of touchdowns to interceptions over two seasons is an impressive 6.3 to 1 while his 63 percent accuracy over two full seasons is almost unheard of at the high school level. If you throw out an atypical last game of his senior season, Gunderson's TD-INT ratio would be an eye popping 9 to 1.

"Going into his last game he only had three interceptions," said Bushman. "He threw four interceptions and four touchdowns in our last game."

For sure, no one could accuse Gunderson of not going down with his guns blazing. But that's something he was used to, running a no-huddle offense that spread the field and depended on pre-snap reads and plays called at the line of scrimmage.

"We're one back, no back, spread type of operation," said Bushman. "You could liken it to like a Purdue maybe. We were no-huddle this year. It was the first time we went no-huddle with the wrist bands. You've got to have somebody behind center that really knows what he's doing to pull that off."

It's that type of game experience of running a sophisticated attack with a high number of reads that makes Gunderson so attractive to a Tennessee team, that needs someone to step into the backup role next fall and earn PT that can be redeemed in 2004.

"He's a very hard worker," Bushman said. "He's a young man of good character. He's a great kid, good student, very intelligent, understands the passing game remarkably well for somebody for his age.

"We've lost only two league games the last two years and it's the highest division in the state."

Portland Catholic is the same school that produced Heisman winner Joey Harrington, who was followed by another outstanding signal caller in younger sibling Michael Harrington.

"I've been coaching for five years at Portland Catholic," Bushman stated. "I think Ryan is about as good as has come out of Oregon. You know this is the school where Joey Harrington played. I didn't coach Joey, but I coached his brother Michael who was another all-league guy. We've been blessed with good quarterbacks. Michael is at Idaho now and everybody knows about how Joey is doing. We've been very fortunate."

Bushman believes Portland's location in the great northwest along with Gunderson's decision to commit early hurt him in QB prospect rankings.

"I think he was underrated," Bushman said emphatically. "He can make all the throws: The deep outs and those midrange routes are his specialty. We've been a three-step passing team so he's got the touch to throw those passes too, plus go down the field."

Naturally there was a lot of national interest in Gunderson early but after this future Beaver became too eager by committing to OSU on July 3 last summer, the calls slowly came to a stop.

"You name it," said Bushman, "most every school was recruiting him. I think it kind of cooled off after he verbaled so early to Oregon State. He had looks from quiet a few like Oklahoma State and Hawaii, but it never really got heated because he committed so early."

The fact Gunderson committed so early may have had more to do with Oregon than Oregon State.

"Oregon just didn't recruit him," a baffled Bushman revealed. "Nobody around here understands why. He was an Oregon guy, his dad went to Oregon. They liked some quarterbacks better. It was just kind of strange situation."

Gunderson's second thoughts are natural considering Oregon State wasn't his first choice and may have been more of a rebound reaction. When Tennessee came calling, they offered not only a rare opportunity but a second chance for Gunderson to reconsider his decision. That's what he's currently in the process of doing and it's closer than some are willing to admit.

"I think he's 50-50 at this point," said Bushman. "I talked to him last night and he seems pretty torn between Oregon State and Tennessee. He had a great visit to Tennessee and he really enjoyed himself. His dad went with him.

"I think something that's really appealing to him is the chance to play sooner at Tennessee than at Oregon State."

Bushman believes Gunderson has the type of temperament to respond positively to Tennessee's huge crowds and the intensity of SEC football.

"I think he likes the pressure and the big crowds," Bushman said. "He's not afraid of it. He's also the kind of guy that can leave home and be okay."

Bushman understands that most fans in Tennessee know very little about Oregon high school football, but he says they are familiar with Big Orange Football.

"We follow you though," he said. "We know you've got the very best end zones in the country."

Those end zones would get a lot more air time with a quarterback like Gunderson running the show.

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