HOOVER, Ala. -- A year ago, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer had no idea whom is quarterback was going to be, let alone if he could win with whomever he chose under center.
Well, Fulmer still doesn't know if it will be Erik Ainge or Rick Clausen taking snaps with the first team when the season starts. But he knows he can win with either.
It's a much nicer problem to have than the one facing Fulmer a year ago. At the time, Clausen was an untested junior with one collegiate start, and that had come in 2002 for LSU. Fulmer decided to go with the more physically gifted freshmen in Ainge and Brent Schaeffer.
While the mobile Schaeffer started the first three games, the big arm of Ainge eventually took over and had the Vols rolling at 7-1. Schaeffer went down with an injury, but it looked like Fulmer had found his quarterback of the future anyway in Ainge.
But on Nov. 6, Ainge also went down with a season-ending shoulder injury during a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame. Suddenly, the Vols easy road to the SEC title game didn't look so clear. Enter Clausen.
After narrowly escaping at Vanderbilt, Clausen led the Vols to two fourth-quarter scores against Kentucky to erase a 31-22 deficit. After struggling in the SEC title game against Auburn, Clausen bounced back and threw for 222 yards and three scores to earn Offensive MVP honors in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M.
"I think Rick Clausen is absolutely one of the greatest stories in college football last year," Fulmer said Wednesday at SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala. "when we had the injury, Rick Clausen came in like the white knight and saved the day, led us to the SEC Championship game and also did very well in the bowl game."
Considering the way he finished last season, Clausen might be expected to be campaigning for the starting job. But nothing could be further from the truth.
"I'm just going out and getting better every day," Clausen said. "The chips are going to fall where they may, and me and Erik have the utmost confidence that Coach Fulmer will make the best decision for our football team. I'm not too worried about one pass or one practice, I'm just trying to get better every day because ultimately, the decision lies with Coach Fulmer."
While a senior quarterback's presence at media days might normally mean that man has the job, it appears Fulmer will take his time making the decision.
"I don't know who our quarterback will be, but it will be a good one between Erik and Rick," Fulmer said. "I think Erik has a lot of the same qualities that Peyton Manning had when he came in as a freshman and sophomore. I am very encouraged about his future.
"But Rick brings a leadership, a calm demeanor, an intellect of knowing our offense and managing to use the personnel around him very effectively. He's not going to be fooled too many times, because he's been really in two outstanding programs at LSU and our place and had a lot of practice reps. And he has enough ability to get the ball out to where he wants to get it out to."
Clausen says all the right things, insisting he just wants what is best for the team and isn't worried about Fulmer's decision. But his competitiveness came out when asked about Ainge appearing on magazine covers this summer.
"It doesn't matter," Clausen said. "Whoever is putting Erik on a cover, or writing that Erik should be the starter, it just doesn't matter. The decision lies with Coach Fulmer and the coaching staff. Everybody within the program understands that I can get the job done as well as Erik can get the job done, so that's what I worry about. I worry about things that I can control and things this football team can control, not outside things that are distracters."
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