When Brent Schaeffer left the University of Tennessee's football team this spring, Volunteers Coach Phillip Fulmer probably thought his quarterback controversy was over. Last season, Schaeffer became the first Tennessee freshman since 1945 to start a Southeastern Conference game, but then Erik Ainge took the starting job from him and was named freshman all-American by the Sporting News.
So when Schaeffer transferred to College of the Sequoias, a junior college in Visalia, Calif., it was assumed that Ainge would win the starting job rather easily. But Rick Clausen, a lightly regarded transfer from Louisiana State and the younger brother of former Vols quarterback Casey Clausen, played so well late last season that Fulmer couldn't exclude him from the competition for the starting job.
Throughout spring practice and preseason camp, Clausen has stayed neck and neck with Ainge, who was the 2003 high school player of the year in Oregon. So as the Volunteers finish preparations for their Sept. 3 opener against Alabama-Birmingham at Neyland Stadium, two quarterbacks remain a crowd in Tennessee.
"Rick certainly seems in command right now. Erik seems to be pressing a bit out there," Fulmer told reporters in Knoxville, Tenn., earlier this week, after the team's final scrimmage. "When you grade the film and look at all the cut-ups and all the breakdowns of all the drills, the two guys are equal. If it's still even, what am I going to do? Flip a coin? No. We'll play them both. We'll figure something out."
Clausen, 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds, started the last four games of 2004 after Schaeffer broke a collarbone and Ainge separated a shoulder. The senior from Thousand Oaks, Calif., bailed out Tennessee in closer-than-expected victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky, which secured the Volunteers a spot in the SEC championship game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
Although Auburn's defense smothered Clausen in a 38-28 loss, he led the Volunteers to four touchdowns in the first half of a 38-7 blowout victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. After that performance, Fulmer knew he had a tough, experienced quarterback for this coming season.
"I think Rick Clausen is absolutely one of the greatest stories in college football last year and he brings leadership, a calm demeanor, an intellect of knowing our offense and using the personnel around him very effectively," Fulmer said. "He's not going to be fooled too many times by disguises, those kinds of things, because he's been 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."
Ainge, 6 feet 6 and 212 pounds, is clearly the Volunteers' quarterback of the future. The nephew of former Boston Celtics star Danny Ainge, he threw 17 touchdowns last season, a record for Tennessee freshmen. Ainge also threw for 1,452 yards in nine games -- 311 more than Peyton Manning had during his freshman season at Tennessee in 1994. Ainge is more athletic and has a stronger arm than Clausen, but he lacks the senior's knowledge of the offense and other intangibles such as leadership and confidence.
"I think Erik has a lot of the same qualities that Peyton Manning had when he came in as a freshman and sophomore," Fulmer said. "Erik has the ability to be, I think, one of the finest quarterbacks in the country as he matures. How fast he matures depends on how much leeway we continue to give him."
Both quarterbacks will benefit from Tennessee's running game, which should be among the best in college football. Junior Gerald Riggs Jr., the son of former Washington Redskins running back Gerald Riggs, ran for 1,005 yards last season, even though teammate Cedric Houston had nearly as many carries. Now that Houston has graduated, Riggs won't be sharing playing time with anyone this season.
Eight starters are back from a defense that should be better after allowing 102 points in its victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky and loss to Auburn in the SEC championship game. Senior defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona and cornerback Jason Allen are both potential all-Americans.
So as long as the Volunteers can settle on a quarterback -- Fulmer is hoping injuries don't force inexperienced junior Jim Bob Cooter into the fray -- they should be a national championship contender.
"We know it could be a special year," Clausen said.