Tennessee enters the 2017 season with two quarterbacks seemingly ready to play right now, junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. But there’s an adage in sports that says, “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.”
Well, what about three quarterbacks?
That’s the story of the 2004 Tennessee Volunteers.
Tennessee arrived for preseason looking for a replacement for Casey Clausen, who had started for the past 3½ seasons. The favorite going in was Wake Forest transfer C.J. Leak, who had seen limited action the past two seasons as Clausen’s backup. But midway through that August camp, then-coach Phillip Fulmer realized that Leak was not the answer. He decided that incoming freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge would take control of the offense.
While Fulmer was known for his conservative nature, he had been down a similar road before. In 1994, true freshmen Peyton Manning and Branndon Stewart played early and often (although that was necessary because of injuries to Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton). In 2000, first-year guys A.J. Suggs and Clausen started every game except the opener. Both seasons had their share of successful moments.
Fulmer looked like a genius when both freshmen were sharp in a blowout win over UNLV in the season opener. Thirteen days later, Schaeffer was the starter once again but Ainge was the closer, throwing three touchdown passes and getting the Vols into field goal range for a come-from-behind 30-28 win over Florida.
Tennessee opened 6-1, including an upset of third-ranked Georgia in Athens, the Vols’ first win over the Bulldogs in five years. After that, things took a turn. Schaeffer was lost for the season with a broken collarbone at South Carolina. The following week, Ainge separated his shoulder on a totally unnecessary play in the final seconds of the first half against Notre Dame and was done as well.
Rick Clausen, come on down!
Clausen, the younger brother of Casey, had transferred to Tennessee from LSU, and expectations were low. But what Clausen lacked in arm strength he made up for in leadership. Relying greatly on running backs Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs Jr., the Vols beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt and stayed with an historic Auburn team into the fourth quarter of the SEC title game before eventually falling 38-28.
On New Year’s Day, Clausen was named the Cotton Bowl MVP in a blowout win over Texas A&M.
Incredibly, the Vols won 10 games with two true freshmen and an LSU cast-off at quarterback, so 2004 should be remembered as one of Fulmer’s great coaching seasons.
Of course, in 2005 the Vols pushed their luck with both Ainge and Clausen and it was a nightmare. There was a seemingly weekly change of starter, the team was divided and Tennessee limped to a 5-6 record, its first losing mark in 17 years.
Tennessee fans are hoping for more of 2004, and less of 2005, in 2017.
(You can follow Mark Nagi on Twitter @MarkNagi)
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