Inexperienced QBs at Tennessee: Feast and Famine

With Nick Stephens leaving the program, the Vols will start a brand new face at quarterback this fall for the first time since 2004, when true freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer split snaps against UNLV.  And whether it's Matt Simms or Tyler Bray, Tennessee will go with a guy who's never started a game for the sixth time in the last twenty years.

We tend to go with career men around these parts, having watched Peyton Manning, Casey Clausen, and Erik Ainge earn starts for four consecutive years since 1994.  And hopefully, whoever wins the job this fall will be consistent enough to hold onto it for the duration of their Tennessee career.  But allow us to throw a word of caution into our already tempered expectations:  of the last six brand new starting for the Vols, only one has both played well and won games right away, while two others watched the team carry them before they started returning the favor.  For the most part, the rides have been as bumpy as you'd expect...and this time around, the Vols don't appear to have the strong supporting cast to ease the transition.

Here's how the last six brand new starting quarterbacks have played for the Vols in their debut season:

1992:  Heath Shuler (Soph.)

Shuler was a prized recruit from North Carolina, who was both faster and stronger than the guy he replaced in Andy Kelly.  With Johnny Majors out due to heart surgery, a young man named Phillip Fulmer led the team as the interim head coach.  Shuler led the Vols to a 38-3 win over Southwestern Louisiana in the opener, and then stared down the gauntlet of Georgia and Florida, two Top 15 teams, in consecutive weeks.

Shuler and the '92 Vols created the script that the '98 Vols would later follow:  excellent play from everyone else and a few fortunate breaks can cover up youth and inexperience at quarterback, no matter how good the opposition.  Shuler actually led the team in rushing at Georgia, made the throws he had to make (including 4th and 14 on the final drive), and the Vols forced six turnovers in a 34-31 win.  The next week against #4 Florida, Shuler and the Vols benefited from biblical flooding and 250 yards rushing, and again Shuler made the only throw he had to make, a screen pass for a 70 yard TD in a 31-14 win.  Shuler was great on a couple of individual plays, but didn't have to be great throughout...and the Vols went undefeated in September.

Though the '92 season went on to feature three straight October losses that cost Majors his job, it set the stage for Shuler to eventually lead what is still the highest scoring offense in school history (39 ppg) in 1993, when he would finish second in the Heisman voting and be taken with the third pick in the 1994 NFL Draft.  In his first few starts, the rest of the team took advantage of their circumstances and gave him a chance to capitalize on them, and Shuler made the plays he had to make.           

1994:  Jerry Colquitt (Sr), Todd Helton (Jr), Peyton Manning (Fr) and Brandon Stewart (Fr)

After Shuler, it was supposed to be Jerry Colquitt's turn, the guy who had waited patiently for three years.  But in the most painful lesson of how quickly it can all go wrong, the senior starter blew out his knee on the seventh play of the season at UCLA.  And suddenly, everything was up in the air.

Todd Helton, Peyton Manning, and Brandon Stewart - none of whom were expected to contribute in '94 - were instantly thrown into a QB battle.  The Vols lost the opener at UCLA 25-23, then showcased another example of the rest of the team being good enough to carry them:  James Stewart ran for 211 yards and 4 TDs at Georgia,  where the Vols could win without Helton throwing the ball.  Didn't work the next week against #1 Florida though, the answer to the "when's the last time the Vols were shut out?" question in a 31-0 loss.

When Helton was banged up against Mississippi State, Manning and Stewart took over.  The Bulldogs beat the Vols in Starkville, and in Manning's first start, the Vols squeaked out a 10-9 win over Washington State, then lost 17-13 to Alabama.

Of course, Peyton Manning would go on to become Peyton Manning, and the '94 Vols figured things out - after losing to Bama, the Vols wouldn't lose again.  But this talented foursome suffered through a 3-4 start before they got it together.

1998:  Tee Martin (Jr)

Yes, the '98 Vols won the National Championship...but remember, in his first two starts, Tee Martin went 9 of 26 for 143 against Syracuse, and 7 of 20 for 64 against Florida.  And after that, the Vols struggled to a 17-9 win at Auburn where they scored 17 points in the first quarter, and 0 points after Jamal Lewis tore his ACL.  Again:  the rest of the team can play well enough to protect a young quarterback, and the team can still win even when the QB goes 16 of 46 in his first two games against Donovan McNabb and #2 Florida.

Like Shuler, in those games Tee Martin made the plays he had to make:  a 55 yard scramble at Syracuse, and a teardrop into double coverage to Peerless Price against Florida.  It took Tee all of September to become the quarterback Tennessee needed, and really, it was Jamal's knee injury that forced David Cutcliffe to take the leash off his quarterback.  Tee Martin became a good quarterback...but he certainly didn't start that way.

2000:  Joey Matthews (Jr), AJ Suggs (Fr), Casey Clausen (Fr)

It probably would've been Clausen all the way, but he was injured in fall camp.  The pride of Sevier County stepped in and didn't play well, as Joey Matthews was replaced by AJ Suggs during the season opener against Southern Miss, a 19-16 UT win.  The Vols ran Travis Henry to death in the Jabar Gaffney Game the following week, and continued to struggle at LSU (a 38-31 OT loss) and at Georgia (a 21-10 loss, the first UGA win over the Vols since 1988).

What's interesting to note about this start is that while Matthews was a disappointment, Suggs didn't play all that poorly - he tied the school record for completions in a game with 37 against LSU.  But Clausen had the greater upside, and the coaching staff made the switch in the off week before Alabama.  Clausen didn't disappoint, as the Vols beat Alabama 20-10 in his first start, and won the rest of their regular season games, scoring 50+ in consecutive weeks against Arkansas and Kentucky.  Again:  this team eventually found its way when their quarterback did, but suffered through a 2-3 start to get there.

2004:  Erik Ainge (Fr) and Brent Schaeffer (Fr)

The biggest exception to the rule.

The '98 Vols may have gone on to win the National Championship, but this team that started two freshmen QBs was 7-1 until both of them got hurt.  And unlike Tee Martin, Erik Ainge was great right away.

After Ainge and Schaeffer took care of business against UNLV, Ainge played what you can argue was his best game as a Vol in his second career performance.  Against Florida, Ainge was 16 of 24 for 192 yards and 3 TDs, and led scoring drives of 80, 80, and 96 yards.  He also made the final two throws to set up James Wilhoit's 50 yard field goal to win, 30-28.

Ainge did it again against Georgia, going 12 of 21 for 150 yards and 2 TDs, playing mistake-free in the Vols' huge upset of the #3 Dawgs.  That it came on the heels of a dismal performance against Auburn made it even more impressive.  Ainge played better in his first eight games than any quarterback in Tennessee history, before a shoulder injury against Notre Dame ended his freshman season.

2008:  Jonathan Crompton (Jr)

Technically, this doesn't count, because Crompton started against Arkansas in 2006 when Ainge was down with an ankle injury.  But we'll mentioned that the deadly combination of Crompton + Clawfense went 19 of 41 for 189 at UCLA, 18 of 28 for 162 vs Florida, and 8 of 23 for 67 at Auburn, all losses.  Can it get worse than this?  I hope not.

Drawing some conclusions...

The records for each guy again:

  • Shuler:  5-0 start, 9-3 end of year
  • Manning:  3-4 start, 8-4 end of year (Manning 7-1 as starter)
  • Martin:  13-0 National Championship
  • Clausen:  2-3 start, 8-4 end of year (Clausen 6-1 as starter)
  • Ainge:  7-1 start, 10-3 end of year (Ainge 7-1 before injury)
  • Crompton:  1-3 start, 5-7 end of year (Crompton benched)

In the case of Manning and Clausen, it took all of September for the quarterback situation to resolve itself, and the teams paid the price along the way.  But once the right guy emerged, the team took off.  Shuler and Martin are great examples of teams carrying the young guy along:  both made a couple of spectacular individual plays, but neither was consistently spectacular (especially Martin) at the beginning of their careers.  The difference for them:  incredibly opportunistic defenses, running backs that would go on to become NFL starters (James Stewart and Jamal Lewis), and veteran offensive lines.  Again:  Tee Martin was 16 of 46 in his first two starts...and the Vols won both.  It can be done...you just need the supporting cast to do it.

Without the supporting cast, and with a team implementing a new system, the most appropriate and most unfortunate comparison we can make for this year's outlook (so far) is the Clawfense:  defense can't bail out total ineptitude, running game slowed down by QB growing pains and confusion on the offensive line, and the offense goes absolutely nowhere.

It's Erik Ainge, not Peyton Manning, who was the lone exception:  the '04 Vols won - and won right away - because of Ainge, not in spite of him.  Of course, that team also had a great offensive line and two 1,000 yard rushers...but Ainge was great right away too.

We say all of this to point out that it's unfair to expect Matt Simms or Tyler Bray to be the savior of the program right away.  What we hope, in an obvious rebuilding project, is that one of the two grows into his role along the way, and we're not still trying to figure out who's who this time next year.  But understand, if they have some 3 of 9 or 9 of 26 games in them early on, and/or if the Vols lose three games in September...it's nothing that guys who've won National Championships or finished second in the Heisman voting haven't done here before.

Do the Vols have the supporting cast to cover up the growing pains these two might have?  We've seen how valuable such a cast can be in masking those growing pains...but unfortunately, the best we can say right now is that the jury is still out.  We know this team has capable pass catchers in Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore, and an NFL tight end in Luke Stocker.  Everything else about this offense is a mystery.  Will this defense give them a chance and hold the opposition in check?  That's a mystery too.

We've seen great quarterbacks get off to rocky starts, and we've seen great teams work to overcome it.  We've seen even our very best quarterbacks struggle out of the gate.  Can the Vols avoid the double whammy of poor quarterback play and a poor supporting cast in 2010?  We'll find out...but no matter how rough it may be at the beginning, if this team and these quarterbacks can just show some signs of growth, we'll hold out hope that the best days can still be ahead for Simms, Bray, and the Vols.

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