Eighteen-year-old quarterbacks do not, as a rule, give coaches peace of mind. But in the second quarter of Tennessee's 30--28 win over Florida last Saturday, Erik Ainge came off the field after a 16-yard TD pass and made a comment that thrilled and chilled out offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. "He had seen a cornerback's eyes shift to one receiver, and that tipped him off to throw to the opposite side of the field," says Sanders. "Most freshmen just see a mess of jerseys. Erik saw where a defender was looking and adjusted. He'd taken command of the game."
This is an article from the Sept. 27, 2004 issue
Less than a month ago the Volunteers weren't sure how to fill their quarterback opening this season. In August workouts, senior C.J. Leak and junior Rick Clausen were unimpressive as they sought to replace four-year starter Casey Clausen. Coaches decided the future was now and named true freshmen Brent Schaeffer of Deerfield Beach, Fla., and Ainge, from Hillsboro, Ore., as co-starters. In two wins the pair has passed for a combined 473 yards and six touchdowns. Given the anemic offense Georgia has displayed against South Carolina and Marshall, the production of Tennessee's tandem helps make the 11th-ranked Vols the team to beat in the SEC East.
The duo's differences boggle defenses. In a 42--17 victory over UNLV, the 6'2", 195-pound Schaeffer stole the show with silky running moves that have earned him the label Little Vick. Florida was Ainge's win. With precocious poise, the 6'6", 200-pound pocket passer engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive to pull Tennessee within one point, 28--27, with 3:25 remaining. On the next possession Ainge completed passes of 21 and seven yards to put the Vols in field goal range, allowing James Wilhoit to redeem an earlier PAT miss with a 50-yard winner.
With Tennessee facing fourth-and-six midway through the next-to-last series, Sanders signaled a pass. Fazed neither by the call nor by the roar of a record home crowd of 109,061, a smiling Ainge simply said to the huddle, "Let's do this," then hit senior wideout Tony Brown over the middle for a first down. "I'll try to joke around before a game and keep loose during it," says Ainge. "It's something my uncle Danny has taught me to do."
When Uncle Danny is Danny Ainge, the former NBA guard who now runs the Boston Celtics, you take heed. For a while Erik's father, Doug, thought the son he calls Bones would follow in Danny's footsteps as a basketball and baseball player. But when Erik zipped tidy completions to seven teammates in his first youth-league football game as a sixth-grader, his destiny took a turn. Danny took Erik to renowned sports psychologist Jonathan Niednagel. "We were told Erik is the same brain type as John Elway and Dan Marino," says Doug. "I hadn't envisioned football for him, but from that point I couldn't say no."
If Tennessee coaches want to settle on one starter--and they say they're in no hurry to do so--it might be difficult for them to say no to Ainge's strong arm and strong will. Then again, Schaeffer broke several brilliant runs against Florida. As Ainge signed autographs at midnight, Schaeffer complimented his teammate and looked forward to Louisiana Tech. "We definitely feed off each other," said Schaeffer. As long as that's the case, the Vols will feed off their freshman quarterbacks. --Kelley King