Can Rick Do It Again?
Never underestimate a Clausen
by Tony Basilio
Summer camps and quarterback battles are all about speculation. This summer camp at UT is no exception. Talk to people in the know, and they maintain that anything can happen.
In one corner you have the high school hotshot from Oregon with the famous last name, Ainge. In the other, the journeyman player, who is following in the footsteps of an underappreciated brother. Not exactly a typical situation on the number three-ranked team in America (according to the coaches’ poll.)
One guy is going to emerge in the next few weeks as Tennessee’s starting quarterback. The smart money is on the raw physical talents and pedigree of Erik Ainge. Then again, the smart money was on Rick Clausen never even being in this position.
Twelve short months ago, Clausen was buried on Tennessee’s depth chart. The junior quarterback entered camp in ’04 as a seldom-thought-of transfer from LSU who was playing out the string. His arrival at Tennessee, greeted by very little fanfare, was seen as a courtesy to the beloved Clausen family. Rick Clausen’s brother Casey had just graduated. Tennessee had a need for a few bodies to fill out their quarterback rotation. Rick was there. He was very little else but there. Between the junior Clausen and playing time stood senior C.J. Leak and a pair of talented freshmen in eventual season-opening starter Brent Schaeffer and the aforementioned Ainge.
Clausen didn’t have a much chance of seeing the field, and he knew it. “It’s always one of those dreams that you have in the back of your head (to get a chance to start and play at UT), but it was starting to look gloomy at mid-season. That’s the good thing about football. You never know. You just have to be ready,” Clausen says.
Much to Clausen’s credit, he was ready. Minus a key interception that helped contribute to a loss to Notre Dame, Clausen played beyond anyone’s expectations.
Following the Notre Dame loss, Clausen shook off his rust and settled in as Tennessee’s starter. The Vols down the stretch became his team, and subsequently played their best offensive football of the year. With Clausen at the helm, Tennessee put up 35-plus points in three of its final four games. Not too shoddy for a team guided by a one-time fourth-team quarterback. Asked if last year was a vindication, Clausen didn’t mince words.
“Not vindication. I knew I could play. It was just a matter of getting on the field and showing what I can do,” he says.
What Clausen did was raise the level of focus on the offense. His was a solidifying presence for a team that was teetering on the brink after losing multiple quarterbacks and a late-season football game. Instead of collapsing, the Vols managed to win the SEC East, only to fall short 38-28 in a spirited loss to Auburn in the league championship game. And Clausen’s finest hour was yet come, with a big-league effort of 18 for 27 for 222 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-7 thrashing of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
“Once I did get on the field toward the end of the year, the last game was a culmination of where my season went. It was a good way to finish off the year,” Clausen says.
The Cotton Bowl, where he was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, and the subsequent off-season have set the stage for what promises to be a couple of intriguing weeks. Clausen seems resigned to accepting whatever his fate happens to be.
“Things are right where they should be. I think everybody knows what I can do. A lot of people know what Erik can do. I think it’s just a matter of us going out and getting better every day. The coaching staff is the guys with the difficult decision,” Clausen says. “The football team, no matter who is the quarterback, is going to play well. We just have to go out there and execute on the offensive side of the ball.”
Clausen knows there are critics who want to see the stronger-armed, more ballyhooed and physically talented Ainge over him. “There are a lot of things I don’t have, but then there are a lot of things that I do possess. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Some of the greatest quarterbacks ever to have played the game didn’t have quote, unquote ‘all the physical skills.’ It’s not about your physical skills. It’s about getting the job done. It’s about moving the football and putting the football in the end zone and scoring points,” Clausen says. “Everybody can say what they want to say. Quite frankly, I don’t care. Everybody has an opinion. I just go about my business.”
No matter who emerges as the starting quarterback, Clausen remains resolute as to Tennessee’s expectations for the upcoming season. “If we play the way we need to play and we play the way we know how to play…. That’s our goal to win a national championship,” Clausen says.
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