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Phillip Fulmer's Tennessee Vols are coming off a 9-4 season, which included a second-place finish in the SEC Eastern Division.
AP photo by Rob Carr
Phillip Fulmer's Tennessee Vols are coming off a 9-4 season, which included a second-place finish in the SEC Eastern Division.

Vols' strategy
for victory

Fulmer rests hopes for Tennessee
on QB Eric Ainge

By Ross Dellenger
sports@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

HOOVER — Tennessee quarterback Eric Ainge never thought that he would be compared to a women's basketball player. But Friday, he was.

Looking for answers to why is team has not won a national championship in eight years, Vols coach Phillip Fulmer approached fellow colleague and close friend Pat Summit, the coach of Tennessee's tradition-rich women's basketball team. Summit went nine straight years without a national championship until this year, when she captured her seventh.

"We were talking about her nine-year stretch and why she thought she hadn't won a championship," Fulmer told a group of reporters at the final session of Southeastern Conference media days Friday.

"She said it's pretty simple ... it's Candace Parker."

Parker, the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman sensation, helped lead Summit's team to the championship.

Fulmer, trying to end his championship drought, thinks Ainge can be his team's Candace Parker.

"Erik Ainge can be that kind of football player that our team rallies around, that takes the bull by the horns and makes the play that help you win a championship," the 56-year-old coach said.

With a gaggle of reporters hanging on his every word, Ainge — television lights and camera flashes illuminating his face — responded: "I understand exactly what he is saying. You need your big time players to step up and play a big time role."

As for the difference between Ainge and Parker, he said, "She can dunk."

Ainge said he used to be able to dunk a basketball, but he hasn't tried in about two years.

For Tennessee's sake, he shouldn't try anytime soon.

Ainge is the senior leader of a program that went 9-4 last year when he completed 67 percent of his passes, but missed the league championship game.

Even now, the Vols still are reeling from a 5-6 record posted in 2005, Fulmer's worst in his 15 season as head coach. As Ainge struggled during that season, so did Tennessee.

Because of his inconsistencies, the sophomore was forced to share time with Rick Clausen, constantly looking over his shoulder not knowing when he would get yanked from a game. He completed only 45 percent of his passes as the Vols skidded to their first losing season since 1988.

"I didn't prepare myself for that season, physically, mentally, emotionally," Ainge said. "I kind of fell in that trap."

The trap Ainge is speaking off was the hype that surrounded him and Tennessee football before the 2005 season even kicked off. Ranked No. 3 in the nation and with people already talking about Ainge's NFL future, the Volunteers lost to Florida in their second game then dropped five of their last seven as the sophomore quarterback spiraled out of the spotlight.

That season taught Ainge to be humble, and he says he is tested now.

"Winning football games is what will define me," the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder said. "I am ready."

But again, the hopes are high for the Volunteers and Ainge. Reporters attending media days picked Tennessee to finish second in the SEC East, with 16 first-place votes. The Vols probably will begin the season in the top 20 nationally. Ainge, an Oregon native, was chosen on the second-team all-SEC offense and hands-down garnered the most media attention Friday.

His coach, fittingly, added to the pressure.

"We did an evaluation on Erik," Fulmer said. "He came back as a late first-, early second-round pick (in the NFL draft)."

SEC football media days

The head coaches and two players from each of the 12 SoutheasternConference teams attended the league’s annual publicity sessions this past week in Hoover. A rundown of which schools spoke with reporters when:

Who went Wednesday

  • Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and South Carolina.

    Who went Thursday

    n Alabama, Vanderbilt, Florida and Mississippi State.

    Who went Friday

  • Georgia, Ole Miss, LSU and Tennessee.

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