For the first time in its history, Tennessee will open a season starting a true freshman at quarterback.
For now, coach Phillip Fulmer isn’t saying who it will be.
The 14th-ranked Volunteers, hoping to keep their opponent off-guard, have yet to reveal their starter at quarterback as they prepare to meet UNLV in their season opener Sunday.
Fulmer has decided who will be Tennessee’s starting quarterback, but he’s waiting a bit to make the much-anticipated announcement.
Freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer are listed as co-starters on the latest depth chart. One of them will be the first true freshman to start an opener at Tennessee and the first in the SEC since Georgia’s John Rauch in 1945.
Until Wednesday, Fulmer had been saying he and the staff had not decided which quarterback will take the first snap.
Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said Tuesday he didn’t place much emphasis on which one starts.
“I don’t really look at it as a starter. It’s just a matter of which one is going to take the first snap,” Sanders said. “We’ve got two guys that are pretty equal.”
Both quarterbacks are expected to play Sunday night. The second quarterback might get into the game by the third series, but it depends on the situation, Sanders said.
Senior Cedric Houston is looking like he will be the first tailback in the game instead of Corey Larkins and Gerald Riggs, who have had some impressive runs in preseason scrimmages.
“Houston, Riggs, Larkins will all get a chance to play at tailback along with Jabari Davis,” Fulmer said. “We’re looking for that guy to emerge and we’re expecting to see those guys getting it done.”
Several Volunteers will be making their first career starts Sunday, including redshirt freshman Roshaun Fellows at left cornerback opposite junior Jason Allen.
Both safety positions were vacated by last year’s seniors Gibril Wilson and Rashad Baker. Sophomore Corey Campbell subbed for Baker some last season and will start at free safety. Junior Brandon Johnson will start at strong safety.
Offensive tackle Albert Toeaina will have to wait to make his much-anticipated debut because of a “significantly bruised tibia” on his right leg, Fulmer said. Toeaina could return in time for the Florida game Sept. 18.
Other new starters include junior Justin Reed at tight end, sophomore Cory Anderson at fullback, sophomore Rob Smith at left guard and sophomore Justin Harrell at defensive tackle next to junior college transfer Jesse Mahelona.
While the 2003 squad posted road wins at Florida, at Miami and at Alabama in five overtimes, the Vols finished the season 10-3 after a second straight loss in the Peach Bowl. Fulmer knows that’s not good enough.
Five seasons after winning the national championship, Tennessee’s goal is winning another. But remaining a title contender seems to get tougher each year.
There’s one big step Fulmer’s team must take if it plans on getting back to the national championship.
“Everybody wants to talk about the national championship, but you better talk about the East (Division) and the SEC championship,” Fulmer said.
UNLV returns 13 starters—seven on defense—from a team that went 6-6 after two straight losing seasons. The Rebels’ last winning season was in 2000, when they went 8-5.
UNLV also has a platoon of sorts at quarterback. Senior Kurt Nantkes will start Sunday, coach John Robinson said last week, but sophomore Shane Steichen should get plenty of playing time.
“Kurt Nantkes will be our starting quarterback,” Robinson said. “Both he and Shane Steichen had extremely impressive camps and both are prepared to play effectively in this offense. The competition was great but Kurt will be our starter and Shane should see action in every game.”
Nantkes started the first 10 games last season, then was hampered by a groin injury. Steichen started the final two games, with Nantkes coming off the bench.
Tennessee won the only meeting between the teams, 62-3 in 1996.