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July 27, 2007

Fulmer says Ainge has star power Vols need

HOOVER, Ala. Football players are always drawing comparisons, so it was no surprise that on Friday at the Southeastern Conference Media Days that Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge was, too.

The comparison used might have raised a few eyebrows.

Peyton Manning? No. Casey Clausen? No.

Rather, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer was comparing Ainge to All-American basketball player Candace Parker, who led the Lady Vols to the women's national championship last season.

"There are a lot of good players around, but not a lot of Candace Parker-type players," Fulmer said. "Do I think Erik Ainge can be that kind of player? I do. I think Erik Ainge can be the type of football player that our team rallies around, that he takes the bull by the horns and makes the plays that help you win a championship."

Ainge came 11 yards short of passing for 3,000 yards as a junior last year. If he does the same thing this season he'll leave Knoxville with more passing yards than any Tennessee quarterback except Manning and Clausen.

But he knows great numbers won't ensure his legacy as a great quarterback. The Volunteers celebrated 40 victories in Manning's career and 37 during Clausen's. Ainge knows he'll be defined by how many games the Volunteers win this year.

"Your senior season (defines your legacy)," Ainge said. "Winning football games is what does that.

"An average quarterback that plays on a great team and wins a lot of games is remembered as a great quarterback. It's all about wins and losses. Winning football games is what will define me as a quarterback."

Ainge will be without his top three receivers from a year ago, including Robert Meachem, a first round NFL Draft pick.

Fulmer admitted he can't be completely replaced.

"We have four guys - Quintin Hancock, Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe and Austin Rogers - that have played some," Fulmer said. "I do believe those guys will be in the right place to catch the ball. But I don't believe they can give us the dynamics that a Robert Meachem can give us."

However, Fulmer is optimistic that Ainge can improve and become a Candace Parker-type player who can make his teammates better.

"Erik has all the tangibles and intangibles as a player," Fulmer said. "He's had great success when nobody expected him to. He had some disappointments. So, from a maturity standpoint he ought to be able to handle anything.

"Specifically, play the way he's capable of playing. Hang in the pocket, make the plays he's supposed to make, not allow the defense to touch the football when it's his responsibility. Those would be the things that he could do to help us to reach that Candace Parker level."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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