KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer knows the margin between victory and defeat can be small - maybe as small as his quarterback's little finger.
Injury-prone senior Erik Ainge jammed the pinky on his throwing hand taking snaps on Monday, Fulmer revealed during his gameweek news conference Tuesday.
How it might affect Ainge when the 15th-ranked Volunteers open the season Saturday at No. 12 California is unclear.
``Erik is obviously the leader of our offense and the football team,'' Fulmer said. ``He has done exceptionally well.''
As a junior, Ainge set a single season record for pass completions, connecting on 233 of 348 throws (67 percent). He also threw 19 touchdown passes, raising his career total to 41 - third on the school list behind Peyton Manning's 89 TD tosses and Casey Clausen's 75.
``We will just have to see how sore his finger is,'' Fulmer said of Ainge, who sat out spring practice with an injured knee but has played throughout the preseason. ``We are going to be careful with that, to make sure he is ready to go Saturday.''
In the meantime, Fulmer said sophomore backup Jonathan Crompton and freshman Nick Stephens will get more repetitions in practice.
The Vols have been putting in time on a no-huddle offense since the spring.
``We are certainly capable of doing that. We worked on it very diligently,'' Fulmer said. ``I think that we can manage that. We need to test it and find out'' how effective it will be.
Asked if the Vols will need Ainge to run it, Fulmer said, ``No, no.''
Ainge had a field day against Cal last year in Knoxville, leading the Vols to a 35-18 victory with four TD strikes. But that was with three receivers now gone, including first-round draft pick Robert Meacham.
Receivers are just one of the areas that Fulmer is hoping to fill or improve. Juniors Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe and sophomore Austin Rogers all are expected to be solid choices, but assistant coach Trooper Taylor said a go-to guy has yet to emerge.
As Fulmer begins his 16th season as head of the Vols, he said he likes to ``look at every year as a new start for us.'' He talks about the Vols building momentum from last year's 9-4 season, a rebound from 5-6 in 2005, without mentioning their last outing - a 20-10 loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl.
But he knows there are things you can't control or foresee.
``Depth as we go through the season is always an issue,'' Fulmer said. ``In this league (the SEC) it gets down to a player or two making a play and an injury somewhere. It is that close with everybody that you play.''

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