Tennessee QB Key For Volunteers Offense

FAYETTEVILLE -- Quarterback Erik Ainge doesn't have fond memories of Tennessee's last game against Arkansas.

That's because he was sidelined with a sprained ankle. All Ainge could do was watch backup Jonathan Crompton struggle in his first start, while Arkansas running back Darren McFadden sprinted his way into the Heisman Trophy picture during the Razorbacks' 31-14 win last November.

"It was tough," Ainge said Wednesday. "Any time you've been playing and you have to miss a couple of games, that's hard. But at the same time, we feel like we've come a long way since that game last year."

Ainge will try to make up for last season's absence when he leads the 22nd-ranked Volunteers (6-3, 3-2 in Southeastern Conference) against Arkansas (6-3, 2-3) at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in Neyland Stadium.

The senior's career has been plagued by various injuries, but Ainge has helped Tennessee climb to the top of the SEC Eastern Division standings this season. Now, he's hoping a win against the Razorbacks will help the Volunteers reach their first SEC Championship Game appearance since 2004.

If anybody will lead them there, Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer said it's Ainge.

"Erik's the leader of our offensive football team," Fulmer said. "He manages the game exceptionally well. We missed him last year. Arkansas did a great job defending us. ... We're glad he's healthy and will be able to play."

Ainge's numbers may not be gaudy, but he has been solid during a season in which Tennessee's defense has been picked on by opponents.

Ainge has completed 211 of 323 passes (65.3 percent) for 2,138 yards with 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He is third in the SEC in passing yards a game (237.6) and pass efficiency (133.2 rating). He also is third on the school's career passing chart. But more importantly, Ainge has been the steady hand for an offense that is leaning on younger players, particularly at receiver.

Fulmer characterized the Vols quarterback play as outstanding earlier this season. Ainge -- who is one of just two senior starters on offense -- shied away from the pat on the back when asked about it Wednesday.

Instead, he deflected much of the credit to his teammates.

"One of the reasons we've been able to be successful doing what we do here is because we've been protecting so well, and we've been able to run the football, and the young receivers that haven't really played at all have stepped up and made some plays for us," Ainge said. "I think the quarterback position, you're usually only as good as the guys around you.

"I think that I've played well. Obviously, need to keep getting better, get better every week and we just keep trying to win games."

Linebacker Jerod Mayo said those chances increase with Ainge in the huddle.

"He makes great decisions on the field," Mayo said. "Any time you have a senior quarterback on the field it gives you the upper hand. Hopefully he can come out Saturday and have a great game."

Arkansas knows firsthand what experience under center can mean.

Take, for example, the list of quarterbacks the Razorbacks have faced in their three Southeastern Conference losses. Kentucky's Andre Woodson and Auburn's Brandon Cox are seniors. Alabama's John Parker Wilson is a junior, but is in his second season as the Crimson Tide starter.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said Ainge also has the potential to be "deadly," which could challenge a defense that struggled to stop South Carolina in the second half.

"He's the leader of this team and who they depend on," Herring said. "It makes for an interesting contest. We've gone against some great quarterbacks this year, some excellent offenses. This is no exception."

But for all of Ainge's successes, one of the biggest reason for Tennessee's efficiency on offense has been his ability to stay on the field this season.

The first three years of his career were dominated by injuries ranging from a separated shoulder as a freshman to last season's sprained ankle. Ainge also missed last spring after undergoing knee surgery and broke his pinky finger in August, an injury that hampered him early in the year.

But Ainge hasn't been sidelined by any injuries this season.

He's hoping it will pay off with an SEC division title within reach.

"Stay healthy and keep winning," Ainge said. "That's the goal."

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