Erik does Athens, part II

Tennessee's No. 1 quarterback shouldn't be intimidated by Sanford Stadium when the 13th-ranked Vols visit the 10th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs Satuday night in Athens. He has fond memories of the place.

Erik Ainge made his first road start as a college quarterback at Georgia in 2004 and responded with a superior performance. He guided an 80-yard drive on the first possession, capping it with a 22-yard touchdown strike to Bret Smith. Ainge then directed a 49-yard drive that produced a field goal and a 10-0 lead. He finished the day 12 of 21 for 150 yards and two touchdowns as the Vols upset the third-ranked Bulldogs 19-14.

"He played exceptionally well for a freshman against a good defensive team," Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer recalls. "He made a lot of big plays in the ball game. It certainly doesn't hurt anything that he's had success there."

Fulmer believes Georgia's 2006 defense is better than its 2004 stop unit. Then again, Ainge is better than he was in 2004, too. Now a junior, he has thrown for 1,389 yards and 12 touchdowns with just five interceptions.

"He's more comfortable in the offense, understands more," Fulmer said. "He has more (options and weapons) at his disposal. I think he'll be fine. We just have to make sure we protect him, give him time to operate and have some sort of balance with our run game."

Although Ainge has been spectacular to date, he still has room to grow.

"He has really improved a lot," Fulmer concedes. "But there are still times when he's a little deep in the pocket, still times when you wish he would've stepped up and made the throw. He's a work in progress in some ways."

The biggest change in Ainge is that he is no longer throwing the ball up for grabs. When his intended target is covered, he'll dump the ball to a running back or throw it away.

"He's really in tune to those things – whether it be laying the ball off, staying in the pocket or scrambling," Fulmer notes. "You can see in his practice habits how hard he's working at those things."

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe thinks Ainge has improved significantly since the Vols' Game 3 loss to Florida. In fact, the coordinator thinks the entire UT offense is better than it was three weeks ago.

"I think we're better right now than we were going into the Florida game," he says. "But these guys (Bulldogs) may be even more of a challenge, so we'd better be better."

Cutcliffe has tweaked the Vol attack throughout the season, moving from a run-first offense to more of a pass-oriented attack. Last week against Memphis he relied heavily on two-tight end, one-back sets with no fullback.

"Trying to put the best 11 people on the field," he says, "is the most important thing we can do."

Tennessee's coaches must be doing a good job of that because the offense has improved dramatically from 2005 to 2006. Ainge's completion percentage has risen from 45.5 to 69.9 and his passer-efficiency rating has jumped from 89.94 to 179.91. Meanwhile, the Vols' scoring average has zoomed from 18.6 points per game to 32.0.

"David's done a fantastic job, and that's an understatement," Fulmer says. "He's done a tremendous job with our toughness and our discipline and all of those things.

"But the way I look at it is, we should've been doing this before because it's a lot of the same guys."

Dawg Post Top Stories