SCOTT: Just how big is Ainge's injury?

At first glance, losing quarterback Erik Ainge for the rest of spring practice wouldn't seem like a big deal for Tennessee.

After all, he showed significant improvement as a junior, he's had a full season to work with offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, and he's an experienced starter entering his senior season. It's not like he was fighting for his job.

 

Upon closer inspection, this could be a bigger problem than it might appear on the surface, in light of some of the challenges Tennessee faces this spring.

 

The Vols bounced back from a 5-6 season in 2005 to finish 9-4 in 2006, but they still lost to Florida and LSU at home and on the road at Arkansas in the regular season before closing out the season with a poor performance in a 20-10 Outback Bowl loss to Penn State.

 

That leaves Tennessee with plenty of work to do this season. The Vols got started early on Feb. 22 and immediately jumped into a new, no-huddle offense that appeared to be a good fit for Ainge's talents and experiences.

 

"He threw 67 percent completions during the course of the year, and we're going to try to use his talents any way we can," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said early in spring practice. "It's an attempt to see where we are with it, and it would be basically how we would manage the offense. We're going to take our shots at seeing what we can do with it as an offense."

 

The no-huddle approach experienced some ups and downs in the first two weeks of spring practice, which is understandable, but it took a definite turn in the wrong direction when Ainge suffered partially torn cartilage in his right knee.

 

While repairing torn cartilage is a relatively simple process and barely compares to the impact and rehab time associated with torn ligaments, it still removes Ainge from the spring equation.

 

"I think everything happens for a reason," Ainge said. "I've just got to make the best of it."

 

With Ainge out, the Vols are working with two remaining scholarship quarterbacks — sophomore Jonathan Crompton and redshirt freshman Nick Stephens — and waiting on the arrival of signee B.J. Coleman in the fall.

 

Losing Ainge becomes a problem because the Vols face a multitude of challenges to fill holes and answer questions on an offense that must replace two offensive line starters, three leading receivers and a starting fullback.

 

The offensive line must replace its anchor, All-SEC left tackle Arron Sears, as well as a solid starter, guard David Ligon. In addition, talented sophomore center Josh McNeil is questionable for the rest of the spring following a citation by police for underage consumption and public intoxication. And two probable starters, Eric Young and Anthony Parker, will sit out the spring because of injury.

 

The situation up front barely compares to the concerns at receiver, where the Vols must replace Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith.

 

"We're quite a ways away from anything close to what we were," Fulmer said.

 

Tennessee returns just four receivers – Austin Rogers, Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe and Quintin Hancock, who caught a pass last season – and those four combined for only 26 receptions, 252 yards and no touchdowns. Junior Lucas Taylor is the Vols' leading returning receiver with 14 receptions for 101 yards.

 

"I told those receivers, ‘There's not going to be one thing written about how good you guys are. There's not going to be one of you put up for all-conference. Your job is to go out there and put yourself on the map'," Tennessee receivers' coach Trooper Taylor said.

Those four better make the most of their time in the spring because junior college signee Kenny O'Neal and prep school signee Brent Vinson will arrive this summer ready to compete for playing time.

 

"We're going to have to make do with what we have and what we're bringing in," Ainge said. "But I think we will be better in the passing game this year than we were last."

 

The problem is that Ainge won't be around to work with them for the rest of the spring or in informal workouts for another two to three months. That makes the running game even more important, especially after the Vols finished 10th in the SEC with 108 rushing yards per game last season.

 

"We weren't a bad running team," Cutcliffe said. "We chose to throw the football. But as I look at this team, I don't think there's any question that we have to be a better running team to present the kind of offense we've got to have to do what we all ultimately talk about, and that's score enough points to win."

 

Even if that means operating a no-huddle offense?

 

"When we're in no-huddle, everybody tends to think that the offense isn't going to come and hit them in the mouth," junior tailback Arian Foster said. "What we want to emphasize is that we're going to have a no-huddle offense, but we've still got Tennessee football, and we're going to come at them."

 

 

 

 

When South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier secured a commitment from highly regarded prep quarterback Stephen Garcia last fall, Garcia was seen as the Gamecocks' quarterback of the future. Now, Garcia's future at South Carolina remains uncertain until Garcia makes a commitment to get his act together.

 

Garcia enrolled at South Carolina in January with the intention of participating in spring practice, but two arrests in two weeks have put his football career on hold.

 

Garcia, 19, was first jailed on Feb. 17 on charges of drunkenness and failure to stop on police command after officers responded to a report of an altercation behind a Columbia club.

 

Then on March 1, a visiting professor from Claflin University told police he watched Garcia use a key to scratch his car. Professor Lourie said Garcia's vandalism was a response to a dispute over a parking space. Garcia allegedly offered $500 to the professor for restitution, but Garcia actually caused $800 in damage.

 

Garcia has since been suspended from joining the football team in spring practice or any football-related activities.

 

"Stephen Garcia will be suspended from all football team activities through the end of this semester," Spurrier said. "He will be expected to go to class and study hall but will not participate in any spring practices or team football meetings."

 

Spurrier added that he hoped Garcia would make "an all-out effort to get his personal life in line with our other Carolina football players and eventually reach his full potential as a student-athlete."

 

Garcia issued a public apology to the professor, Spurrier, his teammates and fans. Then, when it came time for him to appear in court, he cut off the hair he had been growing for two years, shaved his beard and wore a dark coat and tie. When he returns to court this week, Garcia is expected to apply for pre-trial intervention (PTI) so all of the charges will be erased from his record. PTI is a diversion program for first-time offenders charged with nonviolent crimes.

 

Even if Garcia receives PTI status, he's still got a lot of work to do to earn the respect and acceptance of his coaches and teammates.

 

"Time will tell. He's got a lot of time to try to earn his way back," Spurrier said. "I hope he's learned his lesson and can stay straight from now on."

 

 

 

If Garcia can't appreciate all he's been blessed with as a college athlete, perhaps he should call Auburn freshman Tim Hawthorne, who is fortunate just to be alive after surviving a fatal car crash.

 

About 12 hours after catching a touchdown pass in an Auburn spring scrimmage, Hawthorne was a passenger in a horrendous crash on I-85. Hawthorne and several friends traveled in two vehicles to Atlanta to visit Hawthorne's brother. Hawthorne survived with bruises and a split lip, but his friend, Auburn student Claude Reese, died as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.

 

"I remember pretty much the whole thing, as far as when the car got out of control," Hawthorne told the Birmingham News. "We started swerving from left to right. I don't know how fast we were going, but we were going pretty fast at the time. We started tumbling towards the right and went off the road. We must have flipped at least 20 times. When we stopped, we were up against a tree. We were upright, but all the windows had shattered."

 

"I'm very blessed to even be alive. I wasn't supposed to be here today. My life was spared."

 

With the loss of leading receiver Courtney Taylor, Auburn had big plans for Hawthorne this spring, but he will now play only a limited role in the spring while he heals his body, mind and heart. He did return about a week after the accident but is only participating on a limited basis.

 

"It will be a while before he does anything," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "It's more mental. It's a pretty tough time for him. The Good Lord gave him a second chance. It's obvious He has something better for him to do. It was good to have him back out there."

 

 

 

 

Swimming usually doesn't make this page, but it's hard to ignore the dynasty that is Auburn swimming and diving.

 

Like LSU baseball (before the Smoke cleared) and Arkansas cross country, Auburn is the nation's premier swimming and diving program. That should continue to be, even though longtime coach David Marsh will leave Auburn after the season to become head elite coach and CEO at the United States Olympic Committee Center of Excellence in Charlotte, N.C.

 

The Auburn women gave Marsh his 11th national championship last weekend, and the men are expected to make it 12 this weekend in Minneapolis. Even though Marsh will be difficult to replace, Auburn made a smart move last week by hiring Marsh's mentor, Richard Quick, to take over when Marsh departs.

 

Quick, a young, energetic 64, is a six-time United States Olympic coach who directed 12 teams to NCAA titles. He coached at Auburn from 1978-82 and won 12 NCAA titles – seven at Stanford and five at Texas – before retiring last year.

 

Quick thought he was done until Auburn called ... and called, and called, and called. Marsh credited athletic director Jay Jacobs and senior associate athletics director Meredith Jenkins for staying after Quick.

 

"When I had thought about leaving last summer and announced it in the early fall, my hope from the very beginning was that Richard would consider coming out of retirement for the Auburn job," Marsh said. "I knew he loved his experience when he was at Auburn, I knew he would cherish the opportunity to coach men and women, and I knew, if he would accept it, he'd be the best guy in the world that we could get."

 

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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