Ainge is careful Vol

The fact freshman quarterback Erik Ainge has thrown just one interception in his first 56 collegiate pass attempts shows he's careful with the football. He's also careful with his words.

Following a brilliant 10-of-15 passing performance Saturday against Louisiana Tech that produced 198 yards, three touchdowns and a 42-17 victory, Ainge faced the media. Naturally, one of the questions regarded his status as a backup to fellow rookie Brent Schaeffer. Asked if there are advantages to coming off the bench, Ainge chose his words with the same poise he shows on the field.

''It DEFINITELY helps,'' he said. ''You're able to see the same sort of defensive looks we practiced against all week.''

Realizing the next question inevitably would concern whether he thinks he should start Game 4 vs. Auburn, Ainge plowed ahead.

''It (coming off the bench) has advantages and disadvantages. Me and Brent both know that and we want to win either way.''

Ainge hints that his work in practice may be keeping him out of the starting lineup.

''I'm not always a great practice player,'' he said. ''I've always done well in the games but I need to do a better job in practice. I think that'll help the whole team out.''

Through the first three games Ainge has completed 36 of 56 passes (64.3 percent) for 508 yards and a whopping eight touchdowns. His passer efficiency rating is an imposing 184.06 and he has guided the offense to 10 touchdowns and a field goal in 20 possessions -- a remarkable level of efficiency.

Schaeffer has been nearly as productive, however, despite throwing the ball considerably less. The quick-footed Floridian has completed 13 of 21 passes (61.9 percent) for 213 yards and two TDs, while compiling a passer efficiency rating of 178.53. He has led the Vols to six touchdowns in 14 possessions.

Asked if he'll go with the same quarterback rotation -- Schaeffer for series 1 and 2, then Ainge for series 3 and 4 -- this Saturday against Auburn, head coach Phillip Fulmer hedged.

''I don't know,'' he said. ''We'll have to look at the film and decide that. Whatever we need to do to win (he'll do).''

Ainge's most impressive play against Louisiana Tech was a 60-yard TD strike to Bret Smith, a bomb he uncorked without bothering to set his feet. Naturally, he said the credit should go to the guy who caught the pass, rather than the guy who threw it.

''Bret Smith's a great player,'' Ainge said. ''Bret's a guy you can always count on. If you put it up and give him a chance to make a play on the ball, he's going to make a play.''

In fact, he's going to make a TOUCHDOWN play often as not. Smith has six catches thus far, with three of them producing TDs. He's averaging a hefty 21 yards per reception.

With Smith, Chris Hannon and Robert Meachem giving Tennessee three outstanding deep threats, Ainge's powerful arm looms as a key to the Vols' remaining games. He concedes that he's making progress on a weekly basis.

''Every week the game gets a little bit slower,'' he said. ''The game is starting to come a little bit more.''

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