"It's night and day," says Randy Sanders.
As a true freshman last fall Ainge came off the bench to rally the Vols past Florida in Game 2, then started Games 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. He lost his first start (34-10 to Auburn) and his last start (17-13 to Notre Dame) but won the other four. These included impressive road victories at Georgia (19-14) and Ole Miss (21-17).
A separated shoulder on the final play of the first half against Notre Dame caused Ainge to miss the rest of the season. It was a tough break but not a total disaster. He spent his recuperation time observing his successor, Rick Clausen, and increasing his knowledge of the UT offense.
"I think he learned a lot watching Rick," said Sanders, Tennessee's offensive coordinator. "Rick was very efficient as a quarterback. He did it in a much different way than Erik did. I don't think that changes the way Erik plays but it adds another dimension to the way he can play."
Ainge says that new dimension is mostly mental. He has a much better grasp of how to manage the offense than he had last season.
"Sitting out those three months, all I did was watch film and learn," he said. "I know what's going on now. It's night and day."
To underscore his point, Ainge recalled how hopelessly lost he was in his starting debut vs. Auburn last fall.
"I knew plays on paper," he said, "but there were a couple of plays we called that were great plays for what they (Tigers) were doing but I made poor decisions. Now that we've run everything we're going to do a million times, there's not anything he (Sanders) could call that I wouldn't know exactly what's going on."
Ainge's increase in knowledge brings a corresponding increase in the plays available to the Vols. Their "package" will be a lot more extensive than last year, when it was pretty limited.
"I think it'll be a lot tougher for opposing teams to game-plan us this year," Ainge said, "because of how much more I know and how much more we're able to do."
Sanders adds a hearty amen to that.
"Erik has had a whole year of work," the coordinator said. "From where he started last fall to where he is now … it's night and day."