Ainge 'can relax a little bit'

Erik Ainge feels as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders now that he knows he'll start at quarterback in Tennessee's football opener Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham.

"You can relax a little bit," the 6-6, 212-pound sophomore said.

Since Ainge edged out senior Rick Clausen by the narrowest of margins, he might be inclined to worry about getting pulled if he has a bad series or two. He insists that isn't the case, however.

"Coach Fulmer made it obvious that he's not going to take me out after my first mistake," Ainge said. "If I go out and throw an interception, he's not going to sit me on the bench just because I threw a pick.

"Knowing that is going to help me a lot to play my game, because my game is a little more relaxed, on the move, throwing the ball down the field. I think knowing I don't have to be looking over my shoulder and can just go out and play will help a lot."

Although Clausen statistically outperformed him in preseason scrimmages, Ainge believes he's a more effective QB than he showed in workouts.

"In practice, it's a lot more low-key," he said, "so your mind can wander sometimes and you can start thinking about stuff that you shouldn't be. In the game, it's all in the moment. You're not wondering about anything but the next play."

Given that Clausen completed 77.3 percent of his scrimmages passes to Ainge's 53.6 percent, you wonder how Erik won the job. He believes his upside was the key.

"The old coaching rule is ‘If all's even you usually go with the younger guy,' " Ainge said. "I don't think there's a real big difference between me and Rick. I think I have my strengths and he has his strengths, and I think Coach Fulmer just thought that mine outweighed Rick's and were better for the team."

One of Ainge's strengths is a big-time arm that opens up the vertical passing game for Tennessee. That, in turn, helps open up the running attack.

"We should be great throwing the ball," he conceded. "If we wanted to be a team that went four-wide and threw for 400 yards a game we could. If we wanted to be a team that went two tights and ran for 250 yards a game we could."

After winning his individual battle with Clausen, Ainge can focus all of his energies on improving his skills and winning Saturday's battle with UAB.

"Now that they've named me the starter," he said, "I think I need to go out and just keep it rolling, get better."

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