Erik Ainge

Tennessee is concerned about the psyche of sophomore quarterback Erik Ainge. It should be.

Ainge needs to become more mentally tough. He needs to quit looking over his shoulder. He needs to quit pressing.

For Ainge to start sharp against UAB, then lose it after Rick Clausen was inserted tells me he's not handling the quarterback competition as he should.

Ainge didn't really WIN the job over Clausen in August. He was GIVEN the job based on his arm strength and mobility. Clausen played better, moved the offense better and was more in control during three August scrimmages.

Ainge knows that. He knows he was picked because of his big-play potential. But he's got to make all the plays, not just the big ones.

Last season, Tennessee actually called more deep passes for Clausen than Ainge, but Clausen kept dumping the ball to backs or throwing underneath because the long ball wasn't there. Ainge kept throwing the long ball - even into coverage.

That gets back to maturity, experience and decision making.

Clausen is 23, Ainge 19. While Ainge has more college starts than Clausen, Clausen has a four-year advantage of playing the position. And make no mistake, he's not the same quarterback that LSU said three years ago couldn't play in the SEC. He's smarter, stronger and more confident. He believes in himself - and his teammates believe in him.

That's why I won't be surprised if Clausen keeps the starting job the rest of the season.

That doesn't mean Ainge won't come off the bench and provided a lift now and then, perhaps even help win a few games.

But I don't see Clausen playing his way out of a starting job. He's too efficient.

Can he beat Florida and LSU on the road? I don't know. But I don't think he'll make mistakes to get you beat - which, at this point, Ainge might.

Vols offensive coordinator Randy Sanders was asked if it was a tough decision to bench Ainge in favor of Clausen at halftime of the Alabama-Birmingham game.

``No, it wasn't tough at all," Sanders said. ``It may have been tough on Erik or it may have been tough on Erik's parents."

Sanders said he is a ``little bit" concerned about Ainge's confidence.

``The guy's still 19, he's still young," Sanders said. ``He hasn't played a lot of football. This is probably a new situation to him. He's probably never been in a competition like this.

``Last year he was alternating with Brent (Schaeffer) but it wasn't so much a competition as it was, we're going to play both because we couldn't get true freshmen ready to do everything they needed to do. He may be pressing a little bit."

Ainge may be pressing because he's carrying a greater mental burden. Last season, Sanders called the plays and made the reads and checks from the sideline. Ainge reacted.

Now, Ainge is responsible for the reads and checks. He's still processing that information while trying to make the right decisions.

Some of that processing is second nature to Clausen.

Against UAB, UT predetermined that Clausen would play the third series.

Against Florida on Sept. 24, Sanders isn't sure yet what Tennessee will do.

``It may be good for Erik to go into the game without having the pressure of being a starter," Sanders said. ``Last year, he was pretty good doing that. It's hard to say what's best until you flip-flop and see what happens."

* Last season, Tennessee lost 34-10 at home to Auburn and the sky fell.

The experiment with the two freshmen quarterbacks, the win over Florida, the anticipating of reaching the SEC championship were gone.

Georgia was next. Big bad Georgia. A nationally ranked Georgia team that looked to be as talented as Auburn and had won four straight over the Vols.

A funny thing happened on the way to UT's seven-win season - the Vols won.

When Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett said after the Auburn blowout that the Vols would play the Tigers again - in the SEC title game - the media scoffed. I scoffed.

No way. No way could the Vols recover from such an embarrassing, one-sided home defeat.

But they did.

It's a Phillip Fulmer trademark.

Seldom has Tennessee played two poor or even mediocre games in a row under Fulmer. The Vols have a way of bouncing back.

That's why Tennessee mentally might be right where it needs to be going into The Swamp. The Vols are underdogs. They've been told how disappointing they were in the opener against UAB.

They've go a chip on their shoulder.

And nothing motivates a team like a chip.

Only four times in Fulmer's 13-plus seasons - 1994, 2000, 2002, 2003 -- have the Vols lost consecutive games.

The UAB game wasn't a loss, but it seems that way to many fans. It was the kind of game that will get the Vols' attention - and give them something to prove.


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