A Simple Plan

It seemed like such an uneventful, innocent play.

Tennessee was in its own territory. The clock was winding down in the first half. The Vols led Notre Dame 10-7.

You could take a knee and go into the locker room nursing an uncomfortable three-point lead. Or you could take a chance on a rarely executed Hail Mary pass.

Tennessee chose the later. It was a huge mistake.

From the shotgun, Erik Ainge fumbled a low snap and was leveled by Irish linebacker Brandon Hoyte. Ainge suffered a season-ending shoulder separation.

Ainge hasn't been the same since. For the most part, neither has Tennessee.

Tennessee lost that Notre Dame last season, 17-13. The Vols are 6-7 since that play, including 3-5 this season.

It was the most significant injury to a Tennessee player in 20 years. It not only had an impact on the player but the program. And the affects aren't over.

Ainge's injury cost the Vols the Notre Dame game last season, it cost them a shot at a top 10 ranking, it cost them Ainge for the rest of the season, and it's cost them Ainge for this season. It might have cost them Ainge for next season, or, perhaps, his career.

No injury the past two decades has had greater ramifications. UT lost Tony Robinson in 1985 but managed to win the SEC Championship and the Sugar Bowl. UT lost Chuck Webb in 1990, but Tony Thompson won the SEC rushing title and the Vols wore the SEC crown. UT endured season-ending injuries to stars such as Kelley Washington, Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon. But none hurt as much as Ainge's.

Ainge is not the same quarterback he was last season. He's not the same guy who passed for 1,452 yards and a school freshman-record 17 touchdowns.

If not for Ainge's injury, he would have started the Vols' last four games last season and probably led the team to an 11-2 record, Rick Clausen would have never played and tasted success, and there would have never been a quarterback competition and never been a subsequent quarterback controversy.

But the Vols are where they are and the question that begs an answer: Can Tennessee win or contend for an SEC Championship with Ainge at quarterback?

Based on the way he's played this season: No.

Based on the way he played last season: Yes.

Which Ainge will the Vols get next season? Who knows?

Ainge will need an extreme makeover. He'll need to regain his confidence, regain his mechanics, regain his accuracy and regain his moxy.

His decision making against Notre Dame rivaled that of a freshman - a high school freshman. He had two interceptions, two intentional grounding calls, took a 4-yard sack in the red zone when he should have thrown the ball away and failed to get out of bounds with less than four minutes left when he needed to stop the clock.

He might have a high IQ off the field, but his football IQ is comparable to Forest Gump.

``Ainge made some mistakes at the end of the game you can't make,'' Fulmer said. ``He'll learn. He's a young guy.''

He's not THAT young. He's a two-year college player with double digit starts under his belt.

David Cutcliffe, former Tennessee offensive coordinator, said whoever coaches Ainge next season would have to school him as if he were a true freshman and start over with fundamentals.

Tim Irwin, a former Tennessee star offensive lineman, doesn't like what he's seen from Ainge, who has completed just 41 percent of his passes.

``He throws a nice ball when he has time,'' Irwin said. ``When somebody flashes at him, he goes in the tank, no doubt about it.''

Will Ainge go in the tank against Memphis? Vanderbilt? Kentucky? If he struggles against those teams, do you insert Rick Clausen to save the day? If he struggles against those teams, is there any reason to believe he can win for you next season?

For whatever reason, Ainge gets worse as the game goes on. He regressed against Alabama-Birmingham, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Notre Dame. It's a disturbing trend, a trend that makes you doubt his future ability.

It also makes you wonder how mentally tough Ainge is. He handled the quarterback rotation last season. He hasn't handled it this season.

With the touted Jonathan Crompton redshirting this season, the quarterback derby could be intriguing again. It will start in the spring. It will carry over to the fall.

All because of the most significant Tennessee injury in the past 20 years.


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