Erik the enigma

E is for Erik … and Enigma.

In a Tennessee football season filled with disappointments, the play of sophomore quarterback Erik Ainge has to rank near the top of the list. He's enormously gifted, yet he's completing just 41 percent of his passes with more than twice as many interceptions (7) as touchdown passes (3). He's also a very bright young man, yet he makes silly mistakes.

Just last week Ainge was telling a circle of reporters how he had come to realize the importance of dumping the ball off to a running back instead of trying to force a pass downfield. Here's the exact quote:

"Just because they call a play with three verticals (deep routes) doesn't mean I have to throw one of the verticals. We have a lot of layoffs and stuff. That's one thing I've gotten away from. I've been trying to make stuff happen down the field."

That comment suggested Ainge had seen the error of his ways and would not be throwing any more ill-advised passes like the ones against LSU (Game 3) and Notre Dame (Game 8) that were intercepted and returned for touchdowns.

"That's not what I've been coached to do," he said. "If it's not open, throw it to the running back. A lot of times watching the film I've seen where we had guys open short and I was trying to stick something in downfield.

"I think that's the biggest thing (he has learned) now: I'm going to give us a chance to make the big plays but I need to put us position where we're not relying on those alone to win the game."

Hearing these comments, you figured Ainge would go out and make sound decisions in Game 9 against Memphis. Instead, he threw an interception on his third pass attempt and another on his fourth.

Head coach Phillip Fulmer was OK with the first interception, noting: "We had an out (route) called. The guy (cornerback) didn't back up and the receiver ran by him but Erik was late getting the ball to him."

The second "Oskie" was another matter. Rolling to his right, Ainge tried to loft a 30-yard pass over one defender and underneath another to a tightly covered Vol receiver. The ball was picked off by Memphis' Rod Smith and returned to the Tiger 46-yard line.

Fortunately for Tennessee, the play was negated when Ainge was decked and a roughing-the-passer penalty was called. Unfortunately for Ainge, he was sacked again moments later, this time by his head coach. Fulmer benched him in favor of Rick Clausen, who took every snap the rest of the game. Later, however, the Vol coach tried to soften the blow in his post-game remarks.

"We're fortunate to have a guy (Clausen) that can distribute the ball and understands pressures," Fulmer said. "I don't look at it as Erik didn't do that well, as much as I do we have two guys we can go to."

Maybe the Vols really do have two guys they can go to. But they only have one they can count on … at least until Erik Ainge becomes more of a leader and less of an enigma.

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