Evolution of a Quarterback

Michael Robinson of Penn State was a pedestrian quarterback who split time at receiver and running back his first three college seasons.

He was athletic, but not an effective quarterback. His senior season, however, he emerged. He was responsible for 27 touchdowns (16 passing), the second-highest in school history. The Nittany Lions averaged 35.8 points in Big Ten games after averaging 12.8 the year before.

Robinson shattered Kerry Collins single-season Penn State record for total offense with 2,882 yards (785 rushing). He is the first Nittany Lions quarterback to rush for 10 touchdowns in a season. He was selected the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

Carson Palmer of Southern Cal was a hot-shot high school prospect who hadn't lived up to the hype in three college seasons. Entering his senior year, he had as many interceptions (39) as touchdown passes (39) and the Trojans were 6-6 his junior year.

But in 2002, Palmer completed 309 of 489 passes (63 percent) for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions. He led the Trojans to an 11-2 record and a BCS bowl victory over Iowa. He also won the coveted Heisman Trophy.

Jason Campbell of Auburn was considered a liability. He had completed 63 percent of his passes as a sophomore and as a junior, but he didn't make big plays and he didn't win big games.

All that changed in 2004, when Campbell led Auburn to a 13-0 record, the SEC Championship and a No. 2 ranking. He completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. He was a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

Brady Quinn of Notre Dame, like Palmer, was a top-notch prep prospect who had not lived up to expectations. He hit 47 percent of his passes as a freshman, 54 percent as a sophomore. He had 26 touchdowns passes, 25 interceptions and a sub-.500 record.

But this season, Quinn became a Heisman Trophy candidate. He hit 64.9 percent of his passes for 3,633 yards and 32 touchdowns - surpassing the total of his first two campaigns combined. He also led Notre Dame to a 9-2 record, a top five ranking and a BCS Bowl.

What do these four quarterbacks have in common?

Each had a rocky start to their college careers and each turned it around with the help of a new quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator.

Robinson took off after Galen Hall was hired at Penn State to run the offense.

Palmer blossomed under noted offensive guru Norm Chow.

Campbell benefited from the instruction and play calling of Al Borges.

Quinn looked like Tom Brady under his new head coach, Charlie Weis, who helped Brady and New England win three Super Bowls.

That brings us to Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge.

Never have I seen a quarterback have such a poor season after showing so much promise his first season. As a true freshman, Ainge passed for 1,452 yards and a school-freshman-record 17 touchdowns. He completed 55 percent of his passes and beat Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss in helping the Vols win the East Division and play for the SEC Championship.

The Sporting News named him SEC Freshman of the Year and second-team freshman All-American.

But this past season, Ainge was, in a word, awful.

He was a 41 percent passer entering the Kentucky game. He failed to complete at least 50 percent of his passes in any game, except for Kentucky, which had one of the nation's 20 worst defenses.

Ainge threw high and short, behind and out front. He made horrible decisions throwing out of his end zone and might have led the nation in intentional grounding. His pass efficiency rating was one of the worst in the SEC among quarterbacks with at least five starts.

Can Ainge bounce back? Yes, but he's got a huge rebuilding job ahead.

He's got what the other four quarterbacks have - a fresh start with a new offensive coordinator. David Cutcliffe's first order of business, outside of recruiting, will be to restore fundamentals and confidence to Ainge. Cutcliffe must build from the neck up, before he works from the neck down.

Ainge has too much talent to stay in the tank. And as we've seen, other quarterbacks who looked rather average have emerged as stars.

It will take that sort of turnaround by Ainge for Tennessee to compete for a championship this season, unless redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton quickly develops.

Interestingly, UT entered the 2004 season with quarterback play that was supposed to rank among the top four in the SEC. It ended the season ranked among the bottom four.

If quarterback play doesn't become considerably more efficient, the Vols might spend a second consecutive Christmas at a place they'd rather not be - home.

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