The most popular theories to explain this apparent regression were:
1. He has altered his mechanics since attending the Peyton Manning Quarterback Academy last summer.
2. He has lost his confidence.
Were these really factors in his disappointing 2005 performance?
The answers, Erik Ainge says, are no and no.
"I haven't changed my mechanics," he said. "But there are little things I do on certain types of throws that have helped me."
Still, Ainge admits that his mechanics need fine-tuning. He developed some bad habits in high school that still surface from time to time.
"In high school I was able to get away with throwing off my back foot or just using my arm to complete balls," he said. "You can do that some (at this level) but it's going to get you in trouble more than it's going to help you."
As for his confidence, Ainge says it's OK, even though he lost the first-team QB job to Rick Clausen in Game 1 and didn't really reclaim it until the season finale.
"My confidence didn't slip," he said. "I always knew I would be fine. ‘Tough times don't last, tough people do.' That's something Coach Sanders and Coach Fulmer always told me."
Randy Sanders won't be imparting any more pearls of wisdom to UT quarterbacks, however. He resigned as offensive coordinator, partly because Ainge and Clausen played so poorly in 2005. Taking Sanders' place is David Cutcliffe, the man who molded former Vol quarterbacks Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning into first-round NFL Draft picks.
Ainge hopes to take what he learned from Sanders and bolster it with new lessons from Cutcliffe.
"Everything Coach Sanders taught me is great," Ainge said. "I'll be able to take everything he taught and everything Coach Cutcliffe's going to teach me, put it together, and it'll be very beneficial to me."
Ainge's best game of 2005 was his last one. He completed 17 of 25 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions in the season finale at Kentucky. That provided some much-needed encouragement – not only for Ainge but for the entire UT offense.
"Absolutely," he said. "Winning against Kentucky was good for our team. We had a bunch of guys step up."
Many of those guys won't be back in 2006, though. Receivers C.J. Fayton and Chris Hannon are out of eligibility. So are offensive linemen Cody Douglas, Albert Toeaina and Richie Gandy, along with tailback Gerald Riggs and tight end Justin Reed. Junior offensive linemen Arron Sears and Rob Smith may jump to the NFL rather than return for their senior years. Even so, Ainge says the roster has enough talent to overcome whatever departures it might sustain.
"We've got a bunch of leaders that left and we need some guys to step up, myself included," he said. "I think we're ready to build on it."
There has been speculation that Ainge's disappointing season might prompt him to transfer to a school closer to his Oregon home. That doesn't appear likely at this time. Ainge says Fulmer and Sanders have convinced him that perseverance is the best course of action.
"They said to stick with it and good things would happen," he said. "Good things happened in the Kentucky game and hiring Coach Cutcliffe. Everything's uphill from here."