Cutcliffe wondered if Ainge could follow instructions. Surely, Cutcliffe thought, it wasn't the fault of former UT offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. Cutcliffe has a high opinion of Sanders as a coach. Cutcliffe didn't think Sanders would let Ainge fall into bad habits.
So Cutcliffe entered spring practice with concerns about Erik Ainge as a quarterback, as a passer, as a listener.
Most of those concerns are gone.
I asked Cutcliffe what he likes about Ainge. Part of the answer surprised me.
``He's very coachable,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I didn't know how coachable he'd be. That's a good quality.''
It's also an indictment of Sanders. While Sanders got a lot of mileage out of Ainge as a true freshmen, Ainge regressed as a sophomore, playing about as poorly as any starting quarterback in the SEC. That's one reason he was benched twice in favor of Rick Clausen.
Ainge played so badly, Cutcliffe didn't know if he could take coaching. Cutcliffe assumed he was getting good coaching.
Apparently, Ainge wasn't.
Ainge has other qualities Cutcliffe likes.
``I like his arm strength and he has really good feet,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He's just learning how to use them.''
Cutcliffe said Ainge is ``clearly'' the No. 1 quarterback. But Ainge is still a work in progress. Cutcliffe said Ainge can play ``at another level'' and he must be more consistent with his decision making and accuracy.
While Cutcliffe said the quarterbacks are making progress, he fired this shot: ``They didn't get a lot done before spring because they didn't know how to work.''
Cutcliffe said he was surprised by the lack of tempo and work ethic on offense when he replaced Sanders.
The most eye-popping thing he encountered this spring?
``How far we had to go in understanding how hard we had to work,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I'm impatient. We had to raise that bar fast.''
Cutcliffe also said the confidence level of the offense was down.
``I've been around teams that were very confident, not cocky,'' Cutcliffe said. ``You've got to earn confidence by being good and when you earn it by being good, you can be confident.''
Cutcliffe said the wide receivers, an underachieving bunch the past few years, have made progress.
``From an aggressive standpoint, they've been exceptional,'' Cutcliffe said. ``They're the best run-blocking receivers I've seen in a while and the route running is 100 percent better.''
That's an indictment of former receivers coach Pat Washington, now at Kansas State after being fired in November.
Cutcliffe said the wideouts are better at catching the ball and creating separation – two areas of concern in recent years.
Cutcliffe said UT used a myriad of offensive line combinations in the spring, trying to see who could play where the best.
``We need to be versatile,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I'm excited about the potential of being good there.''
Cutcliffe wants the linemen to be better conditioned so they can run and move their feet and not get tired in the fourth quarter.
Asked what characteristics he'd like to see on his offense, Cutcliffe said: ``To be mentally and physically tough. That's what you've got to be in this league. I want to be balanced. That doesn't mean 50-50 (run-pass). It means run when you want and pass when you want. We want to be crisp and execute well.''
When you have an offense as inept as UT's was last season, you know there are internal problems. Cutcliffe had to pitch his product and the players had to accept.
``The thing I was most looking for was total commitment and buying in to being the best offensive team we could be, to have the discipline and effort to be the best,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We're very close. They're committed to being better, but we've got a long, long, long, long way to go.''
Much longer than Cutcliffe anticipated when he rejoined the Tennessee staff.
NOTES: Receiver Jayson Swain, who practiced the first week of spring before experiencing swelling in his knee, underwent arthroscopic surgery Wednesday to repair the wear and tear on the same knee that was scoped last summer. … Offensive lineman Steven Jones was named the most improved offensive player. … Senior cornerback Jonathan Wade and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Dan Williams were named the most improved defensive players. … OLB Ellix Wilson was listed as a starter ahead of redshirt freshman Rico McCoy. … CB Roshaun Fellows and SS Demetrice Morely are listed as backups but are fighting for starting jobs. … FS Jonathan Hefney could play some corner, said defensive coordinator John Chavis.