Has Erik Ainge hit his stride?

Quarterbacks usually are evaluated based on their arm strength and their brainpower. Sometimes, though, the key to a QB's success is what's happening below the waist, not above it.

Take Tennessee's Erik Ainge, for instance. Asked recently to pinpoint the most important thing he learned in 15 spring practices with new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, he responded almost immediately.

"My lower body is the whole key to everything," he said.

Ainge developed some mechanical flaws related to his footwork and balance that caused him to complete a mere 45 percent of his passes in 2005. He threw more interceptions (7) than touchdown passes (5) and compiled a woeful 89.9 passer-efficiency rating. Cutcliffe apparently fixed those flaws this spring and helped Ainge get back where he needs to be emotionally, as well as fundamentally.

"He's got me relaxed, comfortable, throwing the ball short and quick – kind of like the Kentucky game (where you) just get a couple of completions early," Ainge said.

Ainge completed a few simple passes in the early stages of last November's season finale against Kentucky. Buoyed by the early success, he finished 17 of 25 for 221 yards and two touchdowns – by far his best performance of 2005. He followed a similar strategy in last Saturday's Orange & White Game – hitting a few short passes early to build some momentum, then making tougher throws as the game progressed. His numbers were similar to those he posted against UK … 14 of 22 for 210 yards and two touchdowns.

Clearly, a positive start provides a nice boost for Ainge's confidence.

"It's the same way with Meachem," he said, referring to Vol wideout Robert Meachem, who caught five passes for 135 yards in the O&W Game. "Get him a couple of completions early and there's no telling what he can do.

"I'm the same way: Get it going quick and then stay with it."


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