Inadequate quarterback play had as much to do with Tennessee's first losing season since 1988 as underachieving wide receivers and overweight offensive linemen.
Erik Ainge admitted in March that he was confused last season, the victim of former offensive coordinator Randy Sanders going at a pace too fast for the sophomore.
Now, all that has changed. At least, that's what Ainge is saying.
``I'm a lot more confident,'' Ainge said. ``I can see what coach (David) Cutcliffe has done with my fundamentals, how successful I can be and how accurate I can be throwing the football.''
Accuracy has been a problem for Ainge. He completed 55 percent of his passes as a true freshmen, 51 percent in his final four starts before suffering a season-ending shoulder separation. He hit less than 50 percent in three games.
Last season, Ainge converted 45 percent of his passes. In only one game did he complete at least 50 percent of his passes – going 17 of 25 in the season finale against a weak Kentucky defense.
This spring, Ainge threw with more accuracy. He has limited the movement in his lower body and improved his throwing motion, two things which should make him a better marksman.
As Ainge has progressed, his teammates have followed. Asked if he has the confidence of the team, Ainge said: ``Absolutely. I think they've got their faith in me now. Knowing I'm starting quarterback, I think, helps a lot. Not wondering who will be the guy … like it has been the last couple of years.''
Just as importantly, Ainge has the trust of Cutcliffe, who helped lead Tennessee to a national championship and who developed Peyton and Eli Manning.
Watching last season as a fan and as an analyst, Cutcliffe wasn't sure about Ainge. He saw an inaccurate passer who made poor decisions under duress and seldom made a big play. Now, Cutcliffe sees a quarterback capable of playing winning football.
``Confidence is something you earn and he's starting to earn that because he knows what he's doing and he's comfortable with what he's doing,'' Cutcliffe said.
``His tempo is so much better. His lower body is better.
``I haven't asked his teammates, but I think their confidence in him should be high. He's been willing to work at it and do what it takes. You can't fool them, either. I think they probably recognize the fact he's in control of what we're doing right now.''
Ainge has to be. If he's not, the reigns revert to Jonathan Crompton, a redshirt freshman who had shoulder surgery last fall. Ainge has played in 17 college games, starting 11. Crompton hasn't played in a college game.
That experience alone separates the two.
Still, Ainge has to do it in a game. You can hit brilliant golf shots on the practice range, but until you can take your game to the course, you haven't arrived.
``Erik is a lot better right now (than before spring practice started),'' Cutcliffe said. ``How he handles things is going to be interesting. He's learned the importance of having command of what you do.
``I hope Erik understands just how much more he's got to go.''
Ainge seems to. This summer could determine how successful he is this season.
``A lot of people get into this stereotype that quarterbacks don't have to do much in practice, they've got a green jersey on,'' Ainge said. ``For the first time, I know how to work and get better every single day.
``I'll take this summer and get on my Ps and Qs and learn a lot more football. I'm not taking a day off. I can't wait until the fall.''
ALL VOLS HAVE SOMETHING TO PROVE
After a lackluster season by the wide receivers, Robert Meachem was asked if the group has something to prove.
``I don't care who you are in the world, you play college football and you play on Saturday, you've always got something to prove,'' he said. ``It doesn't matter if you're a receiver. Everybody's got something to prove because everybody wants to be No. 1.''
LINEMEN CAN IMPROVE, TOO
During the offseason, it is generally conceded that quarterbacks and receivers can make the most progress because they can work on the passing game.
But linemen can improve, too, said Cutcliffe.
``A lot of people think summer work is just throwing and catching,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I want our offensive linemen to understand, they've got all summer to work on their own on the run game, on fits, on being in the right place and taking the right steps. I expect them to do that. They need to be better come August.''
NOTES: Don't be surprised if Stanley Asumnu does not return to the team in the fall. UT isn't likely to put him on scholarship for football – how would you explain that to David Yancey? – and it's doubtful Asumnu would work this summer knowing he would be a walk-on in the fall. Asumnu is very athletic, but he doesn't have athletic skills such as the ability to shoot or handle a basketball, catch a football or hit a baseball. … Safety Demetrius Morely might see 10-15 offensive snaps a game this fall at receiver. He worked some at wideout in the spring and he's probably the best athlete on the team.