Ainge in Heisman hunt?

The University of Tennessee backfield will feature two of the top 100 Heisman Trophy candidates this season. At least, that's the word from sports writer Richard Cirminiello of

Earlier this week, the popular website posted picks 81-100, 61-80 and 41-60. Vol tailback Arian Foster checked in at No. 44.

Today's front page features Heisman picks 21-40. Right there at No. 36 is Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge. Ainge certainly began his career like a future Heisman hopeful, completing 55.1 percent of his passes for 1452 yards as a freshman in 2004. He recorded nearly twice as many touchdowns (17) as interceptions (9), and his passer efficiency rating was a solid 135.89.

He had the mother of all sophomore jinxes in 2005, however. Ainge completed just 45.5 percent of his passes last fall. His passing yards were cut nearly in half (737). Worse, he threw more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). As a result, his passer efficiency rating plummeted to 89.94.

Ainge's struggles contributed to the fact Tennessee averaged just 18.6 points per game last fall. And the paltry point production led offensive coordinator Randy Sanders to resign. His successor, David Cutcliffe, boasts such proteges as Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning. Can Cutcliffe get Ainge back on track? Cirminiello obviously thinks so. Here's what he has to say about the rising junior QB:

36. QB Erik Ainge, Tennessee – Yes, Ainge was miserable throughout his sophomore year, but the skills that made him an instant star in 2004 are still there, and so is new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. If Ainge returns to his freshman form and ignites the Vol offense, he'll be up for more than just Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Other Southeastern Conference players ranked between 21 and 40 on Cirminiello's Heisman watch list include:

22. Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas

32. Brandon Cox, QB, Auburn

35. JaMarcus Russell, QB, LSU

Presumably, Cirminiello's top 20 Heisman prospects will be posted later this week. To view his picks thus far, go to, then click on the "Heisman 100" link.

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