Nowhere to go but up

The Tennessee Vols are looking for better quarterback play in 2006, and it shouldn't be hard to find. Almost anything would be an improvement over the erratic quarterback performance they got in 2005.

Consider: Tennessee quarterbacks Brent Schaeffer, Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen combined for 27 touchdown passes in 2004 as the Vols posted 10 victories. Ainge and Clausen combined for only 11 TD passes in 2005 as the Vols notched just five victories.

Now that Clausen is out of eligibility, Ainge has the quarterback job virtually by default. Still, he must improve on last year's performance, when he compiled a chilly 45.5 percent completion percentage and a woeful 89.94 passer-efficiency rating. Ainge's struggles were a key reason Tennessee averaged a paltry 18.6 points per game last fall, costing offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens and receivers coach Pat Washington their jobs.

If Ainge can return to the form he showed as a freshman in 2004, Tennessee's offense could make significant strides in 2006. Tailback Arian Foster ran for 879 yards as a redshirt freshman last fall, even though he was Gerald Riggs' backup for six of the 11 games. Tennessee needs another big year from Foster, plus a bounce-back year from fullback Cory Anderson, a 265-pounder who slumped badly in '05 after a fine year in '04.

Head coach Phillip Fulmer says the 2005 receiving corps underachieved more so than any group at any position he can remember. Trooper Taylor is now coaching the wideout corps, which features Robert Meachem (a team-high 29 catches last fall), Jayson Swain (27 catches) and Bret Smith (21). Sophomore Josh Briscoe, who averaged 20 yards on four receptions as a freshman, could be poised for a break-out year. Fellow soph Lucas Taylor has the speed and elusiveness to provide the big-play dimension Tennessee has lacked in recent years.

Tight end Chris Brown returns after catching 14 balls a year ago. He should double that total this fall.

The only significant departures from the 2005 offense were in the line – tackle Albert Toeaina, plus guards Cody Douglas and Rob Smith. If suitable replacements can be found, Tennessee's attack should be better than it was a year ago. Arron Sears is a preseason All-American at left tackle, and David Ligon will start at either center or guard. The best bets to fill out the starting line are sophomores Ramon Foster and Anthony Parker, along with junior Eric Young.

If the line play is solid, Tennessee's offensive performance should be better in 2006 than it was in 2005. Then again, how could it be much worse?

"It all comes down to execution," Ainge said. "It doesn't matter what we're calling. We could tell ‘em (defenders) what we're going to run, but if we execute they shouldn't be able to stop it."

Tennessee's execution was so bad in 2005 that David Cutcliffe has been brought in to fix it. He coordinated the high-scoring Vol attacks of 1993-98, then left to become head man at Ole Miss. Now that he's back, Vol fans are hoping for a return to past glory.

"We're doing a lot of different stuff," Ainge said. "We're not just doing the stuff we did last year. I don't want to get too in-depth but it's all good stuff."

Even "good stuff" won't work, though, unless the execution is significantly better than last year. The quarterbacks missed too many open receivers. The running backs fumbled too many times inside the 5-yard line. The receivers dropped too many catchable passes. The line incurred too many drive-killing penalties. All of the new plays in the world won't help unless these problems are fixed. Ainge believes that process already has begun.

"I think we're drastically improved," he said. "We've still got a long way to go but I think good things will come."

If Ainge stumbles, Tennessee's next option at quarterback is Jonathan Crompton, a 6-4 redshirt freshman who missed the entire 2005 season with a shoulder problem.

"Jonathan Crompton has been great, coming off an injury as severe as he had," Cutcliffe said. "He's basically like a true freshman stepping on the field. But he has pushed himself physically. It's very important to him."

Cutcliffe's quarterback pupils have included No. 1 NFL Draft picks Peyton and Eli Manning. The coordinator isn't expecting his 2006 quarterbacks to display the brilliance of a Manning, however. He just expects them to be solid.

"I'm pleased with those guys," Cutcliffe said. "But they can play at another level. Consistency is something that's got to be there."

It wasn't last year, which is why Tennessee finished ninth among SEC teams in passing offense, ninth in rushing offense and eighth in total offense.

For things to improve significantly in 2006, Ainge must play much better, the youthful line must jell quickly and the wide receivers must play up to their potential.

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