Can Cutcliffe fix Ainge?

David Cutcliffe knows the numbers. Tennessee's offensive coordinator knows Erik Ainge completed only 45.5 percent of his passes last year, reaching 50 percent in just one game. And he knows Ainge has hit 50 percent in only four of 11 SEC games.

But Cutcliffe is convinced the 6-foot-6 junior with the rifle arm can jack his percentage considerably with more knowledge and better fundamentals.

``The first thing with accuracy is knowing exactly what you want to do with the ball,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I don't think people realize how much goes on before the ball is snapped We've got about 2.5 seconds after it's snapped to get back and get it out.

``I just think he's had problems with those pre-snap reads, problems with knowing what he wanted to do with the football or having a good idea before the ball is snapped.''

Could Tennessee buy more time by putting Erik Ainge in the shotgun?

Cutcliffe says no.

``That (2.5 seconds) doesn't change in the shotgun,'' Cutcliffe said. ``That's a misnomer. People think the gun gives you more time. It does not.''

The second part of the equation: Fundamentals. Ainge needed to silence his lower body and improve his throwing motion.

``I saw it first hand, watching it last year,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He was just erratic in his fundamentals, erratic in alignments. His accuracy suffered some. Physically, he's skilled, but his fundamentals lacked.''

Cutcliffe said the combination of not knowing what to do and poor fundamentals will ``lend itself to being below a 50-percent completion guy, if you're not real lucky.''

Ainge wasn't real lucky. It got to the point last season where you were surprised to see the guy with a big-time arm make a big-time throw. He missed long. He missed short. He missed in-between.

If confidence were the Tennessee River, Ainge was a mud puddle.

But Cutcliffe saw considerable improvement in Ainge's fundamentals during the spring, and he thinks his ``project'' can be a 60-percent passer.

``Sixty percent will win games for you,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Now, 60 percent and 4 yards per completion may not. If you're throwing screens and bubble screens you better throw 60 percent or higher.

``The way you throw for 60 percent is you want to be unbelievably accurate when you lay it off. I'm real interested in us throwing on digs and seams and curls and outs and corners. I want to see that percentage go up. We didn't do that well enough in the spring.

``We've got to throw it and catch it better than we did in the spring for us to be successful.''

In his two seasons at Tennessee, Ainge has 22 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions. Cutcliffe can't live with that. He'd like the ratio to be better than 2 to 1.

``I'd like to throw 40 touchdowns, but not at the expense of forcing the ball to get it done because I don't want to throw 20 interceptions,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I'd like to see a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio if you're really being efficient. If we throw 18 touchdowns passes and three interceptions, that's certainly successful. But if we throw 18 touchdown passes, we better run for about 35 touchdowns.''

Ainge has had only two career games in which he's thrown for more than 200 yards: a career-high 231 against Ole Miss (coached by Cutcliffe) in 2004 and 221 against Kentucky in 2005. He has averaged 145.5 passing yards in games in which he's played at least a half.

Against that backdrop, I asked Cutcliffe if Ainge averaging 225 yards (translating into 2,700 yards for a season) would be a reasonable goal.

``That would be minimum in my book,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I think we can throw the ball downfield with the people we've got if we're accurate and learn how to protect. I like drop-back passes, but I really like play-action. If you're running the ball decently, you've got a chance at a bunch of big plays. Personally, that's what I'd like to see us do.''

And Cutcliffe would like to see a more confident, less confused Erik Ainge.

``I think he's earned a lot of confidence,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I use the word earned. I think you have to earn confidence. People can't give you confidence. I can't give it to him. I told him that when we started.

``Once you know what to do, you become more confident. He's reaching that level where he understands. I sense it in him when he comes to visit. He text messages me all the time with questions. I know he's thinking about football. The questions are getting better. That's a good sign. His confidence is coming back and he's looking and thinking about the right things.

``He's a big guy. He sees well. He's got good vision. Handling the blitz, handling surprises are the things he's got to continue to work on. He's a really good athlete, really good athlete. He was a tremendous baseball and basketball player.

``You've just got to use all that, put it together and get back to having fun playing football. I'm going to tell you, you're not going to be a good decision maker if you're not having fun. He needs to have fun but be responsible for that football.''


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