'He and we failed miserably'

If Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer had a dollar for each time he has been asked about quarterback Erik Ainge since the 2005 football season ended … well, he probably could have matched his 2005 salary of $2.05 million.

After enduring the mother of all sophomore jinxes last fall, Ainge is the hottest topic around. Knowing he'd be asked about Ainge during today's media golf outing at Gettysvue Country Club, Fulmer broached the subject himself.

"As you break us down, there's a lot of conversation obviously around Erik Ainge," the coach said. "We saw as a freshman, certainly, what he is physically capable of doing. The youngster has a lot of talent. For whatever reason – and there's probably a number of them – last year he just didn't get it done. He, and we, failed miserably."

Ainge's descent from fabulous freshman to shell-shocked sophomore has been recapped too many times to warrant another retelling here. Suffice to say, he wasn't half as effective in 2006 as he had been in 2005. Fulmer is hoping a new season and a new offensive coordinator (David Cutcliffe) will bring back the old Ainge.

"He took the challenge in the off-season and spring practice," the head man said. "He's a different guy right now. The tough times and the good times he's had have helped him mature. He's got a different demeanor about him.

"David (Cutcliffe) has done a wonderful job with him – not only from a fundamental standpoint but also from a mental standpoint and a preparation standpoint. I'm encouraged about his progress."

If Ainge plays as poorly in 2006 as he did in 2005, redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton may be ready to overtake him. Crompton missed the 2005 season with a shoulder problem that required surgery but he had a good spring and has closed the gap on UT's No. 1 quarterback.

"Jon Crompton certainly has made significant progress, although going in Erik is clearly the No. 1 quarterback," Fulmer said. "Jon Crompton is a guy that's continued to work and will be there to continue to compete and be there if we have an injury or anything like that comes up."

Ainge and Rick Clausen played so poorly in Tennessee's 2005 quarterback platoon system that the Vols averaged just 18.6 points per game. Fulmer is confident the QB play will be better in 2006.

"I'm encouraged about our quarterback position," he said, "but we've got to go to the field and prove it."

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