Is the old Ainge back?

There was a different air about Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, and it wasn't just the hair. No blonde streaks. No earrings, either. Just the basic look, with a greater calm and a more confident glow in his eyes, eyes that too often glazed during the blur of a 5-6 season.

Ainge, entering his junior year, says he's confident and comfortable with Tennessee's offense. He said that last year, too.

But this time, I think he actually means it. He's more comfortable with his offense and more confident in his coach.

``I'm real excited,'' Ainge said. ``There's not enough hours in the day to do what we want to do offensively. We can't have enough practices to do what we want to do offensively.''

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer recently said Ainge would have to regain the confidence of his teammates after a poor season in which he completed only 45.5 percent of his passes and at times looked like a deer in headlights.

Erik Ainge disputes that.

``I feel they always have had confidence in me,'' said Ainge, a starter as a true freshman in 2004 before suffering a separated shoulder. ``Even at times when it was bad last year, I don't think they necessarily placed all the blame on me personally.

``They understand it's a team game and I understand it's a team game.''

Tight end Chris Brown agreed with Ainge's assessment.

``We never lost confidence in him last year,'' Brown said. ``Everything was back and forth and we didn't know who the quarterback would be at any given time.

``We have confidence in him and I know he has confidence in us because he's just being Erik again. He's the Erik from his freshman year. He has his swagger back. He's taken control in the huddle and on the field. He's happy.

``He compliments us when we do something. He corrects us, we correct him. He accepts everything that we say. Even if he doesn't agree with it, he'll listen to it and try to make it better.''

David Ligon, a senior left guard, said he's observed a different Ainge.

``Erik looks great, seeing him in spring practice and his pocket poise,'' Ligon said. ``He won't just run out of the pocket if something goes wrong. Instead, he shuffles over and waits for the receivers.

``It was like watching Peyton Manning back there, someone that really knows how to play the game. He's done an unbelievable job. Whether it was him wanting to learn or coach (David) Cutcliffe (offensive coordinator) teaching him, I think it's made Erik a darn good football player.''

The best way to find out won't be under center during scrimmages but at the controls during games. No matter how impressive Ainge is in 7-on-7 passing drills or in practice, he still has to do it on the field in front of 107,000 screaming fans to completely restore his confidence and that of his teammates.

Ainge can't wait to prove himself after last season's debacle.

``Personally, I was looking in the mirror at myself first,'' Ainge said. ``Any good football player will look in the mirror before he points a finger at anyone.

``Now, I absolutely think we will surprise teams with our offense. I think we're fired up. We know how good we could be. At the same time, we knew how good we could have been last year and we didn't (get it done).

``I think it's helping that we have a solidified quarterback as of right now and we have good receivers. We're only going to play three or four. I think it will help us get on the same page and I think it ultimately will help us be a better offense.''

Ainge said he's already seen vast improvement in the receivers.

``I saw it in the summer,'' Ainge said. ``I saw it in the spring. These guys are really working their butts off right now.''

So is Ainge. And if Mr. Ainge becomes Mr. Accurate, the Vols should be able to rebound quite nicely from Fulmer's first losing season.


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