Extreme Makeover

What follows is part two of a four part series on UT's current quarterback situation, coming off a year when the offense sputtered. This series is based on the writer's observations and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any other IT staffer.

It seems as though spokespersons have been lining up since early in the year to give personal testimony to the transition of Erik Ainge from suspect signal-caller to high-caliber quarterback. In fact, it almost sounded like everybody officially addressing the Ainge issue was reading from the same page of talking points, all the time refusing to acknowledge there was ever any problem with Ainge that couldn't be fixed with a little positive guidance and mechanical tweaking.

Naturally, former offensive coordinator Randy Sanders was brought out for his requisite flogging by the fans, while former Ole Miss head coach, respected QB guru and longtime Tennessee assistant David Cutcliffe was hailed as the solution to an offense that has ranged from stale to sluggish to stagnate in recent years.

Undoubtedly, his organizational skills and strategical insights would be a boost to virtually any offense, and Coach Cut is a highly accomplished quarterback coach, but turning Ainge into a top quality SEC quarterback is a trick that may be more worthy of David Copperfield than David Cutcliffe.

This opinion, and let's clarify that this entire analysis is nothing more than one man's opinion, is offered not to demean Ainge or diminish Cutcliffe's capabilities as coach and coordinator. Rather it's based on what we witnessed last season when a combat ineffective Ainge had to be relieved four times during games, and that doesn't count the Notre Dame meltdown in which he went all the way.

The assortment of problems he suffered from were more psychological than they were physical, technical or mechanical. He simply couldn't perform under pressure, whether he got off to a good start or a slow start. He had some immediate success coming off the bench in a few contests, but soon reverted to form.

In reality UT's starting quarterback is always under the microscope and, consequently, under pressure. When you coupled that pressure with defensive pressure it became unbearable for Ainge, who seemed to add his own pressure to the burden. He really didn't show the ability to deal with competition on his own team much less on an enemy defense. His first quarter performance in Baton Rouge might go down as the worst by any UT quarterback — EVER.

Sure, he was victimized by some dropped passes and missed blocks — what QB isn't? — but, on balance, he was his own worst enemy and appeared to be ill equipped to tame his inner demons, much less inspire and lead his team.

Now he's got a new coach, new team and new season and Ainge will get a chance to start with a clean slate. However he had all those same things in the Orange and White Game last spring when he posted some respectable stats, but also suffered a couple of panic attacks in which he put the ball up for grabs. That was while playing with a green jersey which meant he was off limits to any contact from the defense.

He followed that with a sub par performance in the first full contact scrimmage of fall practice, which included a desperation heave from his own end zone that reminded many of his infamous faux pas at Tiger Stadium last fall. He played better in the second scrimmage on Saturday, but that's hardly enough to allay apprehensions about how he will hold up against an athletic and aggressive California defense that will target him from the opening whistle to the final horn before a packed Neyland Stadium and national TV audience.

It doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for recovery, especially with Florida waiting in the wings.

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