Extreme Makeover

What follows is part one 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.

None of this is news to the average Big Orange fan much less UT's coaching staff. Yet from all appearances every attempt has been made to bolster Ainge's confidence and create conditions under which he has an opportunity to succeed. He has been given the job and has secured the unwavering support of his coaches.

However that may have more to do with wanting to avoid any hint of the type of quarterback controversy that divided the Vols last season, and led to a tedious game of musical QBs throughout a long season of discontent. Like Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Phillip Fulmer's first priority is to preserve the union since a house divided can not stand, regardless of how good the quarterback may be.

Additionally, Ainge has played the better part of two seasons and enjoys a clear edge over the other signal callers on UT's roster in terms of experience. It's obviously in the Vols best interest to have a functional Ainge even if it's in a back-up capacity.

What Ainge hasn't shown he possesses is perhaps the most significant characteristic a signal caller can have — poise under pressure. It's one of those intangibles that can't be measured, but is easy enough to distinguish in the heat of battle. It's an ability to slow down events in the mind's eye, decompress time and grasp spatial relations amid the chaos of flying bodies and pursuing defenders. It's an ability to remain focused when protection breaks down, and to find receivers when a play breaks down. It's a knack for sprinting toward the line of scrimmage and still being able to deftly loft an accurate pass.

Judging from what Ainge demonstrated in 2005, the speed of the game from his perspective must look like he's standing in the straight-away at the Indy 500. How much that's changed in a year is something we won't know until he's proven he can withstand pressure and consistently perform under big-time game conditions.

Cutcliffe can do some things to help Ainge gain early rhythm and more confidence i.e. maximum protection, shorter routes and reliance on an improved running game. However opponents, who have watched reams of video tape from 2005 will continue to test him with blitzes, stunts and by crowding the line of scrimmage. In other words, they will force Ainge to beat them.

Unfortunately, UT doesn't enjoy the type of overall talent advantage against the toughest opponents on the schedule that it did in the 90s. In order to win games against teams like California, Florida, Georgia and LSU, the Vols need a playmaker at quarterback, who can create scoring opportunities. That translates to making plays outside the pocket, turning busts into gains, buying time by avoiding pressure and setting a competitive tone for the team.

That might be more than a supremely confident and fully functional Ainge can deliver, and such an Ainge has yet to be seen. He had his moments as a freshman, but also had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and a more talented offensive line. He rallied the Vols against Ole Miss on the road and handled the offense well in UT's upset of Georgia in Athens. However he had five turnovers against Auburn, including a fumble on his own goal-line. He struggled against Notre Dame and never seemed the same after suffering a shoulder injury on the final play of the first half that ended his season.

That's why it's only natural to be suspicious of reports that Ainge has found his confidence and is ready to compete against the predatory defenses that populate the SEC. He lost his confidence in the tumult and maelstrom of gridiron warfare and he won't find it under the controlled conditions of a team scrimmage or in pedestrian passing drills. If you lost your car keys in Neyland Stadium would you expect to find them on lower Hudson?

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