Extreme Makeover

What follows is part four 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.

I've seen world class boxers destroyed in the ring in who never recover. They walk away with their physical gifts intact, but they are shattered on a psychological level and lose the will to fight or perform under duress. I've seen relief pitchers that could throw a rib roast past a ravenous pack of hyenas that couldn't get a baseball across the plate if their life depended on it — never mind with a game on the line. I've seen Gold Glove infielders that, for no explicable reason, suddenly can't make a simple throw to first base without heaving the ball into the stands.

In combat it's called "battle fatigue" or "shell shock." In sports it is known by other names, none of which are flattering. "Choking" and "Spitting the Bit" are among the more popular. Yes, such labels are unfair because players suffering from this type of malady are guilty of trying too hard if they're guilty of anything. We've all heard how trying your best is all you can do. Who among us have not used it as a form of defense?

So it's hard to fault a guy for doing no more than we might do ourselves in a similar situation. Still we expect more from our sports heroes both in everyday life and, especially, in the high-drama of the big moment. Fair or not, if you cost your school a national title by missing a 25 yard field goal, you're not going to buy a lot of good will by selling the "tried my best" defense.

Although Ainge exhibits many classic characteristics of advanced athlete's angst, he's not an accomplished collegiate athlete like the examples cited above. He was a good high school quarterback who didn't rank in the top 20 at his position in the Class of 2004, and wasn't a prized prospect by premiere football programs, although he had his share of regional offers.

Tennessee was the exception because the Vols were desperate to sign signal callers after missing out on the top-ranked QBs nationally. Ainge has the physical package to be a productive pocket passer, but it comes with the warning label: FRAGILE. He doesn't have the mental makeup of a Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin or Casey Clausen, which is needed if you're The Man at UT.

Every UT starting QB is assigned heroic qualities by virtual of their position alone. It goes with the territory. It's instant pop stardom on a grand scale. Suddenly you're not just a rock star, you're a rock-and-roll front man. Everywhere you go someone wants your time, your attention, your autograph, your opinion, your image, your etc.., etc. Guys want to be your buddy. Girls want to bear your young.

Almost overnight you see your name and number on the back of fan jerseys wherever you go, and now you carry the hopes and dreams of the masses in addition to your own. It's a potent cocktail that can go straight to your head and impair your judgment. Some players find it untenable, while others flourish because of it.

It's almost mandatory that you be the latter if you're lead singer for the Volunteers. You've got to be able to direct the offense as well as conduct the Pride of the Southland marching band. It's a challenging position to be in without the football, and playing quarterback in UT's multiple offense is very demanding. It's a system that when fully implemented requires the man behind center to make more adjustments and reads than your garden variety college offense.

That's why counting on a freshman that's never taken a snap in a college game has it's share of drawbacks, although there is ample reason to believe Jonathan Crompton is not your run of the mill rookie signal caller. His redshirt season gives him an advantage that Ainge, Casey Clausen and Manning did not have and puts him on a par in terms of experience with Andy Kelly and Shuler neither of whom struggled significantly as second-year starters.

Furthermore, Crompton, who was rated the nation's No. 2 quarterback prospect in the Class of 2005, has the type of talent and intangibles that trump inexperience. He plays like a young Troy Aikman and is the most talented quarterback the Vols have signed since Peyton Manning in 1994.

The only thing separating Jonathan Crompton from football immortality at UT is injury and opportunity. As far as reports that assert: Erik Ainge has been born again as a rock solid signal caller, I deferred to lyrics penned by Pete Townshend and played by that great rock band "The Who" which seem appropriate.

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution

Take a bow for the new revolution

Smile and grin at the change all around

Pick up my guitar and play

Just like yesterday

Then I'll get on my knees and pray

We don't get fooled again

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