Where is Ainge's confidence?

Saturday's Tennessee-California football game takes place in Neyland Stadium. But where the game is being played may not matter as much as where Erik Ainge's mindset is when kickoff time arrives.

A nightmarish 2005 season saw Ainge lose his starting job and his confidence. Quarterback guru David Cutcliffe has been hired as coordinator to rebuild Ainge's self-esteem for 2006. How well he has succeeded will go a long way toward determining the outcome of Saturday's game.

So, where is Erik Ainge's confidence level these days?

"I think his confidence level is good," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Like all of us, he needs success, needs to get out there and play like he's capable of playing.

"We are working like heck to make sure we don't put him in positions he's not ready for. If you ask him, he'll tell you he's confident and ready to go. But you've got to go out there and do it on the field."

Ainge went out there and did it on the field as a freshman in 2004, completing 55 percent of his throws with nearly twice as many touchdown passes (17) as interceptions (9). But, like some of last fall's passes, he spiraled out of control in 2005. He completed just 45.5 percent and threw more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5).

Which Ainge shows up Saturday? Even Fulmer must wait and see.

"I'm as anxious as you are to see how Erik Ainge plays in the game," the head man said. "We all saw the outstanding potential he had as a freshman and we all saw the struggles he had as a sophomore. Between the work that he's done, the maturity he's shown and Coach Cutcliffe's guidance, I think he's made some significant strides."

Some of those strides were obvious. Ainge generally squared his shoulders on throws downfield. He generally threw shorter passes with touch, rather than zip. He generally avoided interceptions by dumping the ball to a running back, throwing it away, scrambling or taking the sack.

Some of Ainge's strides were not so obvious. Fulmer says the junior quarterback has been doing a much better job managing the huddle and calling pass protections than he did a year ago.

"He's made good progress," the coach said. "I'm anxious to see him put it to use, see if he's where we all hope he is."

Cutcliffe can relate. He's eager to see if Ainge's confidence level is where it needs to be.

"You've just got to take one play at a time," the coordinator said. "Is he ready to do that? I certainly hope so.

"That's something we've worked hard to prepare all of our guys for. With the schedule we've got, there are going to be some downs. You just try to handle those down times, minimize the damage, then come back and compete hard. I'm anxious to see if they'll do that. This will be a great test for them."

Ainge threw just one touchdown in three preseason scrimmages but Cutcliffe isn't concerned about that.

"Obviously, you'd like to throw a bunch of them," the coordinator said, "but he did good. Most of the (downfield) opportunities we took advantage of. He was like the rest of us; we weren't as sharp as we'd like to be in every one of those scrimmages but we've got the ability to throw touchdown passes. We've just got to do it."

Senior receiver Jayson Swain believes Ainge is primed for a good showing on Saturday. This optimism is based on two factors.

"His confidence and his understanding," Swain said. "Everything's slowing down for him more. He's having fun and smiling."

If Ainge is still smiling at 9 p.m. Saturday night, that bodes awfully well for Tennessee.

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