Why the change in Ainge?

In one year Erik Ainge has gone from head case to headliner. As a sophomore in 2005 Tennessee's quarterback completed just 45.5 percent of his passes and threw a mere five touchdowns passes. Two games into '06, he has completed 74.5 percent and already has thrown for seven TDs.

Moreover, Ainge leads the entire NCAA in passer efficiency this fall with a 226.63 rating. His rating last season was a paltry 89.94.

Ainge's improvement is reflected in the team statistics. After averaging just 18.6 points per game last fall, Tennessee is averaging 33.0 points this season.

What has happened to Erik Ainge? Clearly, the arrival of new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has helped. Ainge also is benefiting from having the first-team job all to himself. After distinguishing himself as a freshman in 2004, he platooned with senior Rick Clausen in 2005 and performed horribly.

"As a freshman he did extremely well playing within what we asked him to do," head coach Phillip Fulmer says. "Last year was just a real strange set of circumstances, and I think it got in his head a little bit.

"We had a senior quarterback who knew a lot about the offense. He (Ainge) was still new to it, and we asked him to do too many things at too young an age. That was part of it.

"And he was in and out of the games. There was a whole mess last year, and we don't want to go through that again. He's confident right now, playing very well within the framework of what we want him to do."

Ainge's improvement is no recent development. Fulmer noticed the transformation taking place last March and April.

"He took the challenge in spring practice, did a really good job for the most part," the head man recalls. "I think he's still a work in progress in a lot of ways but he's throwing the football very well right now."

Some of the credit must go to Cutcliffe, whose previous quarterback proteges include first-round NFL Draft picks Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.

"David has been very good for Erik," Fulmer notes. "He's been very demanding from a discipline standpoint, from a ball security standpoint. David is going to cross his Ts and dot his Is. He'll do a good job maximizing his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses."

Ainge isn't the only offensive player performing beyond his 2005 level, though. Just about everyone on the attack unit is playing better than last fall. The approach has improved, too. The Vols are more focused and attentive to detail.

Fulmer says the change is visible in such areas as "assignments, being where we're supposed to be and catching the ball, finishing a block or a run.

"And there was some cultural change, as well. We're much more disciplined than we were. The distractions off the field did affect us last year. We've had very little of that (suspensions, etc.) this year, and the ones we've had we dealt with quickly and decisively."


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