Ainge playing like Mighty Quinn

Before this season, I wasn't sure if Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge could be a 60-percent passer. His accuracy was always inconsistent. He didn't have good fundamentals, from his drop to his throwing motion. And when harassed, he was a mess.

Through five games, Ainge has made me a believer. He takes shorter steps with his drops. His throwing motion is fine. He's been poised under pressure. And his accuracy has been uncanny.

Granted, Tennessee has played just one quality defensive team thus far, but Ainge is playing better than any quarterback in the SEC -- better than Chris Leak of Florida, JaMarcus Russell of LSU and Brandon Cox of Auburn.

Now, the true test of the Erik Ainge Reclamation Project is Saturday at 10th-ranked Georgia (5-0). But this appears to be a new and improved Ainge. His numbers tell the story. This season, he's completed 70 percent of his passes compared to 45.5 percent last year. He's thrown 12 touchdowns passes compared to five last year. He's got 1,349 yards compared to 737 last year.

You could compare Ainge's improvement to that of Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. With excellent coaching, Quinn went from a suspect player to a Heisman Trophy candidate under coach Charlie Weis.

With excellent coaching, Ainge has gone from a basket case to one of the nation's top rated passers under offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. And if he continues his pace, Ainge could be a finalist invited to attend the Heisman ceremonies in New York.

Ainge deflects the credit.

``I had all day to throw (against Memphis) and I didn't get sacked again,'' said Ainge, who has been sacked just four times this season. ``As well as the receivers are playing, it makes my job easier.

``I think we've got a lot of guys stepping up.''

Two examples of Ainge's maturity against Memphis:

One, after throwing an early interception that was nullified by a penalty, Ainge was unfazed, engineering a long touchdown drive. He didn't throw another bad pass and finished the game by hitting 85 percent of his passes.

Secondly, on his 84-yard touchdown pass to Robert Meachem and his 51-yard TD toss to Jayson Swain, those guys were not the primary target.

``Erik is doing a tremendous job reading coverages and throwing the ball,'' Swain said.

Meachem agrees: ``Erik is doing his thing and we've got a lot of weapons.''

Those weapons weren't evident last season, just as they weren't at Notre Dame in 2004. Receivers Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija combined for one touchdown catch two years ago. Last season, they combined for 26, 15 by Samardzija.

Last year, Meachem and Swain had two touchdown catches. This season, they've got 10. They could end up with 26 before season's end.

But none of that would be possible if not for Ainge's Quinn-like effort thus far.

Ainge and Quinn aren't the only quarterbacks who made dramatic improvement from one season to the next, thanks in large part to a new coach. Auburn's Jason Campbell benefited from his new offensive coordinator, Al Borges. And USC's Carson Palmer, who had 36 touchdowns and 36 interceptions his first three seasons as the Trojans' quarterback, won the Heisman Trophy under the tutelage of Norm Chow.

Here is a look at the one-year improvements of Ainge, Quinn, Campbell and Palmer.

Player, school Year Comp. Att. Yards TDs Int. Percent

Erik Ainge 2004 66 145 737 5 7 45.5

Tennessee 2005 93 133 1,389 12 5 69.9

Brady Quinn 2004 191 353 2,586 17 10 54.1

Notre Dame 2005 292 450 3,919 32 7 64.5

Jason Campbell 2003 181 293 2,267 10 8 61.8

Auburn 2004 188 270 2,700 20 7 69.6

Carson Palmer 2001 221 377 2,717 13 12 58.6

Southern Cal 2002 309 489 3,942 33 10 63.2

COKER NO FLASH IN THE PAN

After redshirt freshman LaMarcus Coker shredded Marshall for 146 yards on eight carries, he got his first career start against Memphis.

Coker responded with 125 yards on 26 carries; he had 19 carries in four previous games. ``I challenged him,'' UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. ``Is he an every-down back? Is he a flash in the pan? He ran well and accepted the challenge.''

Coker has emerged as UT's best back, although Arian Foster (ankle) did prove his skills by averaging almost 150 yards in five starts in 2005.

Coker said his 26 carries weren't an issue.

``That's not too much work at all,'' said Coker, who has a team-high 324 yards on 45 carries (7.2 per run). ``If they want to give it to me 20, 25 carries, that will get me in a groove.''


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