Ainge not ready for NFL

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge vows he is coming back for his senior season. Ainge is certain offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe won't be leaving. Now Ainge must do some recruiting. He must convince receiver Robert Meachem to return as well.

And Erik Ainge said he will make a pitch.

``Absolutely,'' Ainge said. ``I know for a fact he's thought about it. He's had a great year. He's a great football player. I think if he were to stay, obviously, that would help our team out tremendously. And I think it would help him out, too. He's got a lot to think about.''

Ainge has thought, too. He's decided he's not ready for the NFL, even though he's on the verge of setting a school record for best completion percentage in a season.

Ainge noted that Cutcliffe has coached two No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft – brothers Peyton and Eli Manning – and that both played their senior seasons.

``The way I look at it, Peyton and Eli had as good or better juniors years as I've had,`` Ainge said. ``I don't think I'm where Peyton or Eli was right now. I have a lot of work to do with my game and still at this university. I've been here three years and I want to get a ring. That's kind of where I'm at right now.''

It would be easier to get a ring if Meachem were around. Meachem, a fourth-year junior, has a toddler and his economic background doesn't measure up to Ainge's. And if Meachem projects to be a first day pick – particularly a first-round pick – it would be hard for him to wait another year for the NFL.

What if Ainge projects to be a first-day or first-round pick?

Ainge said he's not even sure he'll go through the NFL Advisory Committee to find out a projection.

``I don't really think about it much,'' Ainge said. ``We'll have to see what happens.''

Cutcliffe thinks Ainge's self-assessment is accurate regarding his pro future.

``He can continue to physically improve, his throwing mechanics, his consistency,'' Cutcliffe said. ``The more knowledge you gain at quarterback, the more confident you are, the more steady you are. He realizes he's a work in progress. I've said that all along. He wants to try to reach a level where when he does finish his college career, he's the best he can possibly be.''

Ainge is 6-feet-6 with a cannon arm and decent mobility. He's also athletic. Against Vanderbilt, he rolled to his left and threw back against the grain with a sidearm motion, completing a clutch fourth-and-3 pass to keep alive a scoring drive.

Pat Ryan, a former Tennessee quarterback who spent a dozen years in the NFL, was impressed with that throw.

Ryan said that, with more seasoning, Ainge can be a first-round draft pick. Ryan also thinks that Ainge's draft stock will benefit from having worked with Cutcliffe, who is strong on quarterback fundamentals.

Ainge has promised he'll get another year of seasoning. If Meachem comes back, they could be the most prolific passing tandem in the nation.

Ainge has proven he can pass. Now we'll see if he can recruit.


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