Ainge reflects on '06 turnaround

He improved his completion percentage from 45.5 to a school-record 66.9. He improved his passer efficiency rating from 89.9 to 155.42. He bumped his passing touchdown total from five to 19 and raised his passing yardage total from 737 to 2,722.

Given the remarkable turnaround Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge accomplished in 2006, you wonder: What number meant the most to him?

"We were 9-1 in the games I played," he said. "That's what I look at the most."

Good answer. Great answer, in fact. An ankle injury caused Ainge to miss three quarters of the Vols' Game 9 loss to LSU and all four quarters of the Game 10 loss to Arkansas. Despite sitting out nearly two full games, he compiled some imposing statistics. Still, he says the victories mean more than the numbers.

"Stats are fun and all that," he said. "But winning the Georgia game was real big for us in terms of our confidence and what we were able to do this season. And coming back in the Alabama game after playing a poor first half ... those are probably the two things that stick out the most in my mind."

Ainge's spirits, like his passing stats, are way up this year. In 2005 he was the starting quarterback, yet teammates voted senior backup Rick Clausen a captain. There was dissension in the ranks – some players wanting Ainge at the helm, some wanting Clausen. The QB controversy poisoned the team and contributed to a 5-6 disaster.

This fall, with Clausen out of eligibility and redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton coming off shoulder surgery, there was no controversy. Ainge won the quarterback job in August, then won his teammates' respect with some excellent performances in September.

"Obviously, you have to prove it on the field," Ainge said. "I don't change who I am."

Still, he wanted to provide the type of leadership a team needs from its quarterback. Toward this end, he asked senior receiver Jayson Swain – one of the team's strongest leaders – for some tips.

"Before the season me and Swain were talking, and I asked how I should go about this," Ainge recalled. "He said, ‘Don't go about it. Just be yourself.'"

Ainge took the advice to heart,and it worked.

"Everybody knows me ... They know how I am," he said. "For me, being a leader on this football team is just a matter of playing, making good choices on and off the field and being myself."

Whereas Ainge didn't handle the competition with Clausen particularly well in 2005, he handled the competition with Crompton quite well in 2006. Then he cemented his grip on the No. 1 job with some excellent performances in September and October. If his teammates lost confidence in him during the 2005 season, they were back in his corner for '06.

"I don't think guys necessarily lost confidence in me or didn't think I was going to end up being a good football player," Ainge said. "They knew there was some stuff going on (in '05) that I wasn't reacting well to and we didn't react well to as a team."

Based on the way his teammates rallied around him this fall, Ainge believes they never really doubted him. As he put it: "I think they've shown they had confidence in me the whole time."

On the heels of his 2005 nightmare, 2006 proved to be a very positive experience for Ainge. His only regret was having to watch from the sidelines as Tennessee lost to LSU and Arkansas.

"It was hard," he said. "We would've liked to have everybody healthy. You never know what could've happened. We might've still been 9-3 or we could've been 12-1.

"You don't know."

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