Ainge absence a blessing?

You'd figure that losing senior first-team quarterback Erik Ainge to a knee injury during the final three weeks of spring practice might cause significant problems for the University of Tennessee football team.

At least one veteran Vol, however, thinks the Big Orange may have reaped some benefits during the No. 1 QB's absence. When asked if not having Ainge available for the entire spring was a significant negative, running back Arian Foster shrugged.

"Yes and no," he said. "He's a big leader on this team, and he's Erik Ainge. Having him out there is always a plus but the young guys – Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens – it was their time to shine. I feel like they were doing the best they can do."

Crompton and Stephens certainly needed the practice repetitions more than Ainge, who already has three years' experience running Tennessee's offense. The problem is, the Vols installed some no-huddle stuff this spring, and Ainge didn't get a lot of work in it before being sidelined by knee surgery.

Even without Ainge available to direct the no-huddle attack, Foster thinks the new wrinkle is a positive addition to the Vol arsenal.

"It switches up the pace, gives the defense a different look," he said. "It also gives our guys that aren't in shape a chance to get their wind back."

Although his 6-1 frame now packs 225 pounds – roughly 20 more than he carried in high school – Foster appears to be in the best shape of his college career. He looks quicker hitting the hole and quicker making cuts, in spite of the added poundage. He credits the improved agility to a workout regimen he utilized as a teenager back in San Diego.

"There were some things I worked on in high school," he said. "I was consistent with it. I think I got away from that when I got here. I got refocused and I feel like I'm coming back into my own."

Ainge wasn't the only first-team offensive player who missed a significant amount of spring practice due to injury. Tackle Eric Young and guard Anthony Parker were sidelined all spring. Center Josh McNeil and tight end Brad Cottam also missed considerable work.

With so much proven talent watching from the sidelines, the offenses struggled in Tennessee's recent Orange & White game. Foster is confident the attack will be more productive once all of the key players return. He also believes Crompton, Stevens and the other backups benefited from the extra reps they received. Still, Foster is reluctant to say how far this offense is from hitting its stride.

"We don't have all the guys out there, so it's hard to judge," he said. "But the guys that were there were productive."

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