Cutcliffe defends Ainge

Erik Ainge set a Tennessee school record by competing 67 percent of his passes last season. He's third in school history in touchdown passes (41) and fifth in yards (5,178). He has beaten top-10 Georgia on the road twice, and recorded wins over Alabama (twice), South Carolina (twice), No. 11 Florida and ninth-ranked California.

Yet, The Sporting News said he's one of the two most overrated offensive players in the nation. It says he is the No. 4 quarterback in the SEC and the No. 27 player overall.

David Cutcliffe says baloney

Tennessee's offensive coordinator has coached Ainge just one season, but Cutcliffe has seen enough to believe Ainge is a special talent, capable of being a high NFL draft pick.

Asked about the overrated tag, Cutcliffe defended his quarterback.

``If I were Erik, I'd view it as being called out,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I think it's ridiculous, personally.

``Erik is a really good football player and he's won a lot of big games throughout his career. You're looking at a guy a year ago who threw for 67 percent and a lot of touchdowns, and had a fourth-quarter comeback in a tough situation against Alabama.''

Cutcliffe said Ainge played a ``phenomenal game'' at Georgia and would have put up even bigger season numbers if not for an ankle injury against South Carolina.

``I don't know what tape the guy has looked at, and I don't know his name (Matt Hayes), but I don't think I'd hire him to coach quarterbacks, if that's his evaluation,'' Cutcliffe said.

Part of Hayes' rating is based on Ainge's higher pass-efficiency rating against non-SEC opponents as opposed to SEC opponents. But that probably holds true for most quarterbacks, given how tough SEC defenses are.

Cutcliffe sees NFL potential in his 6-foot-6, 225-pound signal caller. And Cutcliffe should know. He's coached three quarterbacks – Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning – who were taken No. 3, 1 and 1, respectively, in the NFL draft.

Cutcliffe thinks Erik Ainge can be a first-round draft choice.

``Not only do I hope for that, I expect him to play his way into that first round,'' Cutcliffe said.

An NFL advisory board projected Ainge would have been a late second- or early third-round pick had he turned pro after his junior season, UT coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Cutcliffe believes Ainge's arm, accuracy and height give him a chance to be an elite quarterback.

You wouldn't have heard that from Cutcliffe in 2005. That's the year Cutcliffe took off from coaching after being fired at Ole Miss. That's the year Ainge suffered a mental meltdown, completing 45.5 percent of his passes for just five touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 89.94. That's like a pro golfer shooting a 92.

Once Cutcliffe got hold of Ainge, he discovered a young man who was coachable and willing to learn and agreeable to changing his awkward mechanics.

It was only then that Cutcliffe believed Ainge had a chance to be a successful SEC quarterback.

``I think he was trying to put the cart before the horse,'' Cutcliffe said.

Meaning, Ainge was focused on the result, not the process. He wanted to play quarterback without learning the finer points of the position.

``You've got to be a good football player before you can be a good quarterback,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Being a good football player means everything – studying film, working in the weight room, conditioning, toughening yourself mentally and physically.

``A lot of people don't realize, Peyton Manning is a great football player who happens to be a great quarterback.''

Cutcliffe said Ainge had to make a commitment to the game, and had to learn discipline and patience.

Cutcliffe said he ``couldn't be more pleased'' with the way Ainge has responded. But he knows Ainge will have to play smarter and with more discipline than ever as the Vols try to break in a new group of receivers.

``It's going to take some mental toughness on his part – mine, too,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Come August, there may be some scrimmages that aren't so pretty.''

Cutcliffe has said for years he wants a quarterback who doesn't surprise him during games, a quarterback who has such command of the offense Cutcliffe can sleep well on Friday nights before game days.

Cutcliffe said Ainge's footwork is much improved, which helped his accuracy. Ainge has a better understanding of the offense, so he's more comfortable in the pocket. And Ainge's decision making has dramatically improved, along with his discipline.

``You don't throw for 67 percent unless you're a disciplined guy,'' Cutcliffe said.

A quarterback can also help receivers by learning to deceive defensive backs, a skill Ainge began to master last season.

``Everybody wants to blame the receivers for not getting open,'' Cutcliffe said, ``but a quarterback can get a guy open with his eyes, and Erik learned how to do that. It was like a light coming on for him at the end of last spring and it carried into the season.''

As Ainge enters his senior season, his legacy remains uncertain. If you were to give him a career grade, it would be an ``I'' for incomplete. If he has a great season, he could go down as one of UT's best quarterbacks in the past 30 years. If he doesn't, he'll be viewed as a gifted quarterback who never fulfilled his promise.

Cutcliffe has challenged his senior to play like a senior.

``I want him to take that to heart,'' Cutcliffe said. ``A senior is truly an extension of the coach. He understands the situation. He understands the old gambler thing – know when to hold them and know when to fold them.

``I'm anxious to see if he applies that when we start Aug. 3.''

So is the rest of the Vol nation.

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