Ainge finds the range

Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe paid quarterback Erik Ainge the ultimate compliment after the Vols' 39-19 victory over Southern Miss on Saturday night.

Cutcliffe is about the process. He's about fundamentals. He's about throwing to the right receiver. He's about reading defenses. He's about protecting the football.

And he's delighted with the way Erik Ainge is playing.

``He managed the game as well as anybody I've had at quarterback,'' Cutcliffe said after Ainge completed 23 of 36 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns.

Lest we forget, Cutcliffe coached some dude named Peyton Manning and had another No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in Eli Manning.

Things weren't perfect. Ainge went one way and LaMarcus Coker, on his first snap of the season, went another. And a couple of times, the quarterback and receivers weren't on the same page. Otherwise, Ainge was nearly flawless.

And that was against a Golden Eagles defense that threw a variety of looks at UT.

``It was real difficult to get started,'' Cutcliffe said. ``They were (lined up) in a lot of places.''

That caused some problems early. Tennessee went three-and-out on two of its first four possessions. But the Vols scored on five of six possessions bridging the first and second halves.

And much of the credit goes to Ainge.

``Ainge did a great job with pass protection (calls), seeing tips of what Southern Miss was doing, his visualization,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He understands everything.''

Cutcliffe said during one in-game conversation, he asked Ainge if he needed to have drawn up a particular play against a specific defense.

``He says, no, and he repeats it back to me,'' Cutcliffe said. ``That's rewarding as a coach.''

And it's rewarding to Ainge. Think how far he's come from that disastrous sophomore season when he looked lost while completing 45 percent of his passes, when he was the object of scorn from UT fans, when his confidence sank lower than a West Virginia coal mine.

He's playing like a first-round NFL draft choice.

And don't forget, Ainge is playing with a broken little finger on his throwing hand. Despite that, he's completed 66.2 of his passes for 547 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. The finger was hurting him Saturday night, particularly when he took a center snap. And he had a couple of balls flutter. But it hasn't been a huge hinderance.

``He's throwing the ball really well, really accurately,'' Ainge said.

But the finger does give him some problems, problems Cutcliffe didn't want to discuss.

``I have to be aware of some things, which is a little bit hard,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I can't say too much because Florida will be paying attention to that. I've got to be smart – which is hard for me.''

Ainge's favorite targets through two games have been a pair of returning wideouts that most people felt couldn't hold their starting jobs, not with a bunch of talented receivers signed in February.

Austin Rogers caught seven passes for 112 yards – all in the first half – and scored his first touchdown on a wide-open 26-yard reception. He's got a team-high 13 catches in two games.

Lucas Taylor caught five passes for 118 yards – his second consecutive 100-yard receiving game – with a long of 35. He's got 11 catches in two games.

Cutcliffe said he was happy for Rogers and Taylor ``personally'' because of the kind of young men they are.

``A lot of people doubted them,'' Cutcliffe said. ``A lot of people thought they had no chance to be good players. They've taken the challenge. When you see young men step up and take the challenge, that's always promising.''

Rogers and Taylor helped UT turn in 17 plays of at least 10 yards.

Cutcliffe was asked if he's surprised as the production of Rogers and Taylor.

``We're getting what we thought we could out of them, and Erik is using them well,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Those guys are where he expects them to be and Erik is so good right now at finding the right people in the right coverage, and I mean really good.

``It's a tribute to all three.''

Ainge and his receivers will have to be sharp again this Saturday as the Vols play a Florida team that is averaging over 50 points per game.

If Ainge can continue to manage the game like he did against Southern Miss, maybe he'll do something Manning couldn't – beat Florida.

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