Ainge's mechanics slipped noticeably last weekend against South Carolina. He failed to square his shoulders. He neglected to keep his right elbow up. He routinely threw off his back foot. The result: He passed for a season-low 216 yards in the Vols' 27-24 overtime victory.
Ainge overcame his mechanical difficulties for three quarters, completing 20 of 28 passes for 195 yards. His stats for the fourth quarter and overtime – 6 of 16, 21 yards – were mediocre, however.
"With him, as with most people, it gets back to being fundamentally good – getting his feet set properly, getting his shoulders turned and all those things," Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Erik's got a lot of great assets, and one of them is his accuracy. When he gets off fundamentally – as anybody would – he's not nearly as accurate. But that's something we can do something about."
Ainge's Saturday night performance was reminiscent of 2005, when poor mechanics led him to complete just 45.5 percent of his passes with more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). Last season, with a major assist from new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, Ainge repaired his mechanics and salvaged his career. After a great start this season, however, Ainge lapsed into some old habits vs. South Carolina.
"That's probably the worst I've played since I've been with him (Cutcliffe)," Ainge said. "I felt like I played poorly (but) not terrible. We still completed 26 balls and had 10 different guys catch passes. We still did a lot of good things."
Cutcliffe blamed himself for Tennessee's offensive struggles vs. Carolina, saying he never got in a rhythm as far as his play-calling. Ainge thought that was a case of a coach covering for a player.
"For the most part, I believe it was me not playing well," the senior quarterback said. "That might be why he said he couldn't get in a rhythm."
It should be noted that South Carolina led the entire NCAA in pass defense last week and ranks No. 2 this week, allowing just 153.7 yards per game. Throwing against the Gamecocks is no simple task.
"South Carolina did a great job, probably the best job of anybody we've played overall," Fulmer said.
Whereas the Gamecock secondary deserves some of the credit for Ainge's struggles, Tennessee's offensive line and receivers played a part, as well.
"It all goes together – the protection, the route-running and separation and his fundamentals," Fulmer said. "We know Erik can throw the football…. South Carolina forced us to throw the football into press coverage. We didn't separate nearly as well as should, nor did Erik throw the ball as well as he had in the past. "
Ainge is talented enough that he can complete passes without bothering to set his feet or square his shoulders. As a result, maintaining proper throwing mechanics is an ongoing battle for him.
"I think that's something I'll always battle," he said. "But it's a good thing to have to overcome – being able to throw the ball off-balance. I could have worse problems as a quarterback … but it is THAT important to be good fundamentally."
Ainge played the first month of 2007 with a broken pinky on his right hand but he overcame the injury by being fundamentally sharp. Now that the finger is sound, however, his mechanics seem to have become unsound. The ball simply wasn't going where he wanted it to go Saturday night.
"For whatever reason it wasn't coming out great," he said. "That was really the first time all year it wasn't coming out of my hand great. What you do when you have a game like that is you go back to practice and work on fundamentals.
"Sometimes I rely on athleticism. My ability to be facing one way and throwing it the other and still being accurate … I can do that. But if it's not coming out great, that same ball goes high and left and incomplete. When that happens, you've got to go back to Square One, get the fundamentals right."
He paused before adding: "Everything will be fine."