Costly conclusion

After last season, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said quarterback Erik Ainge was projected as a late first- or early second-round draft choice.

At 6-feet-6, he had the size. He also had the arm to make all the throws.

Having been groomed by offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, Ainge knew the pro passing game.

Ainge went from a miserable 45.5 completion percentage to a school-record 67 percent in 2006. If not for an ankle injury that cost him two games, Ainge would have easily throw for more than 3,300 yards – second in UT history to Peyton Manning.

Ainge started out hot this season, running Tennessee's no-huddle offense.

But the more I've watched Ainge, the less I like him as a pro prospect.

This doesn't come from any pro scouts. It doesn't come from any UT coaches.

And I'll be the first to admit I'm no quarterbacks coach or Mel Kiper Jr. when it comes to evaluating talent.

But in my experience of covering football for more than 30 years, Ainge doesn't project to be a successful pro quarterback.

He doesn't move well in the pocket. He doesn't buy time to find open receivers. He gets rid of the ball too quickly at times rather than let a play develop, although maybe that's the way he's being coached now.

Cutcliffe recently said when Ainge holds the ball too long, bad things usually happen. Ainge doesn't improvise well. And this season, he didn't throw the long ball well – or often.

Maybe it's the broken little finger. Maybe he has an undisclosed injury that has limited his range. Maybe Cutcliffe is running shorter routes to avoid the sack.

Cutcliffe says Ainge is very bright, smart enough to run the no-huddle, smart enough to read defenses, smart enough to consistently make the right protection calls.

But he does not consistently make the right decisions, as evidenced by his two fourth-quarter interceptions against LSU.

And I'm not sure how mentally tough Ainge is at bouncing back.

Cutcliffe liked the way Ainge responded in the fourth quarter of a win against South Carolina, when Ainge and the Vols had done nothing for the better part of two quarters. That did demonstrate some resolve.

If Ainge has a big game against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, then he will show the capability of overcoming adversity.

But as of now, I don't see him as a first-round draft pick. I don't see him as a second-round draft pick. I think he has as good a chance of being a second-day pick (fourth round or higher) as he does going in the third round.

That would be a bummer for a guy projected to go much higher a year ago.

And if I'm wrong, I'll just put myself in the category of NFL experts who raved about such first-round picks as Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, and, of course, Heath Shuler.

CUT DOESN'T LIKE TO SECOND-GUESS HIMSELF BUT ...

As a play caller, you can't afford to second-guess yourself too often.

But Cutcliffe said there were times this season when he should have stayed more with the run.

Against Vanderbilt, the Vols drove down the field for an opening score, then went five wides and drove downfield where Daniel Lincoln missed a short field goal.

From that point, the Vols never found an offensive rhythm until the fourth quarter, rallying from a 24-9 deficit for a victory.

``I wasn't 100 percent sure we could line up and run the football and hit play-action pass,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I wasn't sure that the best thing wasn't to score a lot of points by spreading them out.

``The tug of war was with myself. I don't want to sound wishy washy. It's not that at all. People will think, `Well, gosh, doesn't he know what he's going to do?

``It's not that at all. It's a matter of trying to get the best thing going and use your people.''

That has been a season-long dilemma.

When to run. When to pass. When to mix the two.

Cutcliffe had his hands tied at times by a run game that never got going against Florida and Kentucky and LSU. He also was hamstrung by a passing game that wasn't a deep threat, whether it was Ainge missing or receivers not getting open.

Still, the Vols averaged 33 points, a vast improvement over the 18.6 average of 2005. It was good enough to help Tennessee win the East Division.

Will it be good enough to beat Wisconsin and achieve a 10-win season?


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