Ainge injuries made UT throw short

It didn't take long for opposing defenses to realize Tennessee wasn't going to throw the ball downfield.

What was UT's issue? Was it receivers that couldn't beat press coverage? Was it Erik Ainge's broke little finger? Was it David Cutcliffe's new-found philosophy?

Cutcliffe, UT's offensive coordinator, revealed for the first time this week that Ainge struggled through some shoulder issues.

``I think the injuries may have affected him more his senior year, even though he didn't miss games, than his junior year (when he basically missed two games),'' Cutcliffe said. ``He really fought the injury thing off.''

Injuries, Cutcliffe said, had an impact on Ainge's ability to throw the long ball.

``It's been a tough year,'' Cutcliffe said. ``People don't get the benefit of seeing his hand up close. It's amazing, really, what he's done.

``I thought he wouldn't be able to play at California. He just defied it and went out there and threw the football. But it affected his ability to get the ball down the field.''

That wasn't the only issue. Not having a big-play threat like Robert Meachem also limited the passing game. Still, Ainge passed for more than 3,000 yards to a new crop of receivers.

And the outlook is bright. When Tennessee resumed practice Saturday, Cutcliffe said Ainge threw the ball ``the best he'd thrown it all year. That was good to see.''

Ainge will have taken about five more days off before UT resumes practice Friday. Ainge will have about a week off before and after Christmas before the Vols report for Outback Bowl practice in Tampa on Dec. 26.

``I'm going to count throws prior to going home for Christmas,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Hopefully, when we get to the bowl site, he will be the best he's been all year long.''

That could expand the play book.

It was no secret that UT wasn't going to throw downfield. Opposing defenses caught on quickly, and opponents that had good corners would play press coverage and dare the Vols to throw it over their heads.

UT seldom did.

Cutcliffe hopes that won't be the case against Wisconsin.

Cutcliffe admitted it was difficult as a play caller when defenses didn't respect the long ball.

``It was a little bit frustrating, to be honest with you, because people started playing coverage accordingly,'' Cutcliffe said. ``It was tougher when defenses started smelling blood a little bit.''

That's where running a no-huddle offense made a difference, Cutcliffe said.

``Our percentage of good plays, with an opportunity to be successful, even against tough looks, increased two-fold,'' Cutcliffe said.

``But it's probably been the most tiring fall I've been through. It's different for me. The game happens really fast upstairs, with all the looks and late calls and I'm calling the game from up there after the fact – it's just fast. I'm staying on duty longer than I normally would.

``You're looking at their looks, the blitz potential. You're putting in a protection. You're doing all of those things.''

And you're doing them with a 25-second play clock.

Cutcliffe said he would run the no-huddle again next season.

``Absolutely, with some new wrinkles,'' he said. ``I've got some new ideas and I've got some new tempo changers. It's like everything else – I'm learning late in life. … I'm going to have some fun with this thing. We're going to crank this thing out and have some different looks and do different things out of it.''

One different thing this season was using true freshman Gerald Jones in a spread shotgun formation. UT planned to use it earlier in the season but Jones suffered what Cutcliffe was told would be a season-ending injury. Cutcliffe ditched the package.

When Jones returned at midseason, Cutcliffe went back to it.

Tennessee used Jones four times against LSU for 43 yards. He had two runs for 39 yards.

``I told him before the championship game that we were going to use it in certain situations,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He didn't bat an eye. He was ready. He's got ice running through his veins. He's going to be fun with that over the years.''

Cutcliffe said he considered using Jones more often against LSU.

``It was darned if you do, darned if you don't,'' Cutcliffe said. ``They had made a little adjustment with it and showed us a completely different look than what we'd gotten and it frightened me a little bit. We didn't have the answer.''

Cutcliffe said the next step in the Jones package is throwing the ball – and Cutcliffe is confident Jones, a high school quarterback, can pass.

Cutcliffe said UT might use safety Eric Berry in the package next season.

``Lets face it, everybody sees what he does every time he gets his hands on the ball, including me,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He was a dynamic player at quarterback in high school.''

Cutcliffe said he worked Berry on offense for two periods during two-a-days in August but with Berry playing both corner and safety and Jones getting hurt, he scrapped the idea.

But next season, Cutcliffe said having Berry and Jones in the same backfield ``could occur.''

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