High on Ainge

Tennessee will certainly miss David Cutcliffe as an offensive coordinator and play caller.

But he will be missed most as a developer of quarterbacks.

He helped groom Peyton Manning into the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and a $100 million quarterback.

He helped groom Eli Manning into the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL and a $50 million contract.

He helped groom Heath Shuler into the No. 3 overall pick and a $19 million signing bonus in 1993.

And he has helped develop Erik Ainge into a draftable quarterback.

After the 2005 season, that seemed laughable. But after two years under Cutcliffe, some project Ainge as a first-round draft pick, certainly a first-day selection.

``I hear varying things from different pro guys that are friends of mine,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He had a third-round rating last year for all juniors. I'd say he'd certainly rise from that.''

Cutcliffe said a scout told him he had Ainge rated higher than some other high-profile quarterbacks at big-time programs.

``You would be surprised who they are,'' Cutcliffe said. ``There are a lot of people that have a lot of strong feelings about Erik. He's 6-foot-6, 225 pounds and can throw the heck out of it.

``I tell you what he is – he's really, really smart. He'll go off the scale on all intelligence tests and interviews. He's fun to coach that way. He's really taken the time to learn defensive football and I think his best football … is in front of him. I'd love to have had him four years.''

Cutcliffe said Ainge has ``challenges to overcome … to be as successful as you want to be. He's smart enough to understand that. I hope he takes those challenges and takes the ball and runs with it.''

Why does Cutcliffe think Ainge's best football is ahead of him?

``Because there are some things that are correctable,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I'm not going into detail. I don't need to dissect him publicly. I'm not going to do a pro scout's job for him. But he knows what they are because I've told him.

``What's not correctable is if you just can't throw it or you just can't see or you're just not smart enough or you don't have touch and you can't make decisions. I hate to get a young guy and realize, `Man, he just doesn't have it.' Erik has all of those things.''


Cutcliffe is high on the three quarterbacks – Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens and B. J. Coleman -- who will battle for the starting job in the spring.

``All of them have really outstanding arms,'' Cutcliffe said.

``Jonathan has the gift of physical toughness. He can run the football, has an unbelievably quick motion, spins the ball really pretty, throws a tight spiral, a ball that's real easy to catch, real easy to catch.

``Nick Stephens is a strong-armed guy. He throws the deep ball better than anybody I've been around since (former Vol) Tony Robinson, I'm telling you. He's got a little magic in the deep ball. In some scrimmages, he just dropped the ball right in people's arms 70 yards downfield. He's got some toughness to him.

``B.J. is just a complete package of preparation, being conscientious in every thing he does. A beautiful ball he throws. He's got to speed up. It's been unfair to him -- he's been scout team quarterback so he's been playing at scout team speed. … He throws as pretty a ball as we've seen around here.

``They're all big guys who can move their feet. And they are tough. They bring a lot to the table.''

Cutcliffe regrets not playing Crompton more. Crompton actually played more last year, starting against Arkansas and playing three quarters against LSU.

Still, Crompton developed based on practice.

``The thing you've got to remember – our practices are intense,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I'd love to have played him more, but I put a lot of pressure on him in practice, a lot of pressure.

``For the last month and a half, he was absolutely flawless in practice with his decision making, with his energy, with his tempo and timing and throwing.

``He's had fun because of it. Some of the pressure has dropped off his shoulders because it's really starting to click for him.''


Cutcliffe, who accepted a job as head coach at Duke last weekend, was effusive in his praise of his offensive staff at Tennessee.

``That's the best coaching job that I've been around in preparing their guys, having them ready every week, motivating them, toughening them from where they were to where we got – and that's a great tribute,'' Cutcliffe said of receivers coach Trooper Taylor, offensive line coach Greg Adkins, running backs coach Kurt Roper and tight ends coach Matt Luke.

``I enjoyed working with those guys because they're good people, but I really respect them as football coaches and I've been around a lot of good football coaches through the years. I'm not just blowing smoke. Those guys are young guys, smart guys, they're energetic and they really did a great job of coaching this year.''

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