As the Vol Nation is acutely aware, Erik Ainge fractured the pinky on his throwing hand in preseason drills. He played much of the season with the last two fingers of his right hand taped together. He even handed off left-handed until this resulted in a disastrous tide-turning fumble in Game 3 at Florida.
Just as the finger was healing, Ainge suffered another setback – a shoulder injury that further reduced his effectiveness. On top of that, he had occasional swelling in his knee, a remnant of some offseason surgery.
Rather than turn to sophomore backup Jonathan Crompton, Tennessee's staff stuck with Ainge, even though he was basically limited to throwing two types of passes ... short and shorter.
Now, thanks to some time off following the SEC Championship Game, Ainge is feeling the best he has felt since mid-August. So, will Vol fans see a healthier Erik Ainge in the upcoming Outback Bowl game with Wisconsin?
"Absolutely," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "I'm planning on seeing a healthier and BETTER Erik Ainge. He's done a good job of getting by each week with varying degrees of health – his finger, his shoulder. And, remember, he had knee surgery and his knee would suddenly swell up."
Despite his physical limitations, Ainge completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,908 yards during the 2007 regular season. He threw for 27 touchdowns with just 8 interceptions.
"He's gone through a lot," Cutcliffe said, adding that in his first workouts following the SEC Championship Game Ainge "threw the ball better than he has all year long. I think the rest is really going to be beneficial to him."
Ainge thinks so, too.
"I think it will help a lot," he said. "I think it will help us (as a team). I think it will help Wisconsin. Any time you have time to get guys that were banged up healthy, then you get those four or five days for Christmas, you're looking at being just about 100 percent by the bowl game.
"I think that will help us a lot."