Ainge on the rise

The first few days of practice at the Senior Bowl former Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge didn't fare well.

Ainge was trying to pick up the system of Mike Martz, former offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams who is now offensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49eres.

``It was definitely different,'' Ainge said. ``He did a good job coaching it. It's just when you have a coach like coach (David) Cutcliffe harping on you for two years, then you have a coach like Coach Martz, who's really the same kind of coach, trying to change two years in two days, it's tough.

``But no excuses. I didn't play great the first two days. Then I got better each day. As we got the system, all the quarterbacks got better and better. Once it was game time, it was back to whatever you're used to.''

Cutcliffe said Martz likes the seven-step drop whereas Ainge was used to the three- and five-step drops used – and taught – by Cutcliffe.

Then, Cutcliffe offered this: ``What they (NFL coaches) better remember is his footwork is the same Peyton (Manning) and Eli (Manning) used coming out of college. So that might be a pretty good indication for them.''

What began as a tough week for Ainge turned out fine. Ainge was named the MVP of the Senior Bowl for leading a game-winning drive in the final minutes. His play was better than his practice.

``I think practice is important,'' Ainge said. ``But you can't judge practice like you can judge a game. I'm not saying I'm a bad practice player, but I'm definitely a better game player.''

Cutcliffe said Ainge's performance did nothing but help his NFL stock.

``Everybody I talked to, as far as his arm strength and knowledge of the game, his stock went way up,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He went out and did what he had to do to - prove it under game conditions.''

Ainge has been all over the draft boards. Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had Ainge as the No. 4 quarterback among seniors. Draft analyst Mike DeTillier said Ainge would be a fourth- or fifth-round pick.

Ainge has heard it all.

``I've heard anywhere from the first or second quarterback to the sixth, seventh or eighth,'' Ainge said in a recent interview. ``It just depends. I don't think there's one quarterback coming out that's head over heels better than anyone else. I think there's a lot of guys that are good football players and do different things better than other guys do.

``It just depends on what the team needs and what the team wants.''

Ainge still has the NFL combine to attend at the end of this month. He's got more interviews to conduct. Then, he's got two UT pro days in March before the April draft. .

``I think that's definitely something that will help me and benefit me, the way I've been coached by coach Cutcliffe and just my general knowledge of the game,'' said Ainge, who ranks third on UT's all-time passing list.

``Not being arrogant, but I feel very overqualified as a quarterback coming out from a mental standpoint, thanks to everything coach Cutcliffe has done for me.''

Overqualified? There was a time UT fans didn't think Ainge was qualified to be a college quarterback. He had a strong arm, but he made some bizarre decisions. He got rattled in the pocket. He threw the ball up for grabs. He got beat out by an LSU transfer who walked on at Tennessee.

All that changed when Cutcliffe was hired to replace the departed Randy Sanders as offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe's first goal was to build Ainge as a quarterback from the neck up. Then he had to work on fundamentals that would often break down when his protection broke down.

It wasn't en easy process.

But in Ainge's first season under Cutcliffe, he went from a 45 percent passer to setting a school record by hitting 67 percent. He passed for 2,887 yards despite missing virtually two games. As a senior, Ainge completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,123 yards – despite playing with a bum shoulder – and was sacked a nation's best three times in 476 attempts.

Ainge gives Cutcliffe credit for turning around his career and making him a viable NFL quarterback prospect.

``He turned me from being an athlete that could throw and run around and do everything physically to be a quarterback,'' Ainge said. ``He taught me life lessons. … He taught me the importance of hard work. He really showed me what preparing was. I didn't really know how to prepare for a game. He showed me the things that will benefit me the rest of my life. If I was an accountant, I'd know how to prepare for a presentation.''

Ainge doesn't have to make a presentation as an accountant. He has to make one as a quarterback. He says he's ready.

Some have suggested that Ainge's three sacks was an indication he was afraid to get hit, that he threw the ball away too quickly, not waiting for receivers to break open.

Cutcliffe says statistic prove that taking a sack is a drive killer.

``Sometimes throwing the ball away is an art, avoiding the sack is an art,'' Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe said the Colts and Giants changed their offenses to adapt to their quarterbacks, who happened to be named Manning. Each has a knack for avoiding the sack.

``It's kind of funny, as I look at it: You watch those guys (in the NFL) get the hell beat out of their quarterbacks,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Well, we're going to throw the ball on time and have rhythm and quickness to our offense. We threw over 500 times at Tennessee and really gave up two legitimate sacks.''

Cutcliffe said that's a credit to pass protection, game planning and the quarterback's smarts.

``Erik bought into that really well,'' Cutcliffe said. ``All he did was play his team right into the SEC Championship game. And it wasn't an obvious team to make it there.''

Cutcliffe said he hopes Ainge gets with the right NFL team and the right coach. That can influence his success. Cutcliffe thinks not being in the right situation hurt former Vol Heath Shuler, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1994 draft who never succeeded in the pro ranks.

``Heath didn't get with the right guy coming out of college, in my opinion,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I thought it stymied Heath's opportunity in the NFL.''

Hopefully, the same thing won't happen to Ainge.

EXTRA POINTS: UT strength and conditioning coach Johnny Long said offensive lineman Jacques McClendon set a school record with a 730-pound squat. He said walk-on linebacker Nick Reveiz set a position record with a 645-pound squat. He said defensive end Robert Ayers weighs 280 pounds with only 13 percent body fat.

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